Days before the NBA preseason and weeks before the real thing, media day rolls around, and figures across the league had to make a lot of promises they wouldn’t be able to keep. Dwane Casey ensured fans that their Pistons would grow into a strong team quickly; Detroit is 0-4 with the league’s worst offense. James Jones said that the focus for the Phoenix Suns was on the preseason, and that extensions for Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton were on the back burner; not one month later, Bridges was $90 million richer while Ayton remained unextended and likely frustrated.
These broken promises are unavoidable, but it’d be unfair to dole them out like pigs for a reader’s slaughter without offering one major caveat: we’re four games into this very young season. The Pistons have been without Cade Cunningham, their prized no. 1 overall pick and Motown’s most recent adopted savior, to start the season; Ayton and the Suns could come to a deal at a later date. So for Paul George’s own promise — that he’s ready to take on the role of leader, that having “been in this position” gives him “a level of comfort being the number one guy to start” — to be falling flat, in a way, to start this season is just as acceptable. It’s just a little more unexpected than the others listed above. Both things can be true at the same time.
The facts: the Clippers are 1-3 with competitive losses against the Warriors and Grizzlies — both of whom look to be budding powers in an already-top-heavy Western Conference — a throttling win over the Trail Blazers and an embarrassing 79-point “effort” against the victorious Cavaliers. Kawhi Leonard remains sidelined for who knows how long. The offense is sputtering; the defense, ranked sixth, hasn’t been able to nullify those offensive shortcomings. What many had dubbed a season ripe for the Clippers’ taking has started off on the wrongest foot imaginable.
And then there’s George, perhaps the team’s lone All-Star without Leonard, and certainly its most prolific and reliable talent, despite the jokes and tired nicknames. He’s the only Clipper to average more than 15.5 points per game so far this season — he rests at 24 even at the moment. He ranks first in box plus/minus (6.9; Isaiah Hartenstein is second at 3.1). All should be coming up roses, but averages rarely tell the whole story. Particularly when your team is struggling as the Clippers have thus far.
The averages certainly can’t tell George’s whole story in a justifiable manner. To start the season, albeit in two losses for his team, PG averaged 35 points, 10.5 rebounds, and five assists on 56/43/100 shooting splits. In LA’s 1-1 stretch since, it hasn’t been the same story. He scored 14 points on 6-of-16 shooting against the Blazers with no rebounds, five assists, and a whopping eight steals; against the Cavs, he went for 12 points — 6-of-20 from the field and a goose egg from three — while pulling down 10 boards, dishing out one assist, and nabbing four steals. Needless to say, he’s been consistently stout on defense. Offensively, though, his season averages are overwhelmingly misleading.
If there’s one trend that has foiled George from reaching (or expanding) his ceiling throughout his career, it’s his insistence upon creating for himself when faced with defensive roadblocks or, even worse, when he has options in the form of open teammates. He has a tendency to rush possessions in the interest of finding a shot, never mind how sensible said shot is, thus killing the possession before it can even begin. The worst decisions from his outings against Portland and Cleveland serve as incriminating evidence of these exact ideas.
Against Portland, he forced passes, shots, and rushed his way through offensive trips that didn’t have to turn empty. Frankly, the Clippers were lucky that Luke Kennard and Terance Mann could bear the responsibility of offensive efficiency for the evening, and even luckier that no member of the Blazers broke 20 aside from CJ McCollum. If Damian Lillard wasn’t seemingly impossible to defrost at the moment, the game’s story may have been a bit different than a 116-86 drubbing in favor of Los Angeles. Just watching George’s output might make you believe the score was reversed.
And with Cleveland in town and a trio of skyscrapers often crowding the paint, George elected to force deeper shots, almost like he knew what might happen should he meet Evan Mobley at the rim (as they say: ‘twas a business decision). He also took ill-advised, off-balance jumpers instead of sharing responsibility with his teammates. For the Clippers’ primary playmaker to have a 1-to-4 assist-to-turnover ratio against a lesser team is, for lack of a better word, unacceptable.
Far too often, George is visibly looking to shoot his way out of a slump. He’s a great shooter, but not always a conscious one. He’s an effective, borderline elite-level scorer, but not always a consistent one. The Playoff P label was always silly, but it’d be just as silly not to acknowledge the significant inconsistencies in George’s game. Additionally, it’d be foolish to say his shortcomings have not played a direct hand in the early, if-overreactive undoing of lofty expectations for the Clippers.
Now is where I feel compelled to repeat an aforementioned caveat: this season is quite young. I was recently having a discussion with some colleagues and one of them, referring to the Boston Celtics, wondered, “do we have any idea what this team is yet?” That same question could be asked right now about every single NBA team, and its answer would be the exact same: How could we possibly have an idea of what a team is a mere four games into the season?
We’re starting to get an idea of what teams like Minnesota, Charlotte, and New York can be, but there’s more that comes with knowing what a team will be for a fact. The Clippers are incomplete at the moment. The team’s best player is recovering from an injury that typically calls for one year in rehab. Two important bigs in the rotation are nursing their way back from injuries, too. But the questions and the cause for concern are just as inevitable — and warranted — as the certainty that everything to this point remains uncertain.
George recently noted that he feels comfortable with all the shots he’s been getting, just that his legs feel heavy at the moment. “As games come up, my body will get used to playing this load,” he continued. “35 minutes... That fatigue will go away.”
Add that to the list of things to cause stomachs to churn for fans, but don’t let it jump to the top just yet. He’s right; that fatigue will dissipate with time. In case we’ve let it slip our minds already, this is the third NBA season to take place, at least in part, in the last year. And George has played deep into the two that have concluded and carried more weight with each passing game. For him to feel a bit of that wear is an inevitability.
Yet just because a season is merely beginning doesn’t mean time won’t soon be of the essence. It doesn’t get much easier for the Clippers moving forward. They’re 1-3 and meet the Blazers again tonight. After that, they’ll face the Thunder (who just came back from 26-down to beat the Lakers on Wednesday), the Timberwolves twice, and the Hornets, Blazers, and Heat all once, all before rounding out the first half of November with the Bulls and Wolves yet again. That’s not a kind stretch, nor is it an impossible one to get out of alive. But at this rate, with the quality at which they’re currently performing, L.A. needs a bit of a boost.
Their first choice to provide said boost is an easy one. Relying on George, something that lies in his hands and his alone, needs to get easier.