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Clippers In Review: Paul George’s season to forget — aside from his play

Early on, he looked like an MVP candidate. Who’s to say he can’t return to that level next season?

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Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Tyler Ross/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to Clippers In Review, where we’ll recap the season for every player that ended the season in Los Angeles. Next up: Paul George.

How did PG-13 do this season?

Frank Herbert’s sprawling science-fiction novel, “Dune”, is split into three parts: “Dune,” “Mua’dib,” and “The Prophet”, all of which chronicle the maturation and heroic journey of a messianic young man named Paul Atreides. His story is a complicated text, one that practically requires constant thematic reconsideration and knowledge of its world’s lore to understand. That there are so many parts to “Dune” — the book is segmented intentionally and necessarily — makes it impossible to examine head-on. You have to view every section as though it’s its own full novel; only then can you consider it in full.

Much like “Dune” (I promise) Paul George’s season is impossible to look at one-dimensionally. It literally unfolded in chapters, with mandatory breaks in between the action. There was the beginning, when he played in 24 of the team’s first 25 games and blew the doors off of the expectations set for both him and the Clippers. He was averaging 25 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game before Dec. 6 while delivering career-best marks in multiple advanced categories. The team was only 13-12, but George was integral to its 13 wins and still a source of optimism despite its 12 losses. Early in the season, I wrote about him having a genuine case for early-season MVP. Oh, how the mighty column angles would fall.

Then came Part II: injury, and the ensuing questions about said injury. George was officially sidelined on Dec. 22 with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow; because of that injury and other nagging ones, he’d miss 48 of the Clippers’ next 50 games (after Dec. 6). That they went 29-28 during that time made for a fascinating conversation about George’s value, the team’s resiliency, Ty Lue’s status as one of the NBA’s best, most-adaptable coaches, etc. While surgery reportedly remained a real option for George, thus floating the idea that his season may be finished before it could really even start, the likes of Amir Coffey, Isaiah Hartenstein, and others surged and filled out their resumes as dependable role players. The Clippers stayed afloat; with Kawhi Leonard already out with an ACL tear for at least the regular season, was there really a point in George returning?

Part III: The surprise — and loud — return to action. Surgery was a forgotten notion; like Atreides, George had a world (Crypto.com arena) to protect and an ultimate goal (a spot in the play-in tournament) to fight for. He rejoined a newly-fortified LA roster, which had added Norman Powell and Robert Covington at the trade deadline, and led the Clips to wins in four of his five final regular-season appearances after returning on March 29. (The team won six of its final seven games; George was inactive for two). George’s per-game averages dipped a touch, down to 22.6 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.6 rebounds, but he was shooting 52 percent from three on eight attempts per game, a sign that, yeah, that elbow was probably feeling fine. The Clippers rolled into the play-in tournament as the Western Conference’s eighth seed with multiple media members deeming them a nightmarish foe for any opponent, let alone those they might see in the play-in.

That would’ve been a nice cliffhanger ending, no? But of course...

Beyond those three sections of Herbert’s “Dune” lie three novels in which Paul Atreides exists, but over each, he begins to wither more and more, falling victim to his own power, and ultimately, meeting his demise. It’s a tragic epilogue, one that could have ended in glory, yet concluded, instead, with death.

Paul George, as opposed to Atreides, is of course alive and well. He did, however, see his and his team’s season come to a disappointing end. He scored 34 points in the opening play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves but fell 109-104 on the road. And while that set Los Angeles up for a date — at home, no less — with the New Orleans Pelicans, George tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the game. With a relative whimper, what had suddenly become a promising season came to a swift end, if not an embarrassing one, given all the hype it had collected within a matter of weeks.

