All the basketball world could talk about in the closing months of 2013 was the Indiana Pacers and the league’s newest superstar, Paul George. Coming off the summer in which he received a big-time contract extension, George exploded to start the season.
He averaged 23 points on 47.2% shooting, 40.3% from behind the arc, 6.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game along with 2.2 steals a contest on the other side of the court in November. Those all-around numbers and his arguably best-in-league defense put him in the MVP discussion along with LeBron James and eventual winner Kevin Durant.
George’s numbers trended downward once the calendar hit 2014, however, as the 23-year-old (now 24) started gaining widespread acclaim and national recognition. He was becoming a national pitchman for companies including Gatorade and Papa John’s. As the season went on, George started to drift off. He later admitted to Candace Bucker of the Indianapolis Star that the new responsibilities of fame, and some off-court scuttlebutt, were affecting his play.
The Pacers as a whole followed his downward spiral. Starting in March, Indiana’s play fell off a cliff. After starting the year off with a 46-13 record, the Pacers finished the season 10-13.
The MVP buzz was long dead, and talks about George being the next possible superstar of this league also dimmed.
George seems to have matured from all this, however, acknowledging his personal struggles and bouncing back. George has made sure to carry the offensive load throughout the playoffs thus far, and has largely played well. But he has also failed to deliver at times.
Take the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, for example. George kicked off the series with a 24-point outing on 7-of-13 shooting along with 7 assists, only to follow that up with 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting in Game 2. This was eerily similar to when he recorded 39 points (12-of-20 shooting, 7-of-10 from 3) along with 12 rebounds against the Wizards in the second round, and followed that up with 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting and 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting in subsequent games.
No one is doubting whether George can put up an incredible stat line.
The big question about George is if he can play at a superstar level consistently.
Meanwhile, as George’s numbers bounced around, Lance Stephenson has silently been doing it all. The same age as George to start the year, the 23-year-old recorded a league-leading 5 triple-doubles in the regular season. Stephenson also was in the running for the Most Improved Player of the Year award, but finished second behind Phoenix’s Goran Dragic.
Stephenson made the news after fighting with teammate Evan Turner on the eve of the playoffs, so he hasn’t been immune to the off-court questions that have plagued George. His erratic, excitable nature also causes many to worry about his long-term future as a leader.
On the court, Stephenson may not be a volume scorer like George, but his ability to pass and rebound at the shooting guard position makes his game solid all around. His 5 trip-dubs are impressive enough, and he was just short on many other occasions of recording even more.
With just two years of rotation experience, off games here and there seem more acceptable for Lance. He has certainly had small stretches of these off games — and many head-scratching moments even during his best outings — but you can’t necessarily call him inconsistent. His jump shot remains suspect, but when he does have a few games where he isn’t shooting his best, he usually finds a different way to affect the game. Throughout the Pacers late-season struggles, he was the lone starter whose numbers didn’t fall off.
Another thing Stephenson has over George offensively is that he is less willing to simply take what the defense gives him. He, more than George, forces the issue to get into the lane to make plays for himself and others when he gets there. George does this at times; Lance seems programmed to do it.
The major downside to George’s game is settling for jumpers, and 3s, even though he is big enough to have his way around the rim. Stephenson has developed a jump shot that has made a huge impact on his game, but he knows to attack the paint when he’s missing. His athleticism and energy make him very effective when pushing the ball to the rim. He sometimes makes bad decisions and may miss at the rim, but you have to take with the good with the bad and most of the time it’s more good. His decision making and understanding of the moment likely will improve with experience.
Stephenson also is an underrated defender. He certainly doesn’t have an edge on George on this end of the floor, but just like his decision making, he has a strong foundation to build upon as his game matures.
And in what could be the most compelling case for Stephenson’s future stardom is that he is arguably playing the best basketball of his career right now against the Heat.
In the first two games, Stephenson is averaging 21 points, 5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 62% (including 50% from 3). In Game 2, Stephenson recorded 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists in a losing effort. Impacting the game in multiple ways is Stephenson’s best attribute, and that was on full display in Game 2 — particularly as he took over the third quarter to such a degree that George served mainly as a willing spectator in the corner. There has simply never been a time when George has done so much on offense in such a short time. He just doesn’t have the same playmaking tools nor the pure physicality.
There is no question that George is superstar material.
He showed it in the 2013 playoffs, early this year, and at times in this postseason. But his inconsistent shooting, lazy passing, and unsure handle are what is currently holding him back. Stephenson’s game is solid all around, and will just continue to improve.
Stephenson can’t be a future superstar for Indiana if he’s not playing there anymore, however, and not resigning him would be a large setback for this franchise.
The Pacers owner Herb Simon is reportedly unwilling to pay the luxury tax, and that is understandable given the team’s small-market earnings and history of losing money. But keeping Stephenson in Indiana should be Larry Bird and the Pacers’ first and main priority this offseason. If they don’t find a way to retain him, they will likely regret it for years to come.
George and Stephenson both have what it takes to blossom into superstars, and playing out of their shoes in this Heat series will really show who is closer to superstardom. After two games vs. Miami, however, Stephenson is in the lead.