Nearly five years ago, a 23-year-old Paul George stood eye-to-eye with, arguably, the greatest force in basketball history. And didn’t blink.
In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James was at the apex of his career, having completed one of the five most dominant individuals seasons ever. Paul George was a rising star who’d become the Indiana Pacers’ primary option by default.
There they were in South Beach, 10 seconds left in the third quarter of Game 2. George, looking to build momentum, worked on an island against LeBron; who was still in his prime as a disruptive defensive force.
With the clock winding down, George dribbled between the legs left, then right. Both seemingly in slow motion.
George lowered his body to get parallel with LeBron’s defensive stance, slowly approaching the King—ready to make a name for himself.
James forced him left, giving a slight opening. George accepted the challenge, bursting off his left foot to race to the rim. As Chris “Birdman” Andersen rotates into help position, neither he or James are aware of George’s intentions.
He’s trying to send a message.
Taking off from a foot behind the restricted area, George launches himself towards Andersen. With LeBron simply looking up at the carnage like a person admiring fireworks, George punches home one of the filthiest dunks of his career.
The Birdman species went from endangered to extinct.
James, as always, answered.
When the ball dropped through the net, James removed his mouthpiece, smiled, and said something to George, who sunk his head after giving up the bucket.
Walking back to the bench, James called George over again. There were no words. Just a quick hand slap, with 12 minutes to go in a close, critical game.
It wasn't the passing of a torch. James was 28, pursuing his second championship.
But, it was something we've rarely seen in his career — an immediate acknowledgement of what could be his next true rival. It was the realization that George should be next.
Failure to launch
Five years later, what exactly has happened?
Instead of fulfilling what most people expected, George never took the leap. A gruesome lower leg injury in the summer of 2014 didn't help the process, forcing him to miss nearly seven months of action while rehabbing a fractured tibia and fibula. It cut the Pacers' run short under Frank Vogel, since they missed the playoffs in 2015 and key members of the core started to split.
When George returned at full strength in Oct. 2015, it's not like he was ruined by the injury. His recovery made him even deadlier as a shooter, setting career-highs in scoring during his final two years in Indiana.
However, his status as a player never changed. He was still trying to break through, eventually becoming stuck in the NBA's zone of mediocrity. He fit the mold of a high-scoring star on a passable and undistinguished team — the type of talent perpetually glossed over when ranking the cream of the crop.
While only missing 15 games in two years, George led the Pacers to back-to-back seventh seeds in a stale Eastern Conference. When it's been a couple years since you've made noise on a contending squad, perception changes a bit.
All of a sudden, it hard to determine where George stands among the NBA's most impactful players. In the two years since his injury, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler all lifted their public perception in terms of the NBA's hierarchy.
It's not even crazy to suggest he fell into the same tier as Klay Thompson, Gordon Hayward, and Draymond Green — three players that George probably edges in individual skill and athleticism, but whose impact for a team are arguably greater.
George went from believing he could compete with LeBron for MVP and Finals appearances, to clawing for a chance at the playoffs.
But, he's always known victories are the lone factor that would determine his place among his counterparts. I remember being in Indianapolis before training camp in 2015. With a confident look in his eyes but realistic tone in his voice, he knew what it took to become recognized as an MVP candidate. “I've gotta win,” he said. “It's that simple. I've gotta win.”
Is that why he forced his way out of Indiana, two years later?
It appears that way. After all, George is one of the most difficult players to get a read on. All throughout the 2016-17 season, he stood in front of the local media, expressing his love for the city, the franchise, and his role as the team's leader. That even extended past the trade deadline, when his name was floated around in rumors. He had public appearances in the city, explaining his desire to stay.
Once the season ended, his change of heart led him to ask for a trade.
Of course, we'll never know if his intention was to expedite the path to Los Angeles, which ultimately didn't happen. But is it possible he realized he can't be the only star on a title contender?
For better or worse, the world was set to find out if all he needed was another alpha. When he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it immediately paired him with a top 10 player, something he never had prior to this season.
On the other hand, it also meant he wouldn't lead his team in usage, which would be a whole different experience than what he was used to. So many questions surrounded the reloaded Thunder once they added Carmelo Anthony later in the summer.
How would Westbrook, who set the NBA record with a 41.7 percent usage rating during his MVP run, adapt to playing with two guys who prefer to create offense for themselves? How dominant could OKC be right from the start, with only a year to convince George to stay.
Well, it's been muddy.
At BBALLBREAKDOWN, I projected the Thunder to win 56 games with a +5.9 point differential. Conversely, the Pacers landed at 27 wins in our projection, with a -5.1 differential.
