There is little denying the progress third-year forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers has made this season. Despite the Pacers losing their leading scorer, George’s mentor and friend Danny Granger, they have found themselves battling the defending champion Miami Heat in the NBA conference finals. In this week’s SI, senior writer Lee Jenkins profiles George and how his continuous commitment to improvement on both sides of the ball has his team standing a chance against the Heat.
George, a Palmdale, California native, has flown relatively under the radar considering his prodigy build, 6’9 with a seven-foot wing span and a vertical that has the NBA’s finest checking over their shoulders. After attending San Jose State in order to stay closer to home and being drafted 10th overall in the 2010 NBA draft, George has slowly established himself as an all star caliber player. But after a disappointing exit in last year’s playoffs, George found himself “embarrassed. He saw the room for growth,” recalls Brian Shaw, assistant coach for the Pacers (PAGE 38).
George spent the off season working on his ball handling skills with dribbling guru Jerry Powell, his post-ups with former NBA player Don MacLean and his stroke with Shaw. This season George, who made his first all-star team, led the Pacers in minutes (37.6 per game), points (17.4) and steals (1.8) and the Pacers relentless devotion to man-to-man defense has opponents feeling stifled. Lebron James tallied his lowest point total of the year in a meeting with George earlier this season and in another meeting James turned the ball over seven times, a tie for his most all year.
“We’re the only team to beat Miami two out of three times this year,” (PAGE 42) reminds a club house official.
George’s constant longing for improvement has the Indiana Pacers chasing the NBA Finals. “I don’t even know anymore where his ceiling is,” (PAGE 42) says team President Donnie Walsh.
This week’s SI also features an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Mike Conley Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies. Senior writer Lee Jenkins spent seven days with the Western Conference contenders as they devised a game plan for the Thunder, bounced back from a devastating defeat—and got their hair cut just right. Conley is featured on a regional cover, the first SI cover for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jenkins takes readers through the Grizzlies’ preparations for Game 1, including reserve swingman Quincy Pondexter doing push-ups and power forward Zack Randolph reviewing Floyd Mayweather’s victory the night before. Jenkins writes, “The Grizzlies are heavyweights, not welterweights, an antidote to the go-go teams of the Western Conference and a throwback to the days when large men stood on the block with their backs to the basket.” (PAGE 36)
In Game 1, the Grizzlies, the league’s top defensive team, forgot who they were. Memphis allowed Kevin Durant to score 35 points and Kevin Martin to score 25 off the bench. They still had a chance to tie the game with 1.6 seconds left when Pondexter went to the line to shoot three with his team down three. He missed the first shot and Memphis lost. In the locker room after the defeat, Pondexter already had a Twitter account filled with awful messages. He said, “I let down my team.”(PAGE 37)
After every game, coach Lionel Hollins fills a note card with his thoughts for the following practice. Jenkins saw the card—it was filled with ways to slow Durant. “We have to treat KD the same ways as Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul,” Hollins said. “He can’t just dribble down the floor and see one guy. He has to see three guys.” (PAGE 37)
Jenkins also observed a team that is very close knit, from eating meals and seeing movies together on the road to Conley hosting a Warriors-Spurs watch party in his hotel room. “I’m in awe of what he’s doing,” Conley says as he watches the Warriors’ Stephen Curry. In the Grizzlies’ Game 2 victory, Conley finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jenkins says that he delivered “a sequence as awe-inducing as Curry’s.” (PAGE 39)
The coaching staff has encouraged Conley to look for his own shot more often since leading scorer Rudy Gay was traded in late January. “I got a chance to show the world I can do the same things as those other great point guards,” Conley says. (PAGE 38)
With the Grizzlies back home with three days off before Game 3, forward Tony Allen took his daughter to school, Pondexter made his 38th community appearance of the season and Randolph got his weekly haircut at Christyles, where he stops in every Friday or Saturday and always before nationally televised games. Jenkins says, “On the road the Grizzlies are basketball players. At home they are husbands, fathers and dog owners.” (PAGE 40)
Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant is tired and it has nothing to do with the grind of a long season—he’s grown tired of always finishing second. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Lee Jenkins finds that the unsatisfied Durant, who appears on the SI cover for the fifth time, uses the success of rival Lebron James for motivation and analysis of advanced metrics to improve the chances of leading his team to an NBA championship. Durant tells Jenkins:
“I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.” (PAGE 38)
Durant, still just 24, has no interest in joining the list of NBA stars who have languished in other player’s shadows. He tells Jenkins that he is motivated from afar by the success of James, last year’s MVP who’s Miami Heat defeated Durant’s Thunder for the 2012 NBA title. Jenkins, who also wrote the 2012 SI Sportsman of the Year profile on James last December, notes that the two stars take flak for their friendship off the court. However, Durant says: “I’m not taking it easy on [Lebron]. Don’t you know I’m trying to destroy the guy every time I go on the court?” (PAGE 41)
One area Durant has worked on is efficiency, as he has hired his own analytics expert to help him improve numerical imbalances in his game. After every game, he watches video with his private trainer Justin Zormelo. Durant tailors the next day’s workout to improve in areas where he struggles statistically. Over the past few seasons, the duo helped transform Durant from a scoring machine to a playmaker. Jenkins writes that Durant now better understands his sweet spots—both elbows, both corners and the top of the key. Says Thunder coach Scott Brooks:
“He knows he can score. He’s trying to score smarter.” (PAGE 38)
The Thunder lead the NBA in nearly every offensive category, even though they traded one of the league’s leading scorers in James Harden before the season. What’s most surprising is that the Thunder have improved in virtually every relevant offensive area with Durant attempting fewer field goals than at any time since he was a rookie. Durant also has set career marks in efficiently rating, assists and shooting percentage.
