Larry Bird believes Paul George playing power forward will be a big plus

Once the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers season concluded, immediately there were questions to be answered. How is Paul George feeling? What will David West and Roy Hibbert decide on their player options? What’s it going to take to compete for a conference title, again?

Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, backed by team president Larry Bird, informed everyone of their intention to player at a faster rate. That goes along with the evolution of the game. Monkey see monkey do, right? Lineups are smaller, players are more flexible, and teams want to run — like the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors.

Don’t expect an entire new offense by any means from the Pacers. Instead, now with players better suited to play on the run rather than half-court ball, efficiency is key. Like scoring on two or three more possessions per game, creating turnovers and then converting them into points quickly at the other end.

Bird wants to see his team score six to eight more points per game. The Pacers were 23rd last year in points per game (97.3). Milwaukee, who made the playoffs, was 24th (97.2). If they, on average, scored six more points per game last season they would have averaged 103.3, which would have slotted them in seventh. Very acceptable.

[VIDEO: Larry Bird discusses the Pacers’ offseason, free agent pickups]

As part of this change, Bird wants to see star Paul George play power forward. Maybe not the whole game, but it sounds like a majority of his time on the court. That seemed odd, especially for a two-time NBA All-Star coming off a significant injury.

At George’s basketball camp at Avon High School over the weekend, I asked George how he felt about it.

“I’m a ball player,” he said. “You put me anywhere on the court, I’m going to make the most of it. It’s not going to be logging 30 minutes at the power forward. Whatever needs to be done. If I got to play a couple minutes at the power forward I’m fine with it.”

A couple of minutes, Paul? I think Bird has more in store for you than that (and he does).

“Yeah, he’s running with it,” George said with a grin. “We’ll see. If I got a great matchup and things are going well, I’m sure we’ll stay in that.”

Fast-forward a couple of days to Tuesday, when Bird talked with reporters about the team’s free agent moves, how the rookies performed in Summer League play, and George, of course.

Bird added clarity to the situation after I told him what George had said. He explained his reasoning by drawing off of his own experiences.

“He don’t make the decisions around here,” said Bird, a three-time NBA Champion and three-time NBA MVP.

“I did it, I loved it after I did it, we’ll see how he feels about it. I just think offensively it’s going to be one of the greatest feelings he’s ever going to have. He’s going to find out it’s much easier [than small forward], but obviously he’s going to have to guard bigger and stronger players. I’m not going to get into a battle with Paul George about where he wants to play. He’s a basketball player. He can play anywhere you put him out there, believe me.”

Simply put, Bird believes George’s advantages on offense far outweigh the few negatives and mismatches, like Nene and Marcin Gortat in Washington, on defense.

It does seem odd to be discussing this subject with more than two months before the team reunites back in Indianapolis for training camp, but George is the star of the team and this would be a notable change. Perhaps a change he is hesitant — or at least unsure — to make.

Bird talked with George about it heading into the summer but not so much lately. George has been back and forth between Indy and Los Angeles, and he’s scheduled to arrive in Beijing Wednesday with Nike Basketball.

“I told him how I think he’ll embrace the opportunity,” Bird said. “I know what it did to my career. I always like to get down there and bang with the guys instead of running around and chasing everybody all of the time. Coming off this injury that he’s coming off of, I think it’d be a good year to try it because he can guard some threes but he won’t have to do it all the time. It gives him a year to get stronger and healthier. I think it’ll be a big plus for him and our team.”

Seeing George on Saturday, he has gained some muscle up top while also working to get the strength back in his legs. He says he “feels great” physically but added that he’s “still noticing some things that’s not PG-characteristic yet.” But he’s only two weeks from the one-year mark from that night in Las Vegas and camp is still eleven weeks away.

Bird doesn’t believe George, who weighs about 220 pounds, playing the four spot would require him to add weight, calling the need to have a bulky power forward overrated.

“I weighed 225 pounds,” Bird said. “I didn’t say I played it great but at least I played it — and I’m still walking around.”

Bird, who estimated that George was about 65 percent in the six games he played to end the season last season — a move Bird fully supported — appreciates that George decided not to participate in next month’s USA Basketball mini-camp.

“After what happened, I think he owes us a chance to see him develop throughout the summer and get better,” said Bird. “And then worry about that down the road.”

Having said that, he is on board with George following his dream next summer with Team USA in the Rio Olympics.

“If that’s what he’s got to do and that’s what he wants to do, I’m behind him 100 percent,” he said. “Now if my owner [Herb Simon] comes in and tells me no, I’ll have him talk to (Paul). We encourage our players to play for their country.”

A plan was in place before the summer to increase the Pacers’ tempo and then West opting out led to changes even though Bird, like most of us, admittedly does not take change real well. West moving on to San Antonio meant numerous roster changes, including a couple of trades. Come the fall and training camp, one thing the team needs regardless will be leadership and direction.

George said earlier this month that this was now his opportunity to lead. Bird wants to see those words backed up.

“Well, Paul always wanted to be [the leader] but you just can’t come out and say you’re going to be a leader,” said Bird, who several times said Danny — for Danny Granger — when he meant Paul. “You got to do it by example and you got to go out everyday and put the time in and the effort and see if the guys will follow you. I worry about it.”

They have veterans, like George Hill and Rodney Stuckey, plus newcomers Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. Combine that with a longtime support staff, the same coaching staff and Bird looking in, it appears they’ll be OK on the leadership front.

The key point with so many new pieces to the puzzle will be chemistry.

“We’re a pretty veteran group still, but not in terms of how long we’ve played together,” George said. “… We got a lot of stuff that we got to iron out come season time, but (that’s) a long ways away and [we have] a lot of chemistry to build.”

Paul George at his annual basketball camp:

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