In just six months, the impact and value of George is more of a question than it was before. Oklahoma City sits at 45-33, on pace for 47 wins and have only outscored its opponents by 3.1 points per game. Last year, the Thunder won 47 with the most-used lineup consisting of Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Steven Adams.
Indiana is in a better place. With a faster, more cohesive offense and budding star in Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are 46-31 and on pace for 49 wins, which would exceed last year's total by seven.
A different approach?
Playing alongside Westbrook, George hasn't necessarily transformed into a different player. However, he has altered a few things regarding his areas of focus. The raw production obviously dipped, but the advanced outlook suggests he's a bit more conducive to OKC's wins than he was for the Pacers last year:
With the Thunder, 44.7 percent of George's field goal attempts have come from three-point range — far greater than the 36.8 percent proportion last year. He's still not turning the ball over much, which has always served as one of his strongest traits.
Although it was expected that everyone's usage would drop when you put George, Westbrook, and Anthony on the same team, one could argue they still haven't found the perfect balance.
Anthony is still around the same amount of touches per game as George, despite having the worst year of his career. George should be a lot closer to Westbrook in both touches and usage than he is to Anthony, and it shouldn't be a conversation.
George started the season blistering hot from the perimeter while taking threes at the highest rate of his career. At one point, he was connecting on over 43 percent of his 7.5 attempts per game. That has dropped, but he's still a part of insanely elite company. Per Basketball-Reference, only six different players have attempted at least 7.5 threes per game while making 40 percent or better:
What's astounding: He's kept this efficiency despite the horrific slump since the All-Star break. In the last 18 games, George is 35-of-122 (28.7 percent) from deep. It just puts in perspective how much of a lift he was giving OKC's offense in the beginning.
Not everything has gone smoothly, though. Let's glance at his shooting splits from the main areas on the floor:
Clearly, the major discrepency is in the restricted area and mid-range scoring. George is shooting a career-high percentage at the rim, but wildly suffering on his typical mid-range pull-ups off the screen-roll. Somehow, he went from 48.4 percent on mid-range jumpers (by far the best of his career), down to one of his worst seasons on long twos.
Daryl Morey would be in love with this version of George, however. He's getting to the rim with more frequency — 19.6 percent of his shots compared to 13 percent last year. His mid-range frequency has dropped from 28.3 percent of his field goals down to 15 percent. It's predominantly threes, layups/floaters, and free throws now for George.
How OKC gets George involved
When they do entertain a structured offense, the Thunder tend to use a set labeled “Hawk” to generate shots for George. It can either form into George catching the ball off double-staggered screens for a triple, or a ball reversal to set up simple George-Adams pick and roll action.
Here, I broke down a multitude of results that Oklahoma City finds through the Hawk set:
It's more appropriate to call it a series, since there's numerous variations they can turn to in Hawk. While the most popular is a catch-and-shoot three off the weak side, it does allow space for Anthony to screen for Westbrook and either roll to the rim, or pop for a jumper. Another option is Westbrook penetrating the lane once George makes his weak side cut, since the defense turns its attention to the off-ball action.
Predictably, George playing as a spacer for Westbrook and receiving screens from Adams has increased his efficiency. As Jimmy Butler candidly noted earlier this season about Adams, “That motherf—er is strong. Like, I'm serious.”
When Adams makes contact on those off-ball screens detailed above, George has more freedom to shoot. George has an effective field goal percentage of 56.8 percent this year when shooting off a screen, per Synergy. That's slightly higher than Klay Thompson's 56.6 percent, albeit on nearly half the volume.
The Thunder were so ridiculously dependent on Westbrook during his MVP campaign, he still absorbs most defenders in clutch moments because they know his tendencies. Theoretically, this gives Donovan the option to run inbound plays for George, and there's hardly a better screener than Adams. In sideline out-of-bounds situations, sometimes they like to place George at the elbow in a HORNS set, with him cutting to the basket and then dashing up toward the top of the key:
If Adams makes hard contact on the pin-down screen — and his man doesn't switch onto George — it clears the way for a good three-point look.
It can also be very simple in the halfcourt, with little movement involved. One underrated aspect of his shooting skill-set is what I like to call the “quick relocation.” Thompson and other lethal shooters have mastered this. When they're about to catch the ball and have a stout screener helping them, great shooters like to stunt toward the ball, but use their footwork to quickly side-step (or backpedal) into open space:
This was a half-hearted screen by Adams, but he's large enough to make a difference when defenders duck under. The subtle relocation by the shooter is a small detail, but it's effective because it gets the defender guessing.
