There’s a very serious, very real curse that comes with covering a team and its players on a daily basis. Your opinions are constantly public, and so when time passes and makes them look foolish, you can be made out to look like an idiot. For example, if you started this NBA season by asserting that the Chicago Bulls offseason was, in actuality, a failure, you’ve likely experienced your fair share of being raked over the coals for said opinion. If you wondered whether or not the Warriors would actually return to dominance? Same deal. Good luck. My condolences for what must be unfolding in your mentions.
Here’s the thing, though: you’re hardly alone in this fight. I, for one, spent the early part of this season accusing Paul George of forcing the issue far too much for the good of the individual and the team. I had evidence; I had a case; the team had a 1-3 record chock-full of befuddling losses and high-scoring, yet inefficient efforts from George that warranted worrisome analysis.
Upon reflection, I was very, horribly, embarrassingly wrong. Trash the evidence, it never existed. 1-3? Who was 1-3? George, inefficient? I won’t hear it. Don’t be silly. This is a man who deserves the keys to any offense, Kawhi Leonard be damned. Heck, give him the keys to the city of Los Angeles. I feel like that’s a natural next step.
Through 14 games — now boasting a far more respectable 9-5 record, tied for fourth in the Western Conference at the moment — George has been almost exclusively unconscious. He’s averaging 27 points per game (third in the league behind Kevin Durant and Steph Curry) on 45 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from three. His PER of 22.6 is the second-best mark of his career, trailing only his final season in Oklahoma City, when he finished third in MVP voting. You’d be running a fool’s errand if you tried to argue against him being in contention this season; in a league that didn’t include Curry and Nikola Jokić, he might have already locked that bad boy up.
Okay, so maybe I’m getting ahead of myself there. But not by much. When George last closely contended for the MVP, he averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.2 steals per game; he shot 44 percent overall and 39 percent from three. We’ve been over his shooting numbers this season, but as for his rebounds, assists, and steals? 8.2, 5.1, and 2.2, respectively. The similarities are almost eerie.
But forget about MVP for a second — awards are so far from the point of what George has done this season. Whereas earlier this season, George appeared okay to settle and force shots when defended tightly, he’s since either been riding an absurdly extended heater, or doing more with the ball in order to create the necessary space to present him with a good shot.
Oftentimes, the result is a pull-up jumper. In the past, George was Thanksgiving feast or Irish Potato Famine on pull-ups. This season, 53 percent of his shot attempts per game come on pull-ups, and he’s made a fairly clean 37 percent on those tough shots. The only player with more pull-up attempts per game than George is Luka Doncic (14), who has shot 32 percent on those shots. George’s percentage is more on par with players like Devin Booker (40 percent), CJ McCollum (41), and Donovan Mitchell (38).
George’s shot profile, though, is even more advanced than those fellow All-Stars. Defenses often aim to coat him like white on rice, yet George has displayed a unique ability to separate from the opposition with a flurry of dribble moves and elite footwork. He also seems to have a career-best sense of what the best shot looks like. And not just because he can’t seem to miss.
As a facilitator, he’s grown, too. His 5.1 assists this season are the second-most he’s averaged in his career, 0.1 assists below his average last season. The same goes for his assist to usage ratio — which measures how often a player gets an assist given how much they have the ball — of 0.72; his only better season was last season, when his ratio finished at 0.76, per Cleaning the Glass. Considering his usage this year, that number could continue to rise. He sits at 36.2 percent so far this season, a hefty five percent more than his previous high (again, last season), which places him in the 99th percentile in the NBA.
The overarching point of all of these numbers is that not only does Paul George have the ball a lot, but when he has it, he’s doing something positive with it. Whether it’s putting the ball in the basket or dealing to other scorers, the Clippers have benefitted from George having the green light on all fronts. It’s no secret that players like Eric Bledsoe (lesser play) and Marcus Morris Sr. (injury trouble) have yet to hit their stride this season. George has been this ship’s captain in the meantime, and thus has weathered all storms, regardless of their intensity.
“He’s always been capable of being a leading guy for a franchise. That’s the Paul George we know… He was a great impact player & that’s just what you’re seeing him do now… We have great respect for him.”— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) November 12, 2021
Erik Spoelstra on facing PG in Indy and his similar role now with Clips. pic.twitter.com/N0fs0e8xoT
Now, whether or not this is sustainable is a lingering variable. With George’s usage at an all-time high, it’s fair to question when he might hit a wall. If Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and others can continue apace with their contributions, and perhaps even take on a bit more of the playmaking burden, maybe that day doesn’t come and all it will take for George to recharge will be a day of rest or the inevitable long weekend. For now, though, he’s the motor, the do-it-all man. That I’ve come this far without giving his defensive prowess this season so much as a passing mention feels like an injustice. I suppose I can sum it up with the assertion that he’s been great, elite on all levels, possibly the best he’s ever been.
And pondering that exact idea — his greatness, that it feels so ominpresent right now — is what led me down a mental rabbit hole this week, one that was partly inspired by incessantly rewatching George’s film, and partly inspired by a series of tweets I stumbled upon. Last month, LaJethro Jenkins of “The Jenkins and Jonez Podcast” tweeted, “I think part of why we’ve clowned Paul George when he’s played bad is because he makes basketball look so easy when he’s playing good.” He followed it up with an even more irrefutable notion.
We’ve dead ass forgot there was a moment when we thought he might never play again. It’s wild.— Black Big Lebowski (@LaJethroJenkins) October 22, 2021
I’ve been guilty of taking Paul George for granted in the past. I think we all have. The various “P” monikers, from “Playoff” to “Way Off” to “Pandemic”, were simultaneously impossible to ignore and impossible to reject. Yet they never properly captured the essence of George’s play. Instead, we wasted so much energy criticizing mere nuggets (pun intended) of his play, the times he collapsed the most, and the times he was easiest to blame.
He’s put me, you, and everyone we know on notice this season, and he’s reminded us to be appreciative. Of his undeniable skill, his will to win, and for this particular writer, of the fact that the time I believed he may never play again is a distant memory. I hadn’t thought about the catastrophic injury George suffered in 2014 while playing with USA Basketball since, well, 2014 before seeing Jenkins’ tweet, and I couldn’t help but travel back to that moment. Because with George, far too often do we find ourselves asking what he has done for us lately. What we should be asking, and what he has reminded us of so far this season, is what he has done overall.
The answer? Been an elite talent. Perhaps the best in the NBA so far. And I don’t think I’m getting ahead of myself by positing that.