Jenkins says: “He wants what Miami has, and he’s going to seize it one meticulously selected elbow jumper at a time.” (PAGE 38)
Larry Sanders, the NBA’s fiery angel, will tell you that he has seen the darkest corners of crazy in this childhood. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Lee Jenkins examines how one of the NBA’s most imposing defensive players has found his happy (if still occasional volatile) place.
Sanders, a 6’11” center for the Milwaukee Bucks, can cover the entire court in six strides and dunks so ferociously that backboards shake for a full 30 seconds. Sanders blocks nearly three shots per game, alters many more and deters countless others. “A lot of the guys drive inside and don’t even look at the basket anymore…they see me there and pass,” says Sanders (PAGE 62).
Growing up in a hostile environment where he would sometimes hear his father abusing his mother, Sanders was constantly moving around with his mother and siblings. “No one really took us in…we lived on the streets,” says Sanders (PAGE 63).
His mother Marilyn wanted to keep her children close at all times. She worked wherever they went to school, whether she was a bus driver or a crossing guard, a cafeteria cook or a substitute teacher. “I don’t believe in hate. I didn’t tell him what Daddy did. I wanted him to love his father. But I had to get him out of there so he wouldn’t see anything,” says Larry’s mother Marilyn Smith (PAGE 63).
As a child, Sanders showed no interest in basketball. Instead, he was either drawing, writing, or getting into trouble at school. Being an artist was Larry’s unique way to escape. Drawing pictures of angles and fantasy characters would help him remain calm in difficult situations. “Drawing was a way for my mind to take a break from everything I’d seen and focus on the lines…it was a release for me. I could zone out and just be there,” says Sanders (PAGE 63).
Sanders first got introduced to the game of basketball by Kareem Rodriguez, head basketball coach at Port St. Lucie High School. Basketball didn’t come easy to Larry at first, as he had never run a pick-and-roll or heard of a three-second violation. In his first game with the jayvee team, he scored in the wrong basket. Sanders would up being attracted to defense partly because he didn’t have to follow so many strange instructions. He saw the ball and swatted it.
Jenkins writes that Rodriquez was the father figure in Larry’s life. He taught him everything there was to know about the game. On and off the court, Sanders viewed his teammates as his brothers. “I’ll show you…I’ll teach you,” Rodriquez told Sanders (PAGE 64).
Sanders committed to VCU, renowned for its chaotic full-court press, after watching one practice. “They were like brothers too,” says Sanders (PAGE 64). At VCU, he majored in sociology and took classes in psychology to learn about domestic violence and why people act in such a cruel way.
Most recently, he became a breakout star at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, when two researchers presented a paper that analyzed spatial data to indentify Sanders as the league’s most effective rim protector. Since moving into the starting lineup in December, he has averaged 9.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, inspiring the Bucks public relations department to send out wooden blocks promoting him for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. He also picked up 14 technical fouls, been ejected a league-high five times and racked up $95,000 in fines last month alone. His problem with authority seems to have followed him wherever he as gone.
However, off the court, Larry still keeps his mom close and looks to help those less fortunate than him. His mother lives with him in Milwaukee, in the same house as his wife and two-year-old son. In addition, Sanders wants to establish a shelter for battered women in Fort Pierce that will offer three meals a day. It’s just one of his many projects for one of the most improved players in the NBA.
Chris Paul has made the Clippers not only the hottest team in Los Angeles, but also a threat to win the Western Conference. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Lee Jenkins finds that the Clipper’s floor general has always been a natural leader and role model, both on and off the court.
As a young child Chris was destined to lead others. Paul was class president all throughout Middle School and High School. When he played Pop Warner his coach would put him at middle linebacker so he could instruct the rest of the defense. As a freshman at Wake Forest, Paul gave pregame speeches before the coaches. As a rookie with the Hornets in 2005, Chris was tagging along for captain’s meetings. “Chris was a once-in-a-generation leader,” says former teammate P.J. Brown (PAGE 82).
At 6 feet, Paul is nine inches shorter than the great Magic Johnson, but they carry themselves the same way, taskmasters disguised as cheerleaders. “These are people who have the ability to blend everybody around them together,” says teammate Lamar Odom (PAGE 82).
Paul’s contract expires on July 1, but associates insist he has not discussed signing elsewhere. “I’m here to build something different…I’m going to make this my new family,” says Paul (PAGE 82-83).
Unlike how the reported lack of camaraderie hurts the other NBA team in town, thanks to Paul’s leadership the Clippers rent out movie theaters on the road, go to UCLA games when they’re home and celebrate every birthday with cupcakes on the practice court.
Not only is Paul a tremendous leader, he can be raw and ruthless on the court as well. “He’s a pit bull…with a little man’s complex,” says Clippers guard Willie Green (PAGE 84).
Paul talks the entire game. “I played against John Stockton…That’s what it’s like playing against Chris,” says Thunder point guard Derek Fisher (PAGE 86).