I’m not sure how George views this season, both from an individual perspective and a team one. From 30,000 feet, it’d be difficult not to see him as a guy who put up great stats on an okay team when he was healthy (that being a pivotal caveat to include, of course). Was he otherworldly? At times? Was the team he played with, especially when he was sidelined? Not once. That’s the thing about NBA stars these days: rarely do they view their accomplishments from a production standpoint as the principal, driving force behind their legacy. It’s a huge part of it, and it may even be 1B, but 1A has always been and will always be measured in gold.

Paul George has some gold in his trophy case, a medal from the 2016 Summer Olympics. But that doesn’t carry the same weight as an MVP trophy or a Larry O’Brien. And until he has one of those, I’m not sure he’ll ever leave a season satisfied, no matter the numbers he puts up. Especially not if it ends as this season did.

Should we expect him back?

Los Angeles Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Yes, George will be back next season. He signed an extension in 2020 that guaranteed him as much as $226 million over the ensuing five years; thus, the 31-year-old won’t reach unrestricted free agency until 2025, when he’s 35. Unless he were to ask for (or force) a trade, he’ll remain a Clipper for the foreseeable future. That’s the short answer.

Looking beyond next season — and frankly, until that fateful year, 2025 — is obviously a murkier, more uncertain journey. Realistically, this season for the Clippers was never really about this season. If they made the playoffs, great. If they made it a few rounds in, even better. But when the 2021-22 season tipped off, no one — not Paul George, not Steve Ballmer, not Clipper Darrell — felt that this was the season for them to leave as champions.

Kawhi Leonard’s injury placed an immediate shadow over their title odds, and it likely put Ty Lue’s mind in a different place. He could let Paul George do his thing while focusing on the rest of the young team’s development, while Lawrence Frank, Ballmer, and co. conspired up top as to how they could reshape the team around the two stars they traded everything but the kitchen sink away for. Just ask Lue himself: “Our system was built around two players, around PG and Kawhi, and when they both go down, now you got to be able to shift and now build around the team that you have,” he told Marc Spears of Andscape in March.

This is where this section of the piece doubles as a recalibration of what to expect not only from George’s return next season, but of the Clippers' perceived return to contention. The Western Conference really is the Wild, Wild West these days, and that could make things tough for the Clippers. The teams from 8-11 can hang with the teams sitting at 1, 2, and 3 on a night to night basis; everybody seems to be getting younger, too. On the Phoenix Suns, you have Devin Booker (25), Deandre Ayton (23), Mikal Bridges (25), and Chris Paul (still 26, apparently). At the moment, the Suns lead the Dallas Mavericks 2-0 in the West semifinals, but 23-year-old Luka Dončić is having himself a new kind of moment on the offensive end. Ja Morant (22), Jaren Jackson Jr. (22), and Desmond Bane (23) currently have the Memphis Grizzlies in lockstep with the Golden State Warriors — who boast ageless talent in Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, and boundless skill in the 22-year-old Jordan Poole — in the second-round. The Timberwolves, who beat the Clippers in the play-in, are led by perennial All-NBA center Karl-Anthony Towns (26) and future All-NBAer Anthony Edwards (20).

The LA Clippers, meanwhile, are led by two aging superstars — they look spry (again, when healthy), but George just turned 32 and Kawhi turns 31 next month. The Athletic’s Clippers’ ace Law Murray noted back in April that the last NBA champion with two players in their 30s leading the way in minutes was the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, “who were led by a 32-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, a 37-year-old Jason Kidd, a 32-year-old Shawn Marion, and a 33-year-old Jason Terry. Before that, it was the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, with a 30-year-old Paul Pierce, a 32-year-old Ray Allen, and a 31-year-old Kevin Garnett.”

George’s team is on borrowed time, and frankly, it probably should be. There have been ample opportunities to go out and get a supporting cast that could buoy the George-Leonard duo when defenses lend a bit more attention their way. And maybe Powell and Covington, as well as ascending role guys like Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, and Amir Coffey, can fit that bill. We’ve just yet to see it.

Until we do, we should expect George back next season, at minimum. But, as with everything else in this league, perhaps expecting the unexpected is a safer hero’s journey to follow.