INDIANA — A little over a year removed from breaking his right leg, Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George has made it all the way back to his breakout form, and then surpassed that. George dropped a career high 48 points in a OT loss to Utah on Saturday, making 8-11 three pointers.
While Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors is doing transcendental things on the basketball court out in California, Paul George has quietly ushered the Pacers to a 12-7 record, in the mix for best in the Eastern Conference, merely a year after they missed the playoffs entirely. It’s hard to see anyone but Curry win the award for a second straight year in a row, but if anyone has a shot, it might be George.
George is averaging almost 28 points, 4 assists, and eight rebounds a game, with a PER of 26.21, good for 8th in the NBA. All those averages are career highs, making George the early season favorite for such awards as Comeback Player and Most Improved Player, but also legitimate credentials to thrust him into a normal season’s MVP race.
Can he surpass Curry?
It’s unlikely. Curry is playing absolutely out of his mind, and his stats back it up. He’s the best player on the best (and currently undefeated) team in basketball. But there is a case that can be made. George may be more important to his team (take away Curry and the Warriors would be excellent, take away George from the Pacers, not so much) than Curry is to Warriors. He averages more minutes a night, he’s playing in the tougher conference this year (Sorry, Western Conference, the balance has shifted), and he can guard multiple positions, usually takes the best player on the other team while performing at a very high level doing so. While defensive metrics say Curry is an above-average defender, the eye test says that while he certainly competes on that end of the floor, he benefits from playing in that switching hydra the Golden State Warriors have created on defense, allowing him to gamble and go for steals with the confidence that his teammates can cover for him.
There’s the human element as well. People love a good story line, a challenger to the established crown, the new up-and-comer. It’s the reason LeBron only has 4 MVPs, and Jordan only has 5. Should the Pacers make the playoffs as a high seed and George perform at a high level in prime time games, he will have an opportunity to edge his name into the conversation, ready to jump Curry in voter’s minds should he stumble or suffer injury.
First opportunity? Tuesday, when the Warriors visit the Pacers. If the Pacers can deal Golden State their first loss (not totally far-fetched) and George stars, it could raise his profile tremendously.