By his own admission, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George “wasn’t extremely thrilled” when team president of basketball operations Larry Bird chatted with him last spring about the Pacers’ new vision during the star’s rehab from a ghastly leg injury.
“There was some resistance, and that was fine,” Bird says. “He came out and said a few things, but it didn't affect me at all. I knew in the long run Paul was going to enjoy the game more. He was going to get a feel how to play a total game instead of just one or two aspects of it, because his talents are all over the board.”
In the new scheme, George would effectively be the second-biggest Pacer on the floor alongside only one big man. It’s a position that most in the basketball world know as “power forward” or “the 4.” George’s wariness, which continued into the preseason, was understandable, because an NBA player builds a career with a certain grasp of what the floor is going to look like on a nightly basis. He sculpts his game accordingly, and his position becomes a home.
For the Pacers, this was a profound departure. Since Frank Vogel took over in 2011 until the end of last season, the Pacers were the Eastern Conference’s definitive big-ball squad. As the Miami Heat pivoted toward a new pace-and-space approach -- bringing in Shane Battier as the nominal power forward and sliding Chris Bosh to the 5 -- Indiana held true to its design. Go ahead and wrestle with David West and set up meetings with Roy Hibbert at the rim; size still matters.
Indiana enjoyed success during these years prior to George’s injury, which sidelined him for all but six games last season. But even as the Pacers made two trips to the conference finals in 2013 and 2014, they finished in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency. While George was out during a mulligan of a 38-44 campaign in 2014-15, the Pacers saw the writing on the whiteboard, and it said that it was time to unclog their sluggish offense in a league where space was now king.
“If you watched us play the last four, five or six years, we were more of a plodding team,” Bird says. “We had the big center who protected the rim in Roy [Hibbert]. We had David West. And Paul was still elevating his game to another level. We weren't scoring enough points.”
"It's about 50-50, how much we play with a spread lineup or a big lineup. I think we're a flexible team, not a small-ball team." Pacers coach Frank Vogel
Though they’re currently fighting off a 3-game losing streak, the Pacers (12-8) have jumped to ninth in offensive efficiency this season, while George is tearing up the league -- career bests of 27.9 points per game, true shooting percentage of 59.5, player efficiency rating of 26.47 (a stat that doesn’t factor in a player’s defense, which is George’s forte). The uptick has moved George from skeptic to enthusiast, as it didn’t take long for him to reap the benefits of half-court spacing in his offensive game.
“We'd always been a team that had two bigs posting on the blocks, which really takes away all driving lanes, and all possibilities getting to the rim and being aggressive off the bounce,” George says. “That's what we can do now, having four perimeter guys out there and one big man trailing and being a floor spacer. We're able to drive and get to the basket now.”
This season, when George zips up to the perimeter off an Ian Mahinmi pindown to catch and go or bursts by a high screen, there’s now a four-lane freeway to the rim. For all of his assets as an offensive threat, George had never established himself as particularly effective off the pick-and-roll. In 2013-14, he ranked 40th of 54 among players with a minimum of 250 pick-and-roll possessions, a paltry .77 points per possession. This season, the contrast is startling: he's eighth of 52 players with a minimum of 75 possessions, scoring at a rate of .92 points per possession.
It’s easy to conflate the Pacers’ efforts to implement a small-ball scheme and George’s place within that scheme. George’s initial reluctance was rooted in a concern that, defensively, he’d be charged with tangling with guys in a much higher weight class.
“He took it like he was going to be banging with the big guys all the time,” Bird says.
Much to his pleasure, George is not Indiana’s power forward, neither by name or function. Defensively, those duties are assigned to C.J. Miles, leaving George to do most nights what he does best -- locking down the opponent’s most potent wing scorer. Much like Erik Spoelstra sold LeBron James on an “offense-at-the-4-defense-at-the-3” plan with the acquisition of Battier, George has bought into the Pacers' new approach because Miles has fulfilled the Battier role in Indianapolis. On occasions when the opponent is small, George will play minutes as the 4, but when the assignments are guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, the net effect is zero.
"I haven't been the 4 man since two or three games in,” George says. “And it's starting to get to position-less basketball, and that's how it's been for us. When we have C.J. Miles playing the 4 spot, it's not necessarily him being a 4 man. It's just another playmaker on the court to go along with the other three guys. That's the way the NBA is going, a lot of guys who can play multiple positions."
Prevailing wisdom used to be that by going smaller, a team might be giving up something defensively, but “spreading the floor” isn’t just an offensive concept -- it can be applied as a defensive virtue as well. With offenses stretching the half court, defenses have more ground to cover than ever during a possession.
“On defense, we're able to spread the floor and we're able to shrink the floor at the same time,” George says. “We know that if teams are going to post up C.J. Miles -- and he's done an unbelievable job of guarding in those situations -- we help, we trap, we dig, we spray out. We're still great at keeping guys from getting hot at the 3-point line, as well as controlling the paint."
The league is close to a tipping point, where the conventional power forwards will soon be outnumbered by the perimeter 4s, and that’s not including hybrid models like Draymond Green and Paul Millsap who can claim dual citizenship. As fewer and fewer teams field proto-4s in the Zach Randolph mold, mobility might be a better asset for a 4 than brawn for a guy trying to defend them.
“The way things are going in the league, there's not a lot of these super overpowering 4s left,” Miles says. “But, yeah, my speed and mobility are what keep me alive down there basically, because I use that to beat them to spots, then I push them off the block as much as I can. And then I make them have to beat me from off the block."
Whatever agility Miles lends the starting unit, defense is still a work in progress for the lineup that features him at the power forward spot. After Golden State trashed Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night, the Pacers’ small starters -- George Hill, Monta Ellis, George, Miles and Mahinmi -- had given up 106 points per 100 possessions in 187 minutes, which would place them near the bottom of the league.
When the Pacers want to upsize against a bigger power forward, they can throw Lavoy Allen into the starting lineup, as they did against the Los Angeles Clippers last week to wrestle with Blake Griffin. The Big Pacers lineup has logged only 38 minutes, and has been exceptional on both ends, scoring 110.7 points and giving up only 89.4 points per 100 possessions for a net rating of plus-21.3.
When asked about his team’s new small-ball approach, Vogel has been quick to emphasize that big vs. small has become a bit of a false choice in characterizing the Pacers.
“We're partially a small-ball team,” Vogel says. “It's about 50-50, how much we play with a spread lineup or a big lineup. I think we're a flexible team, not a small-ball team. When we need to play big, we play big. And we have a spread lineup that's pretty explosive."
For Vogel and George -- and the rest of the league, really -- it’s not small vs. big. It’s versatility vs. rigidity. If the Warriors have been instructive of anything, it’s that they can beat you any which way: big or small, fast or slow, in isolation or with motion. They can protect the rim with one of the three best defensive centers in the game, or can bench him in favor of the most dynamic center in the game. The Spurs and Heat championship teams displayed similar flexibility with lineups that could shrink or expand without compromising their best players’ core assets.
For several seasons, the Pacers tried orthodoxy, and the results were pretty good. But as today’s NBA continues to contradict everything we thought we knew about basketball, they’re now banking on adaptability.
It’s not small-ball vs. big-ball.