Paul George doesn’t have the years of experience, the dozens of clutch shots or the world championship under his belt.
He’s only got everything else.
He’s a young player whose role has grown from complimentary player to NBA star in about 10 weeks, after all. But for as legendary as Pierce has been — and as resurgent he’s played since Rondo’s season-ending injury — only one other player in the NBA this season is averaging at least 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. And that player is LeBron James, whose greatness has already been discussed. In fact, since Pierce was a rookie, only 11 people have averaged those kind of statistics George has for a season, a group that’s never included Pierce. Those are numbers befitting one of the rare players who can translate his gifts of athleticism and timing into every phase of the game. This is, as a reminder, just George’s third season. If I’m taking George vs. Pierce in a winner-take-all matchup in this moment, George is an easy choice because his impact covers more than just one end of the court.
Both have shown they can score, of course. While Pierce has done it for more than a decade in a steady run of excellence even for the storied Green and White, George is showing he can answer the call in a moment’s notice. Say, for example, an injury that knocked leading scorer Danny Granger out of the lineup for all but two weeks of the season. George’s scoring jumped from 14.3 points per game in November to 18.8 in December, 19.4 in January, and 19.1 this month. Three consecutive months of not only scoring but leadership from George to hold Indiana together despite Granger’s absence and Roy Hibbert’s virtual invisibility in the paint. It matches the kind of put a team on my back role Pierce has always held. Is that too general a description of his influence for you? The Pacers’ offense is anemic without him on the floor, scoring eight fewer points, according to NBA.com statistics, while shooting seven percentage points worse from three and four points worse overall.
The difference is defense. Put George on a team like Indiana and it can be hard to differentiate his effect from the rest of the squad’s league-leading defense. However, it’s also hard to separate Pierce’s poor defense on account of his age — not to blame him much, because everyone loses a step — from the rest of his team’s worsening defense. While the Celtics are ranked in the top 10 of defensive rating this season, it’s the team’s third-worst rating since the beginning of the Big Three era in 2007, nearly four points per 100 possessions worse than last year’s 2011-12 team. What George brings that is different is the quickness to shadow players from point guard to a stretch four, often checking a team’s best player. In a Feb. 4 game against division-best Chicago, George hounded Luol Deng, one of the game’s top-five best two-way players, in a fitting compliment. On the game’s first possession, George stuck with Deng over a screen from Carlos Boozer, kept Deng on his left hip and drove him toward the corner instead of letting him turn toward the rim, then blocked a poor shot attempt. In the same game’s fourth quarter with Indiana protecting an 11-point lead, George swatted Deng from behind at the rim off an offensive board. In games against James this season where he’s almost exclusively guarded the game’s most unguardable player, he’s blocked his shot in a ridiculously impressive show of athleticism, then slid underneath him for a block to seal a Feb. 1 victory at home.
Pierce can create many plays still, but he can’t make those. And right now, I’ll take George in this guard matchup because plays just like them.
— ANDREW GREIF