Trailing 91-82 with fewer three minutes remaining, the Los Angeles Clippers are in danger of moving to 1-5 with another loss. This one would be a particularly tough pill to swallow: at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team eyeing long-term development over short-term triumphs. But then, a cape emerges from under Paul George’s jersey.
Back-to-back pull-up threes trim the lead to 91-88. Another empty Oklahoma City possession ignites the break and George finds Luke Kennard for a game-tying triple. It’s now 91-91, and George imprinted himself on every bucket.
Darius Bazley splits a pair at the line. George catches the ball with a clear-out near the right elbow and buries an isolation jumper. Clippers lead, 93-92. George strips Bazley on the ensuing play and a Reggie Jackson floater pushes the lead to 95-92. Los Angeles will go on to win, 99-94. It kickstarts a four-game winning streak that’s vaulted them to above-.500 and seventh place in the Western Conference at this early juncture of the NBA season.
Over the span of 118 seconds, George recorded eight points — all self-created — an assist, a steal, and an altered shot at the rim. These are superstar happenings from a man outplaying nearly every fellow superstar around the league to open the campaign.
Paul George has been the NBA's best player so far.
A breakdown of an unbelievably dominant stretch of basketball.
A sneak peek of this week's BA. pic.twitter.com/rA9BwEgxld
— Samson Folk (@samfolkk) November 3, 2021
Through nine games, the 12th-year wing is averaging 27 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.7 steals on 57.8 percent true shooting. At plus-2.9 percent — meaning he sits 2.9 points above league average — George’s relative true shooting is the second-best mark of his career, despite a career-low 36 percent of his baskets coming via assists.
Slow starts from Jackson and Eric Bledsoe, along with the absences of Marcus Morris and Serge Ibaka, left this already Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers team rather compromised to begin the year. George has shepherded his squad to competitiveness. He’s already authored a pair of 40-burgers and has scored at least 30 five times. His 32-9-7-3-1 outing against the Thunder is one of the best games anyone’s played this season.
Often, impact and context are closely correlated. Favorable contexts tend to breed favorable impacts for players. George’s context is not favorable. Despite that, he’s operating at a level rarely matched before in his career. The Clippers’ second-best player right now, whomever one deems it be, does not resemble that of a Robin on a playoff team. But here stands Los Angeles, staunchly in the thick of the playoff race with George at the helm.
He’s simply been an incredible shot-maker, routinely rendering good defense obsolete. His reel of highlight buckets could already span multiple minutes before mid-November. It includes a flurry of step-backs and fadeaways, often isolated at the elbows or wings, as the opposition is draped across his 6’9 frame. Many of them sail through the net, free of interference from the rim yet rich with aesthetic delight.
Although he’s only 14-for-44 (31.7 percent) on pull-up threes, he’s shooting 29-for-60 (48.3 percent) on pull-up twos and 25-for-47 (53 percent, per Cleaning The Glass) on long midrange jumpers. Drilling a career-high 54.1 percent of his twos, the dude’s been a flamethrower inside the arc. According to Synergy, only Luka Doncic (10.1) and Kevin Durant (9.5) are taking more off-the-dribble shots per game this season than George’s 9.2.
Compensating for some inconsistent off-the-dribble production are sterling off-ball numbers. He’s cashed 41.7 percent of his stationary threes and ranks in the 91st percentile on catch-and-shoots (98th when guarded), 93rd percentile on spot-ups, and 90th percentile off screens. When granted opportunities to function off the ball, he’s absolutely cooking.
George’s raw playmaking totals — 47 assists to 43 turnovers — are a prime example of why such statistics consistently fail to encapsulate one’s true talent. Spraying kick-outs to shooters, whirling feeds to big men, and parlaying his elite shooting gravity into easy reads, he’s been a magnificent facilitator.
If many of the Clippers’ credible marksmen weren’t struggling from deep and/or injured, his numbers would better capture his signature. He’s grown sloppy occasionally, but he’s being tasked with a monstrous workload and is delivering. His 35.2 percent usage rate ranks sixth league-wide and is four points clear of his previous career-high established last season, according to Cleaning The Glass.
The magnitude of his offensive burden is accentuated by his sprawling, hounding defense. He’s been the linchpin of the a team that is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the NBA. Per usual, his screen navigation and dexterity remain destructive. He warps around picks and detonates DHOs with ease — it’s a marvel to behold at his size — pickpockets ball-handlers pursuing points, and anticipates driving angles to stonewall slashers.
What’s really separated his performance from some of his prior defensive campaigns is weakside activity. As a low man, he’s darting in to pilfer seemingly run-of-the-mill passes and has even provided some staunch rim protection. According to NBA.com, on shots within sox feet of the rim, players are shooting 14.7 percentage points below their average when George is the primary defender.
He’s been a menace rotating for interior help duties. And despite the motor ratcheting up a smidge, he continues to rarely foul. His 3.7 fouls per 100 is below his career average of 4.0, all while sprinkling his impact in a bevy of ways.
In search of their fifth consecutive win, the Clippers welcome the Portland Trail Blazers to town Tuesday. Throughout the night, George will likely shadow slippery, explosive scorers, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. He’ll stay tethered through waves of screens and off-ball movement. He’ll look to flummox Jusuf Nurkic on the roll. When those tasks are paused temporarily, he’ll commandeer an undermanned and underperforming offensive attack, and buoy it with silky basket after silky basket.
All of this is expected and embodied by 2021-22 Paul George, a two-way superstar successfully checking nearly every box on both sides of the floor because his team requires it.