Big things are expected from Indiana Pacers star Paul George this season. The Pacers have a new coach in Nate McMillan, a new starting five for the most part with Jeff Teague and Thad Young, and George is now a full two years removed from the injury that took so long for him to get back from. George started off brilliantly last year then faded as the season went on, but this year, fresh off a gold medal performance in the Olympics, George could wind up being an MVP candidate.
For George, that means competing with the best player in the NBA, LeBron James, a familiar playoff foe. From the Vertical:
George's playoff duels with James established him as a star on the rise but never a rival, especially because he never won. Overcoming the adversity of the past two years, however, has given George a better sense of what he's achieved and more belief that he belongs on a similar stage. "I've always matched up with him like, 'I know he can do this, I know he can do that,' " George told The Vertical about James. "Not in an awe fashion, but it's more so, 'I'm not supposed to win these games. This is supposed to be the best dude in the NBA. I'm trying to challenge him. I know what I'm up against.' Now it's, 'I'm ready. I'm ready for you. I'm a veteran. I know you, you know me. Let's meet here, let's get this job done.' I'm prepared. I've had time to figure this out. I've had time to lick my wounds. I'm ready."
It's good that George thinks he can hit his level, that he is aiming high. The guys that go out and say "I just want to be the best player I can be" never really get past what their perceived ceilings are. You have to bust through that to be the best player in the league.
George's chances are slim here, of course. For as good as George is, James is a better finisher, shooter, passer and defender, and even those are specific skills, not overall impact. It's going to take an unbelievable season from George for him to even reach that tier with James in most people's mind, but if nothing else, watching him try to get there should make the Pacers entertaining this season.
It is notable how open the East is. The Raptors were clearly the second-best team in the East last year, and still posed no real threat to James and the Cavaliers, despite taking two games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Can George and the Pacers make a run at James' throne? Or will it be the Raptors again? Or the Celtics who added Al Horford? Or the Pistons with a better bench and another year together? The East is wide open next year, in so far as the pursuit of James' coattails go. What's unlikely, however, is that anyone catches him.