CHICAGO — Just two years ago, Paul George’s Indiana Pacers were one of the NBA’s powerhouses, going toe-to-toe with the Big Three-era Miami Heat in two straight Eastern Conference Finals and posting the best record in the conference in 2014. A lot has changed since then. Forget the 2014-15 season, essentially a lost year because of George’s leg injury during a USA Basketball exhibition. Almost the entire roster has turned over — Roy Hibbert is gone, David West is gone, Lance Stephenson is gone, George Hill is gone. Head coach Frank Vogel was let go at the end of the 2015-16 season and longtime Pacers assistant Nate McMillan was elevated by team president Larry Bird to replace him.
Despite all that change, George feels good about the direction of his team. Speaking at a recent Summer of Jeep event in Chicago, celebrating the brand’s partnership with USA Basketball, George was optimistic about the changes.
“I feel good,” George told ProBasketballTalk. “Larry has put it on display that he wants to get us back to the Eastern Conference [playoffs], see where we can take it from there.”
The roster will be much different from the last time the Pacers were a serious playoff contender. This summer, Bird reshaped the roster, trading Hill for Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and acquiring veteran forward Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn. The Pacers also signed big man Al Jefferson to a three-year, $30 million deal as a bench scorer in the frontcourt.
But the biggest change is the hire of McMillan. When he announced that Vogel would not be retained, Bird stated that he wanted the Pacers to play a faster, more dynamic style. It made the choice of a successor an odd one — in his seven seasons as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, McMillan’s teams typically finished at or near the bottom of the league in pace.
George, however, has known McMillan for three years and has no concerns about his ability to adapt to the modern NBA style.
“Back then, [McMillan] coached to what his team’s style was,” George said. “You had Brandon Roy who was one of the best guards at the time, LaMarcus Aldridge who was young and was a post player trying to find his way, so he kind of tailored that team towards them. I don’t think he’s going to look at it as, how he coached the Trail Blazers. He’s going to coach this team for this team.”
The biggest on-court change from last year to this one for the Pacers will be at the point guard position. Hill, who was traded to Utah in a three-team deal, was a steady two-way presence at the point, while Teague is more of an attacker. George believes he can thrive with his new teammate.
“What makes Jeff so great is his ability to attack the basket,” George said. “That opens up the game so much more for me and allows me to be a spacer. I’m looking forward to that, looking forward to making him an All-Star.”
This summer, while training with Team USA in Las Vegas ahead of the Rio Olympics, George got to spend some quality time with one of his most promising young teammates. 2015 lottery pick Myles Turner, who was one of the surprise standouts of last year’s rookie class, was on the USA Basketball Select team, which was mostly comprised of up-and-coming players and scrimmaged against the Olympic team in training camp. Turner showed flashes in his rookie season of long-term potential as a starting-quality center, and George was impressed with what he saw in Vegas.
“The thing I’ve noticed most is the way his body has shaped up,” George said. “He’s gotten more size, gotten more athletic. He’s starting to grow into his body. You have to remember the kid is still 19, 20 years old. He’s still going to have some growth, he’s still figuring out his body, his mechanics. But he’s been great so far.”
In the meantime, George has a gold medal to chase in Rio with Team USA. It’s a big deal for him, personally, because of the leg injury he suffered during his last stint with the national team, but that’s something he wants to move past. The thing he loves the most about the current group competing in Brazil is the camaraderie.
“It’s been a blast being around these guys,” George said. “Everybody has something different that they’re bringing to the table. A whole bunch of characters. It’s fun. We all enjoy each other, we all share the same interests. A lot of guys on the team say this is one of the closest teams they’ve ever played on.”