One of the beautiful things about sport is that it’s mostly subjective and we as fans get to have our allegiances, standing behind our favourite teams and players at any given opportunity.
The sport of basketball is no different, although with the rise of social media and the pandemic putting an obstacle in the way of face-to-face fan interaction, it can sometimes feel as though opinions are becoming more extreme and blinded by bias as the days pass.
There are few players in professional basketball who conjure up such extremes of fan opinion quite like Paul George, who depending on which fanbase you belong to you’ll likely have a series of different nicknames for — few of which would be kind enough to make it onto Basketball Reference.
It seems like every time PG-13 does something right the timeline is flooded with fans wanting the NBA world to put more respect on his name, while every time he does a single thing wrong it instantly becomes a meme with the context of the situation often nowhere to be seen. Just observing it is exhausting, so I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of it.
Recently the great Paul George debate was reignited by a ranking of the top small forwards in the league, which was originally published by HoopsHype.com but shared across the Twittersphere by popular fan page NBA Central.
https://t.co/2EtjT5GLsG’s top 10 SFs in the NBA for the 2021-22 season:— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) September 5, 2021
1) Kevin Durant
2) Luka Doncic
3) LeBron James
4) Jayson Tatum
5) Paul George
6) Jimmy Butler
7) Khris Middleton
8) Jaylen Brown
9) Brandon Ingram
10) Michael Porter Jr.
On the surface, the rankings seemed relatively harmless. George was nestled into the middle section at number five behind the league’s biggest stars old and young. There’s a conversation to be had around the positions the guys ahead of him actually play, but since he himself has played frequently at the 2, we’ll overlook that for now.
However, digging further down into the replies revealed those sheer extremes of opinion that surround the Clippers star. In fact, it sparked a whole separate debate about the level of talent that George possesses and showed just how skewed perceptions are. While one fan called him the most all-around talented player in the league, one critic made a case that he shouldn’t even have made that top 10.
I always feel that it’s important to caveat that very few fans, myself included, will watch every single game of every single team and therefore can’t know for sure the full ins and outs of a player or team’s season. Yet we all see exactly what happens when we get down to the business end of the NBA season, and that’s where George has gained a lot of critics.
It stems as far back as his days with the Indiana Pacers, but seemed to peak during his first season in Los Angeles after further playoff disappointment for himself and his new franchise. His side of the backboard shot as the Clippers fell feebly to the Denver Nuggets became the bullet in the chamber of opposing fans, seemingly cementing the idea he couldn’t get it done.
Fast forward to last season and his supporters will say, whether anybody on the other side is even listening, that he showed just what he can do in the postseason. When the chips were down, George showed up in the absence of his running mate and carried his team to a historic Western Conference finals berth. Of course there were further twists from the series with the Phoenix Suns, but he’d already done enough for his fans to staunchly stand by their man.
So what is PG’s level? For my money he is definitely one of the most talented two-way players in the league, therefore I can see the arguments about his all-around talent exceeding that of some of the league’s biggest stars. In areas where some of those guys fall short he stands tall, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better or more effective NBA player.
His headline stats are unlikely to match those top guys, especially those on teams with less of a supporting cast to truly take them into title contention. But in the absence of Kawhi Leonard he may just find another level of scoring beyond his 23.3 points per game in 2020-21. The Clippers are likely to need more than 54 games at 33.7 minutes per night from him, that’s for sure.
There’s an argument, though, that the debate has gone beyond what happens on the court now anyway. The main reason he deserves more respect is that he’s a high-profile sportsman with a bold personality and guys like him should be a breath of fresh air, in a world where some of the suits and corporations with a stake in sport would rather players didn’t cause any fuss off the court.
His decision to speak out about his mental health during the NBA Bubble should’ve been seen as another breakthrough moment in destroying the stigma around sportsmen, in particular, being able to express exactly how they’re feeling. Instead it was used as another stick to beat George with, which should’ve been a disappointment to even his most ardent constructive critics.
Although George may not be everybody’s cup of tea, his four-year extension means he’s going absolutely nowhere any time soon and is likely to be leading this side of L.A. with Leonard beyond the timeline of the biggest stars on the other side of STAPLES Center.
This season could be the one where we learn the most about a guy who has already shown us so much heart on and off the court. While we may not be able to convince others to enjoy that journey, we can at least strap ourselves in for it.