Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the way things are unfolding for Paul George. After all, if someone asked you to design a perfect player for the NBA as it exists in 2019, you might sketch something that looks an awful lot like him: 6-foot-9 with a 6-foot-11-¼ wingspan, able to handle any defensive assignment on a given possession; strong enough to muscle through contact, but still lithe enough to slalom around ball screens on the perimeter; a pristine quick-trigger jumper and a tight handle; playmaking vision and touch; a deep bag of finishes in the paint; and—even after one of the more ghastly leg injuries in recent memory—enough burst to dust dudes and enough bounce to bang on shot-blockers.
We’ve known for nearly a decade that George had everything he’d need to become a star, and he’s made good on that promise, earning six All-Star berths and four All-NBA nods in his eight healthy seasons. But what he’s doing now in Oklahoma City … it’s different. And it’s leaving lasting scorch marks on opponents.
Portland point forward Evan Turner drew the George matchup only a couple of times on Monday, according to NBA.com’s player tracking. That gave him a front-row seat for the evil that George put on Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, and the rest of the Trail Blazers on the way to a season-high-tying 47 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and two steals in 43 jaw-slackening minutes in a 120-111 Thunder win:
Afterward, the famously loquacious Turner found himself grasping for the right words to describe what he’d witnessed.
”Everybody is going crazy for Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and James [Harden],” Turner told reporters. “Everybody I probably went up against—and no disrespect to other teams, they’re unbelievable—Paul is the best that we probably went up against all year. He’s at a completely different level. It’s hard to even explain.”
Maybe that’s because George’s level-up is the aggregate of scores of improvements in minuscule areas of the game—the kind of thing you can only truly understand if you’re a player operating at the highest level.
Or, y’know, maybe not.
“Everybody in the whole arena can see that: He’s at a different level,” said Damian Lillard, a four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection in his own right, after George scalded his Blazers. “I mean, after watching him over the last 10 games or so—I catch a lot of their games—and seeing him tonight … that dude, he MVP. If they keep this up, he MVP.”
George has done more than just keep it up. It’s been clear since at least mid-December that the 28-year-old swingman was playing the best ball of his career, but he’s kicked it into overdrive since the start of January.
Over the past 20 games, George has averaged 32.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 37.8 minutes per game; he’s done so while shooting a blistering 45.4 percent from 3-point range on 10.8 attempts a night. To put it another way: Since the start of January, George has produced like 2013-14 MVP-season Kevin Durant and shot like 2015-16 MVP-season Stephen Curry. He has done so while also leading the league in steals, ranking second in deflectionsand loose balls recovered, and logging the most minutes on a team whose defense has absolutely cratered whenever he’s hit the bench.
This season, George is combining usage and offensive efficiency to a degree matched only by some of the best offensive players ever—and, wonderfully, 2011 Kevin Martin—and establishing himself as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the best team in the Eastern Conference and putting up numbers we haven’t seen since Peak Kareem. James Harden is authoring the seventh-highest-scoring season in NBA history while pairing scoring and playmaking efficiency at unprecedented levels to carry a wounded, limited team into a fight for home-court advantage in the West. Their MVP bona fides seem unassailable. And yet, here stands George, assailing them.
He’s had help. For all his well-chronicled shooting woes, Russell Westbrook continues to provide an elite complement to George in the other facets of the game. Westbrook leads the league in assists, ranks a still-staggering 11th in rebounds per game, and helps front an aggressive Oklahoma City side that forces turnovers on a higher share of opponents’ possessions than any other team in the league. And while it has become increasingly popular to sneeze at triple-doubles in recent years, the dude is averaging a triple-double for the third straight season, and just set a new NBA record with his 10th consecutive triple-double; the Thunder have gone 9-1 during that run.
The rhythm Oklahoma City has found wouldn’t be possible without the space Westbrook has ceded to allow George to step forward or the relationship the pair has builtsince George’s arrival in the summer of 2017. Westbrook’s true shooting percentage might still be ugly, but what he’s helped foster is anything but: The guard’s increased deference has allowed Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson to find their footing and expand their games, helped Steven Adams cement himself as an indispensable two-way bulldozer, given Dennis Schröder and Nerlens Noel a second act to their careers, and made the Thunder the single most dangerous Western threat to the two-time-defending-champion Warriors.
As much as Westbrook and the rest of Oklahoma City’s roster have contributed to a 37-19 record and the league’s fifth-best net rating, though, it has become inarguable that George is the piece around which the Thunder orbit. To wit: They’ve played nearly 1,200 possessions this season with George on the court and with Westbrook off of it, according to Cleaning the Glass. In those minutes, the Thunder have thumped opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. In just over 500 possessions of Russ-but-no-PG floor time? They’re minus-7.5 points-per-100. That site recently introduced an on-court/off-court efficiency leaderboard, intended as a way to identify which players have the biggest statistical impact on how their teams perform. No. 1 on that list? Paul George.
That’s just one way of measuring value, but it’s heartening to see the numbers align with the eye test in this case: All season long, it’s felt like George has been making a bigger, more explosive, and more consistent difference than ever before. What he’s doing now is special, undeniable; whether you call it Most Valuable or not, it’s been remarkable to watch George grow into something beyond even the version of the player we dreamed he might be.