Examining the Paul George Shooting Slump that May Be Coming to an End

Paul George

 

(This is Shane Young’s first contribution to 8p9s. He writes for Hoops Habit and tweets @YoungNBA.)

Making a New Year’s resolution is — unless you’re a pessimist — centered around positive expectations for the future. If budding superstar, Paul George, made a specific resolution for 2014, let’s hope it wasn’t his shot efficiency.

For most of this season, George’s name has surrounded the Most Valuable Player discussion. A major setback in terms of obtaining the award, however, has been the poor shooting slump he fell into in mid-January. Perhaps he is now busting out of that skid — scoring 26 points and 35 points in his last two games on 18 and 22 shots, respectively. Still, these last two outings just further show how this season has been up and down for George and his shooting efficiency.

The opening stretch of the 82-game schedule featured nothing but awe-inspiring performances from George. For the sake of the argument, let’s include Indiana’s two games at the end of October as part of his November run.

October/November

Right out of the gate, George made his case to be in early MVP discussions, posting two 30+ point games in the Pacers’ first four contests. Efficiency-wise, George’s most outstanding performance was in the midst of a 99-91 victory in Detroit on November 5, lighting up the Pistons for 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting and 4-of-8 from 3-point territory.

Then he decided to top off the month by revealing his inner Reggie Miller.

In New York on November 20, George reminded the Knicks just why they were ousted in the second round last postseason. The Pacers’ All-Star drew a foul on a 3-point attempt, leading to an opportunity to step to the line and send the game to overtime. Not only did he nail all three, but George topped it off by pouring 9 points on Spike Lee’s Knicks in the overtime period to seal another Indiana victory in the rivalry. In that performance alone, George scored a then-season-high of 35 points on 12-of-26 from the field and 9-of-12 from the charity stripe.

It would be nearly impossible to debate whether any other individual strung together a better November than George.

Why?

Not only did his offseason efforts relegate to his individual regular season, but the Pacers ended November with a record of 15-1. George already had a powerful MVP case considering the criteria voters tend to stick to when making the determination.

George’s October/November
23.6 points per game

47.3% shooting
40.4% three-point shooting

November Shot Chart

November

December

As a team, the shocking start cooled off a bit as the heart of winter rolled around the corner. The Pacers experienced their first back-to-back loss sequence of the year with a home mishap to Detroit and a South Beach showdown with the Heat.

Nonetheless, George kept the fire blazing.

The standout performance occurred at the beginning of the month, when Indiana traveled to the Moda Center to take on another surprising bunch, the Portland Trail Blazers. George refused to let the Pacers go quietly in the fourth quarter, connecting on multiple triples in the final two minutes to keep them in the ball game. Portland survived thanks to Damian Lillard matching George’s heroics, but Paul managed to score a career-high 43 points on a ridiculous 16-of-30 shooting, which included 7-for-15 from 3-point range.

George grew more confident in his outside touch during December, attempting nearly two more 3-pointers per game than he did in November. The looks were very well deserved, however, as his efficiency remained at a level that grabbed people’s attention.

George’s December
24.1 points per game

46.8% shooting
39.4% three-point shooting

December Shot Chart

December

January

Rounding out 2013 with a record of 25-5, the Pacers would undergo a wild roller-coaster ride throughout January, as would George.

The first six games of the new year are ones that he doesn’t want to recall. In those six matchups (two against Toronto), George shot 34.3% from the field, along with 21.9% from beyond the arc. The ride took its first turn when Sacramento came to town the very next game, as Indiana’s hero notched 31 points on 10-of-18 shots to obliterate Mike Malone’s Kings. Despite DeMarcus Cousins’ front-court dominance in that battle, George ignited a bit of energy that would carry over.

Before Indiana got on the plane to embark on their Western Conference road trip, George would explode against another possible Finals foe. The Clippers visited Indiana on January 18, and were quickly routed by George and the Pacers. From an efficiency perspective, it was George’s best game of the entire season. Aside from the breakaway dunk of the year that stunned the crowd, he managed to score 36 points on 12-of-17 shooting (70.6%) and a near-perfect 5-of-6 from deep. After the game, rumblings of the two-time All-Star for MVP were still making their way through the media.

When the Pacers visited the Kings for their second meeting of the year, one last barrage of miracles was necessary.

Down four in the closing seconds, George lifted for a 3-pointer and was also fouled on the play, pulling off another clutch moment to send the game to overtime with a 4-point play. He would then out-shine Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton in overtime, scoring 8 points to give Indiana the victory. George scored 36 points on 12-of-22 shooting and 4-of-10 from the perimeter.

Unfortunately, the road trip had to continue. And after that night, the slump would engulf George’s offensive game.

Finishing off January (at Denver, at Los Angeles, vs. Phoenix), George didn’t look like himself in the slightest. In those final three games of the month, he averaged 14.6 points per game and shot just 15-of-56 (26.8%) from the field. His teammates picked up the slack in the Staples Center win, but the Nuggets and Suns ran wild on the usually formidable Indiana defense.

