Illustration by Dustin P. Watson/Darkwing Illustration.
Paul George might be doomed. At 23 years of age, he is two years younger than Kevin Durant, who appears to be not so much entering his prime as rending it limb from limb and bolting it down in great bloody hunks. He is six years younger than LeBron James, whose version of coasting makes most other players’ best seasons look like standing still. He cannot help this. Of things we don’t get to pick, when we’re born is high up on the list.
Not only do those peers play the same position as George, and not only does their existential battle of King of the Hill in the NBA cast a shadow backwards, but there are others casting shadows forwards as well. Anthony Davis is three years younger than George and gives every indication that he could become an unfathomable and unsolvable mixture of length, agility and shooting coupled with terrifying defensive acumen, a kind of Kevin Garnett 2.0. And there is, of course, the supposedly/legendarily precocious draft class of 2014 to contend with. George is making moves, but the game is not standing still.
And there is also the fact that George doesn’t really have a signature, or at least didn’t until this season. LeBron’s early chapters revolved around the combination of his court vision and preternatural physical gifts. Michael Jordan’s legend had its seed in his dunking; Vince Carter’s career grew from much the same place. But until George’s mind-numbingly stupendous 360-degree windmill against the Clippers this season, the hyper-athletic 6’9” super-wing’s greatest dunk was one no one could see. That is, in its way, a very Paul George thing, which either is or is not the problem, here.
George is an excellent dunker, but his dunks don’t have the barbaric fury of Blake Griffin’s. He’s become a solid shooting threat, but he’s not the long distance TNT that Steph Curry is. His early reputation was founded in his defense, but the reservoir of his potential (and our at best still-blinkered understanding of defense) means that he’s since been overshadowed by perimeter defenders like Andre Iguodala. But George keeps getting better, keeps growing in multiple directions. There is no one thing that he is.
No matter that they might earn it, players like James or like Jordan are not the guys who win the Most Improved Player Award, but that’s George’s biggest piece of hardware right now. Look down past winners and you see a murderer’s row of surprises and late bloomers—Boris Diaw, Ryan Anderson, Aaron Brooks, Hedo Turkoglu—peppered with a few legitimate, later-blooming stars: Tracy McGrady, for one, and Kevin Love for another.
But a year after winning Most Improved Player, George could—improbably but quite legitimately—be considered in the running for a second Most Improved Player award. At this early stage in his career, perhaps that’s the thing that defines him, that makes him so compelling to follow: the simple, impossible act of getting better, and how thoroughly in-progress he is.
After an Indiana loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road, I asked George about how he worked to improve his handle in the offseason, and whether it was more mental or mechanical. “For me it was mechanical,” he said. “Just learning how to stay low. Staying low really improved my ballhandling, because I was able to bring stutter moves, didn’t allow defenders to get under me. That was the next level for me.”
That sense of leveling up, the idea that the NBA is just a giant loot-grind on top of which George is building his character, is what draws a viewer in with him. After hearing him talk about getting low with his dribble, I looked for it, and there it was. When he first catches the ball on the perimeter or takes it off a handoff, he stands upright, tall. But once he’s sized up the court and made the read, George hinges at the waist, brings his hands down close to the floor and moves the ball back and forth rhythmically, smoothly. It all looks so simple, almost all the time, as Timberwolves’ coach Rick Adelman attested in his postgame press conference after the Pacers’ losing effort, in which George had a remarkably quiet 35 points and 11 rebounds.
“The game’s easy for him,” Adelman said. “The way he played tonight, it looked like the game was easy. His variety: he posts you up, he drives the basket, he hits threes. He’s just developed into a great player. It’s one of those things where he’s in a comfort zone right now.”
Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is incredible. That George can look so comfortable out there, so smooth and contained while doing all those things Adelman mentioned is one thing. That he does it while still having so much room left to grow is something else entirely. That George could do all that and yet still might labor his whole career in the shadows of those ahead of and behind him is… well, not a tragedy, as George will still get paid more than most of us to win plenty of games and drop a generation’s worth of jaws. But it is exactly the kind of thing that keeps us from properly appreciating players like Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, or even Clyde Drexler or Scottie Pippen.
At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Malcolm Gladwell talked about how IQ tests are decent at separating people in the middle — the 95s from the 115s — but almost useless at the top end, simply because what makes those people so brilliant is more or less unmeasurable by anything so picayune as a test. Championships are very much the same for the top end of NBA talent through every generation. For every Jordan, every Russell, there are a clutch of dazzling, gifted, relentlessly driven players who nevertheless are consigned to the passenger seat when it comes to how we think of them.
Maybe that’s because a hefty part of our enjoyment of the NBA is wish fulfillment, a living dream of excellence and achievement that is not only unattainable for most of us, but not even within the realm of realistic fantasy. Most of us are never going to be among the top one percent of one percent at what we do. Most of us are unblessed by apparently bottomless talent, and are far more likely to see the talent we have go unrealized than to reach its tangible limit. We are doubly unlikely to be so surpassingly blessed and then do the unthinkable thing that Paul George is doing: find a way to get even better.
But that’s what being among the top players in the NBA means, finally. Not just realizing the talents that have been most obvious but finding the limits of those talents and then forging new paths reaching still further out, mining new veins. The implication in George’s response to my question about ballhandling is that for him this is not a matter of comprehending where his game needs to go, but rather a mere question of applying the mechanics assiduously, of practicing them doggedly.
This is all in keeping with the identity of this Pacers team. Should they win it all, then Roy Hibbert’s tree-trunk defense; David West’s bruising presence in the paint and stolid midrange game; Lance Stephenson’s ballistic, kinetic wrecking ball of a game—these will be things to respect, to admire. But George will be the thing to watch.
So maybe doomed is not quite the right word, then. Should George somehow fall into the cracks of NBA history, somewhere between the championships of his forerunners and those of his followers, he will still be someplace worthy. Every once in a while, the NBA is a reminder of how the impossible can be achieved—at its best, it genuinely is Where Amazing Happens. Paul George does amazing things, and will continue to do them.
But day in and day out the league is a love letter to limitations, to finding and conquering them, even the little ones. Getting to watch a player plumb the depths of his abilities, to struggle through a slump, to suffer an 0-for-9 shooting performance—as George has this season—and to eventually right the ship, is its own reward. George is blessed with ability, and cursed by the compulsion to pursue it to its raw outermost edge. We’re all lucky to be along for the journey, whatever the destination.