Paul George is enjoying a break-out season, has proven he is an elite game-changer at both ends of the court and is establishing himself as the NBA’s third best player, writes Mark Deeks.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets is having a season for the ages. He has scored 30 or more points for 30 consecutive games now, the third-longest such streak in history; one more will tie him for second with the statistical anomaly that was the great Wilt Chamberlain.
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He is averaging 36.6 points per game, far ahead of second-placed Anthony Davis (29.5). It is the eighth-highest mark in history, trailing only five seasons by Wilt, one by Elgin Baylor, and one by Michael Jordan. It is also the most efficient of the top 26 scoring seasons of all time, and in win shares, he leads the league at 10.3.
For the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo is also doing special things. He is averaging 27.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, leading his team offensively while genuinely being able to defend all five positions. Giannis’ production is unprecedented, as is the way in which he does it; measured by win shares, he is second in the league behind Harden at 9.9.
Those have been the best two players in the league this season, then. The third best is a bit less distinct.
If strictly and solely measured by win shares, the third-best player in the league is Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert at 9.8. We looked at Gobert recently, and found him to be as good of a player in his role as it is possible to be. He is phenomenal.
But even though Gobert sticks to what he does best and maximises the impact of his role, does it not follow that the third-best player in the league should go beyond filling a role, however well they fill it, and be able to turn a game and carry his team on both ends?
Paul George warms up on court before a game
To that end, enter Paul George.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired George a year and a half ago, it was assumed that they were getting a second star to pair with Russell Westbrook. Someone who both could and would be the 1B to Russ’s 1A. With Westbrook’s contract being extended and maxed out, and with the fan base increasingly betrothed to him after Kevin Durant’s departure, he was the identity of the team going forward. But he needed flanking. It was not expected that he would be surpassed, but it was known he needed to be aided.
Flanking Westbrook was not thought to be easy in light of Durant’s departure. George arrived to join Westbrook at a time when Westbrook was lumbered with the groupthink belief that for all his individual production, he does not make the players around him better.
A key piece of cited evidence for this theory was the one season Victor Oladipo spent with the team. Oladipo, sent out to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for George, had the worst season of his career with the Thunder, and yet went on to become a two-time All-Star immediately after leaving.
George celebrates a basket against the Orlando Magic
All that has been banished to the past, however, by the play of George this year.
George is currently amidst that rarest of beasts – the aged-28 breakout season. He is the elite game-changer on both ends; close to being the shooter that Harden is, close to being the defensive player that Giannis is, and the closest combination of both that the league has.
Despite just posting his 10th triple-double in a row and being on course to average a triple-double for the third consecutive season – a feat once considered impossible that somehow we now seem to have taken for granted – Westbrook’s high usage, hefty share of the ball and staggering inefficiency from the floor this season has meant someone needs to carry the team offensively more often than not.
George and Russell Westbrook celebrate during Oklahoma City Thunder’s win against Portland
While Russ does as much as he can for his team, he needs a scorer to do what he doesn’t – score consistently and efficiently in the half court, and particularly from outside.
George has been that scorer, and a better one than even the optimists expected. He is averaging a career-high 28.3 points per game this season, 4.6 points per game more than his previous career-high mark of two seasons ago, and a whole 6.4 more than last year’s 21.9 average.
George’s minutes are as-near-as-is identical to last season’s marks, yet his offensive role is bigger than before, taking three more field goals and two more free throws per game in that time, and with a usage rate up to 29 per cent from last season’s 25 per cent.
In large part, this has been due to a greater volume of three-pointers. On the season thus far, George has already made 207 three-pointers in 54 games – extrapolated over a full 82-game schedule, that rate would mean 314 made three-pointers on the year. For comparison’s sake, there have only ever been two seasons with individual player totals of more than 300 in a season, both by the transformative Stephen Curry.
Helped by improved shooting from Terrance Ferguson – himself very much the beneficiary of having so little defensive attention paid to him, given how potent the George and Westbrook pairing is – the Thunder have ridden this three-point barrage over the last six weeks. Their defense, which was the NBA’s best for much of the first half of the season, has fallen off to a more middle-of-the-pack unit since then. Yet despite that, they have not fallen away in the standings, becoming one of the NBA’s best offensive units in that time instead.
George celebrates a basket against the Orlando Magic
In large part, this is simply because a lot of the jump shot attempts that were Westbrook’s are now George’s. George’s shot is unblockable and deadly accurate. And Russ, it seems, recognises what a weapon he has alongside him now.
George is also still every bit as important on the defensive end on the wing as Steven Adams is in the middle. The Thunder are at their defensive best when getting into passing lanes, deflecting the ball, pressuring the ball handler, and gambling for turnovers more than being conservative and containing.
Westbrook and Dennis Schroder, ill-disciplined yet active defenders, are better suited to this, and Adams and Nerlens Noel at center are flexible enough to defend both inside and out. But George is the master of it.
In man-to-man situations, his height and hands make him a mountain on the perimeter. In the passing lanes, he is a disruptive force. In switches, those same physical tools make him a beast, able to track both bigs and littles, contesting any shot and any pass. At a time when the new orthodoxy is to try and find 6ft 8in to 6ft 10in wing players who can defend multiple positions and make plays offensively, George has become exactly that. In the three-and-D era, he is the pinnacle of both, with more to offer than just that.
George celebrates his alley-oop dunk during a 107-100 win over the Los Angeles Lakers
Remember, too, that this breakout has come after his nasty leg injury. The worry was that he would never get back to his best. The reality is that he has sailed past it.
George’s All-Star peers are recognising his play. After a 47-point triple-double over the Portland Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard openly lauded George’s MVP credentials. Kevin Durant, the man he has replaced, has called George his favourite player in the NBA. And most importantly, he has won the significant respect of Westbrook, who, admittedly in a happy moment after a win, essentially conceded George was better than him.
He’s right. George is. And his peers have noticed.
George swaps jerseys with Dwyane Wade
Indeed, it would be hard not for them to notice. Going up against Harden directly last week, George dropped 45 points on 22 shots, and was a big part of the match-ups that held Harden to 39 per cent shooting and one assist.
Two weeks prior, matched up against Giannis and the league-leading Bucks, he dropped 36 points, 13 rebounds and three steals on 21 shots. The Thunder won both games. There are not many players out there better than George, yet when he plays those that are, he outduels them.
Thursday night’s games
- Charlotte Hornets @ Orlando Magic, 12am
- New York Knicks @ Atlanta Hawks, 12:30am
- Oklahoma City Thunder @ New Orleans Pelicans, live on SS Arena & Mix, 1am
The Thunder traded for Paul George because they needed to replace Kevin Durant. They needed someone to cover for Westbrook’s shortcomings while not taking away from his strengths. They needed someone to elevate the defensive end on which they shine while also helping to shore up the scoring and shooting weaknesses around Russ. They needed someone who could play both fast and slow, play both on and off the ball, and who would re-sign with the team long term.
They needed a lot. George has given them even more than they anticipated.
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