George’s January
21.3 points per game

41.0% shooting
31.5% three-point shooting

January Shot Chart

January

February

Struggles continued through the first week of February, but didn’t stand in the way of the Pacers cleaning the table with a 4-0 record. In those four games, George averaged 17.5 points and shot 23-of-70 (32.8%) from the field, including an ugly 7-of-25 (28.0%) from the 3-point line. The under-performing stretch flew largely under the radar, until George came up ice cold in another marquee matchup with Portland.

In a completely opposite performance from his last battle with Damian Lillard and company, George wasn’t the highlight of the night. He took a backseat to George Hill and David West with a poor shooting night, connecting on just 5-of-23 (21.7%) field goals and 1-of-6 attempts from the outside. In a back-and-forth show that eventually rolled into overtime, George was unable to match the fire Lillard and Wesley Matthews brought in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t until Hill set him up with good looks from mid-range and for an easy baseline dunk, that he would become effective for the Pacers’ offense. Other than that, his offense was largely inconsequential during Indiana’s second half comeback.

After that rough start to the month, George provided just a little hope that he would return to old form and find his stroke that he left behind in 2013.

In Orlando on February 9, a 27-point outing on 10-of-19 shots gave fans a sign of relief — at least until George attempted an ill-advised mid-range jumper late in the game, despite George Hill pleading for the ball in the corner. George failed to give Indiana another clutch victory, missing the shot over a group of Magic defenders.

Finishing the last two games before the All-Star break, George played rather lousy in home meetings with Denver and Dallas. Indiana split the two games before the break, suffering an ugly defeat to the Mavericks in which the team scored a season-low 73 points. Perhaps George was prematurely focused on his ideas for the Slam Dunk Contest, seeing as how an atrocious 4-of-17 shooting night allowed Rick Carlisle to steal a win in the city he once called home.

The sluggish play against Dallas came two days after George disappeared offensively vs. Denver. The Pacers did grab revenge against Brian Shaw’s squad with a blowout victory, but George wasn’t the reason. Shooting 4-of-10 from the field in that matchup, George concluded with 12 points, marking just the ninth instance of the season in which he scored less than 15.

George’s February (thus far)
18.3 points per game

38.5 % shooting
39.3% thee-point shooting

February Shot Chart

February

The Here, Now and Tomorrow

It was intriguing to see George kick off the post All-Star period of the season with a bang, leading the Pacers to a 108-98 victory over Atlanta on Tuesday night. Scoring 26 points on 8-of-18 shots, he was on top of his game for the first three quarters before Vogel decided to give the bench extra minutes in the fourth. He shot even better against the Timberwolves the following night in Minneapolis, scoring 35 points on just 22 shots, but Indiana’s sloppy execution and poor play early were the biggest culprits in their loss and George was the worst offender with 7 turnovers (including 5 in the first half).

Are we in store for a fantastic individual finish by George in the last 28 games of the regular season or another deep slump?

Based on logical reasoning, the latter would surprise most.

The All-Star break is a four-day getaway from the intense competitive nature that the world’s greatest athletes possess on a night in and night out basis. Sure, there are competitions – such as George’s dunk performance and appearance in the main even itself on Sunday — but it’s all done in fun, joyful spirit.

It’s safe to say that even with the festivities and activity as a starter for the Eastern Conference, George didn’t exert a ton of energy during the weekend. He probably knew going into Sunday’s East vs. West showdown that LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kyrie Irving were going to make up most of the offensive firepower, and that’s exactly what happened.

For people to expect George — as well as the group of upper-echelon NBA talents — to be phenomenal all season long without hitting a wall is unrealistic. Not only is it unrealistic, it’s not fair to the superstars. More weight is put on their shoulders than we could ever imagine or experience; having to please thousands of fans each night and then prepare for what to say if they stink up the joint in a certain game.

While George did go through an extremely rough slump to begin 2014, it’s time to cut him some slack, as well as any other athlete that goes through struggles at specific points during their seasons.

The area that George has truly turned up his game in terms of efficiency as a whole, is his mid-range attack, specifically off pull-ups. He loves penetrating into a defense and squaring up from the wing, 15 to 20 feet from the basket. In order to completely break out of the slump, it’s imperative that he sticks to his strong spots, and not get carried away with trying to get the 3-pointers to fall. For a shooter, the best thing to get back into a rhythm is to get the shots you are confident will fall. George has transformed into a late-game threat from long range, but it’s not finding the bottom of the net as consistently as he would like.

Whether or not George completely gets back to the MVP-type player he proved to be during the first half of the year, shouldn’t matter for the Pacers.

Indiana understands the stats and how George has fallen off from his torrid start to the year. However, every single player on the Pacers’ roster could care less about any individual numbers. For Vogel’s group, the metaphor “stats are like bikinis” would be an excellent fit: Bikinis show a lot, but they don’t reveal everything.

The shooting statistics don’t explain the whole story on Paul George’s season as a breakout star, especially when you see his coach praising his defense with quotes like “”If Paul didn’t score a point — a point — he’d still be a top-15 player in the game,” which Vogel said in this George profile by Pablo Torre on ESPN.

His shooting slump will indeed prevent him from stealing MVP votes from Kevin Durant but this team’s goal is a Larry O’Brien trophy. And no mid-season shooting slump is going to tell George he can’t lead this team to one.

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