Now that Paul George has made it clear to the Pacers that the 2017-18 season will be his last with the franchise, the possibility of him joining the Cavaliers has picked up steam. Trading for George before he becomes a free agent in 2018 is going to be a risk for any team involved because there is a strong possibility he’ll be a one-year rental, but the Cavaliers believe they have the culture and atmosphere to convince him to stay long-term. It would become even more important for the Cavaliers to keep George beyond next season considering it will likely take Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving to get the Pacers to part ways with him.
Out of the two, trading Love for George makes the most sense for Cleveland. It doesn’t have anything to do with Love not fitting well with the Cavaliers seeing as he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA at a position where his ability to space the floor comes at a premium. However, Irving and LeBron James are the engines that make the Cavaliers go, and George would be able to replace a lot of what Love brings to the table. Although George is a high-volume backcourt scorer, the same could not be said if they gave up Irving for him due to how dependent they are on his isolation scoring at the point guard position.
The main reason the Cavaliers would be able to replace Love with George is he’s an excellent spot-up shooter. George averaged 3.1 points per game off spot-ups during the regular season and ranked in the 84.1 percentile with 1.14 points per possession. While Love scored more spot-up points than George and did so at a higher rate, they were almost mirror images of each other on catch-and-shoot attempts. Both averaged 7.4 catch-and-shoot points per game during the regular season with most of their points coming from the 3-point line — Love made 2.3 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game at a 39.5 percent clip compared to 2.0 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game at a 42.0 percent clip for George.
George is one of the better shooters in the NBA off screens as well. It made up 19.0 percent of his offense last season, and he ranked in the 67.5 percentile with 1.00 points per possession. Only Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal and J.J. Redick scored more points than George off screens, and there wasn’t much separating them in terms of overall efficiency. Although George’s attempts at the rim have decreased significantly since his leg injury, he can still attack closeouts aggressively and finish a high percentage of his shots in the restricted area.
Together, that gives George the tools needed to thrive alongside James and Irving. George is certainly capable of manufacturing his own shot, but over half of his made field goals last season were assisted. With the amount of attention James and Irving command both in transition and half-court sets, he would be the beneficiary of a lot more open looks in Cleveland. It also helps that George would be in an environment that encourages more 3-pointers. The Pacers were near the bottom of the league in 3-point attempts last season with 23.0 per game, whereas the Cavaliers (33.9) trailed only the Rockets (40.3) at the top of the leaderboard. It’s hard to believe putting one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooters in a 3-point heavy system wouldn’t work out for both parties.
Operating under the assumption that Love would be traded, James and Irving would continue to do the bulk of the playmaking, but they would make the most of George’s ability to create for himself out of the pick-and-roll and isolation. Similar to his off-ball shooting, George checked out as one of the best individual scorers in the NBA last season. Not only did he rank in the 92.3 percentile with 1.01 points per pick-and-roll possession, he ranked in the 72.5 percentile with 0.94 points per isolation possession.
There are (at least) a couple of ways the Cavaliers could maximize George’s dual threat as a shooter and a creator. He doesn’t have much experience as the roller in pick-and-rolls, but the Cavaliers would probably put him in those situations with greater frequency given the tough decisions it would force the defense to make. For example, helping off George for a split second to prevent James or Irving from turning the corner would allow him to slip the screen for a jump shot from the perimeter or midrange.
However, switching at the point of attack would open the door for George to use his height advantage to shoot over smaller defenders like D’Angelo Russell or turn it into a simple isolation possession against slower-footed defenders. George hasn’t shown a lot of growth as a post scorer in his career, but learning from James could help him reach his potential.
George would basically give the Cavaliers another incredibly versatile pick-and-roll scorer. Involving James and Irving in the same pick-and-roll proved to be unstoppable last season, and George is more comfortable than both of them at popping to the 3-point line as the screen setter. Plus, he can run his own pick-and-roll as well as anyone in the NBA. It would give the Cavaliers the luxury of picking and choosing which combination to exploit depending on how the defense matches up with them.
We would see all of those options unfold against the Warriors in the NBA Finals if they meet again. Having George on the court would naturally make the defensive matchups more complicated: Thompson would continue guarding Irving, leaving Kevin Durant and Draymond Green on James and George. It’s not necessarily a trio that can pick apart the Warriors every trip down the floor, but George’s versatility would make it incredibly difficult for them to stay on a string and not suffer any defensive breakdowns given his ability to score at three levels. Even if it’s something as simple as George’s gravity pulling Green slightly further away from the paint than usual because he’s a bigger scoring threat than Love, it would give Irving and James more room to operate.
George would make a huge difference defensively in a series against the Warriors, too. As someone who has long been one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA — he’s been named to one of the three All-Defensive Teams three times in his career — his ability to match up with forwards and switch onto guards would be a welcomed addition to the Cavaliers. George would likely be the primary defender on Durant to prevent James from having to guard one of the best scorers in the NBA and carry the Cavaliers offensively. It would enable James to be a roamer on defense, which would help him be at his best for as much as seven games.
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Not having players who could space the floor and hang with the Warriors defensively played a big role in their 4-1 loss in the 2017 NBA Finals. Outside of Irving, James and J.R. Smith, who combined for 43 of the team’s 66 3-pointers in the series, Kyle Korver was their best 3-point shooter at 31.3 percent on 16 attempts. Iman Shumpert shot 2 of 9 in the five games, and Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson finished just behind him on 1-for-9 shooting each. George would be an upgrade over all of them as a shooter (except for Korver), and he would be able to guard any of the four Warriors All-Stars defensively.
George might even be Cleveland’s answer to the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll provided they can make the right rotations. Irving switching onto Durant proved to be a recipe for disaster, but switching either James or George onto Curry while the other guards Durant in isolation would make those possessions more difficult for the Warriors than they were in the NBA Finals.
Perhaps the biggest question with George’s fit on the Cavaliers is whether he’d play more power forward after he refused to do so a couple of years ago. If he’s not willing to replace some of Love’s minutes at the four, it would force James to increase his minutes there significantly since the Cavaliers won’t have much cap space to sign another power forward.
If he is, though, George and James would be able to split the minutes to give the Cavaliers a lineup that can switch everything while being able to take whatever the defense gives them on offense. They would certainly miss Love’s offensive and defensive rebounding, but a frontcourt of George, James and Tristan Thompson has a lot of potential.
That explains why the Cavaliers would be better equipped to hang with this version of the Warriors with George on the roster. While Love is a matchup nightmare for 29 teams in the NBA — he also proved he can stay on the floor with the Warriors — George’s defense would give them a better chance of getting stops against the team that averaged 121.7 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the court in the NBA Finals without sacrificing much on offense. He would even give them another ball handler who could take over more responsibility when James takes a breather on the bench, which became a glaring weakness for the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
Whether that makes George a risk worth taking with only one year remaining on his contract for a team fresh off three straight appearances in the NBA Finals remains to be seen.