Sharpshooter C.J. Miles saved this season for the Pacers and perhaps even many seasons in the future. I’m sure you’re thinking, “CJ Miles? I think you misspelled Paul George.” And, sure, you’re right; if we’re talking about saviors, then Paul George is clearly Jesus for the Pacers. But C.J. Miles is John the Baptist. I imagine you may feel a lot like Miles below, but stay with me for a second:
After a complete revamp from bully ball to wide-open spacing over the offseason, the Pacers were in for a season of transition. Nearly half the 2014-15 roster is now playing elsewhere (including former starters Roy Hibbert and David West) and new signees both young and veteran were brought in (Monta Ellis, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Glenn Robinson III, etc.). Head coach Frank Vogel and President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird were excited for the prospect of playing Paul George at a new position: power forward. Bird liked the idea of George being guarded by slower big men and even thought having some nights off–when the Pacers weren’t facing a LeBron James or Kevin Durant–from chasing wing players around would be a boost to the George’s health.
There was just one slight problem: Paul George never bought in to Bird and Vogel’s plan, preferring to stay at his natural position at small forward. Every time there was a quote from George about it in the offseason, it was never very positive, and it didn’t get better after trying it out against Anthony Davis in the preseason opener. Here’s what he had to say recently to David Aldridge about how he felt about potentially playing the four after coming back from his leg injury:
“I would say it bothered me a little bit,” George allows. “I was like, man, I worked so hard to get back, playing the three, and now you’re putting me at a new position. You guys don’t trust me? So it took some time to get that through my head. But now, everything is working out fine, and I’m happy with what we’ve got going right now.”
So, why is everything “working out fine” for the formerly disgruntled George these days? Because C.J. Miles, a 6’6″ shooting guard and 10-year veteran, took the burden of guarding the big men in the post from George and put it all on his shoulders. George hasn’t played the four spot in the regular season (despite what you may keep reading or hearing from national media outlets or another team’s local media) and looks like an MVP candidate that’s better than he ever was before his horrific leg injury. The Pacers are able to continue using the original plan of playing a more modern style of basketball with plenty of pace and space, and they’ve kept their superstar player content and comfy because of Miles. Here’s more from Aldridge’s article from PG on what Miles did:
“He really was the lifesaver of this,” George said. “He took it upon himself to be like, ‘you know, P, you’re special at the three. Just go back to playing your position, (and) if need be, the 3-4. If anything, we can always switch. So you’re not really going to guard the four all game.’ He was like, man, I’ll take it.”
To his credit, Vogel wasn’t stubborn to the point of forcing George to keep trying something he clearly wasn’t enjoying. He understood the struggle with the completely different nature of playing that position on defense. He was quick to make adjustments, and the Pacers still spend about half their games with 2 big men in the lineup. Here’s Vogel’s thoughts on the aborted George-at-power-forward experiment:
“All along, we felt like when we played against the Durants and the LeBrons, Paul would be on those guys, and C.J. would be on the floor, and just battle or double-team or whatever,” Vogel said. “But Paul wasn’t comfortable even guarding the Ryan Andersons of the world. Because it’s different. You’re guarding the screener on pick and rolls, and you’re boxing out. He’s the same guy, but he’s better getting an athletic jump. It’s just one of those things that we said up front with Paul, we’re going to see what it looks like, and we think it could be really good, and we’ll tweak it however we have to tweak it.”
Early the Pacers were playing much better with those more traditional lineups, but the spread lineups have grown more accustomed to playing with each other and have been “flamethrowing dune buggies” of late. Vogel’s done at incredible job with this team after they struggled in their first games of the season (0-3) and currently has them as the 5th-ranked defense and the 11th-ranked offense in the league. The spread offense has also led to a complete change of philosophy in the Pacers defense from forcing inefficient shots in past seasons to forcing turnovers by getting their hands in passing lanes as often as possible. They’ve become the league’s second-best stealing unit.
The Pacers still create mismatches at the 4-spot now with Miles reaping most of the benefits as he is having a career year: scoring (15.4 PPG) and 3-point field goal percentage (42.9%). Oddly enough, Miles also has a career low in Defensive Rating per 100 possessions at 100 even with playing the majority of his minutes at power forward and also career highs in PER (17.3) and net rating (+12).
“We’re dependent on the fact that you can’t leave a regular four man out there,” Miles said. “I played my (former) position at the 2-3 (for) 10 years now. I know how to move, I know how to find gaps. I’m not just a standstill guy. You can’t just run at me and hope I don’t shoot it. I can go by the guy. I can do a lot of different things. And that’s another thing I worked on, to be sharper with that, be sharper downhill, not to dance with the ball, but just be one dribble, two dribbles to get to where I need to go.”
Vogel had high praise for how hard Miles worked this offseason:
“He earned it in the summer,” Vogel said. “He worked harder than maybe anybody we’ve seen in the offseason. In my 19 years there have been some guys who’ve had great summers or committed summers, but he was the guy who led the charge this summer. He had a great second half of the year last year, and Larry and I just kind of penciled him in, if we were going to go to the small lineup, then he’s the starter. It was his job to lose.”
Where would the Pacers be without Miles’ sacrifice of his own comfort at his typical position? Without his selfless attitude? What if C.J. was just as reluctant to take on a new position as George was? It’s a legitimate question to ask. In terms of the smaller picture (this year), the Pacers would have been forced either to play lineups the team wasn’t built to play for all 48 minutes (traditional with two bigs) or make their superstar unhappy on the court which could lead to a big picture problem.
Would George be lighting up teams like he has been playing at the four? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the biggest, most important aspect of this is that Paul George is comfortable and happy. He’s a destroyer of worlds on offense and a wrecking ball against opposing wings on defense. If George wasn’t happy playing that new spot, and Vogel refused to go away from it or Miles didn’t offer to start guarding those fours, the tension would have grown worse and worse as the season wore on between George and the Pacers. A season or two of frustration may have even led George to seriously consider leaving the organization that drafted him when his contract ends, which would be absolutely devastating to any team, but especially a small market like Indiana.
Instead, the Pacers are enjoying the fruits of Miles decision to offer to give the power forward position a chance. Paul George is averaging career-highs across the board for points (27.2), assists (4.4), and rebounds (8.1) and has a career high PER as well. He’s putting up numbers that only guys named Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have pulled off before:
And Miles isn’t the only one that benefits from the power forward having to guard him on the perimeter. The Pacers are 11-2 in their last 13 games, including five straight wins. It doesn’t just give an abubdance of space across the floor for driving lanes; if Miles is used in the pick and roll, sometimes teams decide to switch. This leads to even better matchups like Monta Ellis being guarded by Amir Johnson on the opening possession of a recent game against the Celtics.
Miles has done an incredible job of battling in the post and hasn’t looked overwhelmed even when a big is trying to back him down with strength. He’s drawn charges, snuck his hands in for steals, and avoided fouling while contesting shots. “They hate guarding me more than I hate guarding them,” Miles has said about his task of guarding bigger players.
He’s been the ultimate teammate for Indiana and believe me when I tell you: while Paul George is the Pacers MVP, C.J. Miles saved the Pacers season.
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