Going under screens on a shooter this good, even during a dreadful slump, doesn't seem wise:
George scores 1.13 points per possession when catching after an off-ball screen, which is the seventh-most efficient mark of all players (29) to finish at least 100 of these possessions. It's not quite at the level of Kevin Durant (1.23) or Stephen Curry (1.26), but it's in the same neighborhood as Kyrie Irving (1.15), considering George can attack the basket after an off-ball screen and get to the foul line.
Although he's had more success shooting off the catch than last year, he's not getting the same dosage. Surprisingly, Indiana ran him off more actions without the ball than OKC is this year — 19 percent of his offensive possessions in Indiana versus roughly 14 percent in OKC.
For as much criticism Westbrook takes for his shot selection and high-usage style, even his biggest naysayers have to admit his aggressiveness opens key opportunities for his teammates. It may not be as often as folks would like, especially down the stretch of close games when he likes to get trigger-happy, but he knows how to pick apart (poor) defenses and make timely passes.
This is evident through the odd amount of gravity he's developed in the post. Yes, in the post!
Westbrook is 28th in raw post-up volume this year, recording over 130 possessions. Let's be clear — he's not exactly the best scorer down there, shooting 40.8 percent. However, it helps the Thunder's offense if defenders overreact to him posting up opposing point guards. He's brawny enough to get deep position in most matchups, which causes teams to send additional help.
With more perimeter shooting this year compared to last, he's able to scan the floor — whether it's on the strong or weak side — and make the defense pay for over-helping. George is usually a beneficiary:
Additionally, in what's becoming a major trend around the league, OKC is no stranger to Spain pick-and-rolls. This is where two players engage in a traditional pick-and-roll at the three-point line, with a third teammate setting a backscreen on the roll-man's defender. That extra player can either hold the screen to open the lane for his teammates, or quickly flare out to the perimeter. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense to pick their poison.
The Thunder have the personnel to run deadly Spain pick-and-rolls, since Adams has perfected his screens for Westbrook, and George can be the extra backscreener. George has received a ton of shots from this when teams decide to clamp down on Westbrook:
Even when opponents sniff it out, OKC has the ability to modify it a few different ways, as explained in the clip. It all comes down to the fundamentals of screening, and making sure they get strong contact.
There's a form of mutualism involved here, too. Westbrook has went through his ups and downs shooting-wise this season, but having George occupy defenders has undoubtedly helped him create room to finish. He's shooting 50 percent on his 6.2 drives per game this year, compared to just 44.4 percent on the same volume last season with limited shooting around him.
With George running the second unit as the lone starter — these lineups do not perform well — it's still fun to see teammates screen for him off-ball, and force an opposing big to guard this dribble hand-off set:
In transition, he's turned into more of a trailer than the primary pusher. But don't let his new style fool you. George remains a tough cover with a live dribble, largely because of his unpredictability:
His hesitation moves on the break allow him to get to the paint at will, and he recognizes when to attack a big with his change of direction.
The benefit of having Westbrook as your point guard is that you won't have to exert as much energy offensively because of how much he attacks on his own.
The negative of having Westbrook as your point guard is you may have to help cover up his defensive mistakes, or laziness.
Luckily for Oklahoma City, George has always taken pride in being the best defensive player on the floor in majority of his matchups. It doesn't always mean he succeeded, as you could easily point to last year in Indiana. He wouldn't admit it, but his defensive effort was hit or miss for most of the season. It was too inconsistent until the tail end of the season and playoffs, and it's not a stretch to say he wasn't very valuable for Indiana's defense as a whole. The Pacers had about the same defensive rating with George on and off the floor.
This year, he has returned to the same level that earned him the lofty praise during the Frank Vogel era. He's had more energy, along with responsibility, to do so. When OKC's offense was in the gutter for the first portion of the season, they could at least rely on their ability to get stops. Now, we're definitely seeing that Andre Roberson was the biggest reason for it, but George still deserves credit — maybe not Defensive Player of the Year consideration, but a worthy applause.
Steals are only a tiny fraction of defensive ability, to be clear. But most of the time with George, it's the manner in which he gets his steals that show off his intelligence as a defender. Most of his “gambles” don't come back to bite the team. There are very few defenders who possess his combination of anticipation, length, and quick hands:
Another interesting part of his defensive repertoire is how often he gets stops in isolation situations. According to NBA.com, 68 players have finished at least 60 possessions this season as an isolation defender. George ranks fifth in fewest points per possession allowed (0.73) when he's defending an iso.
Since Roberson's injury on Jan. 27, the Thunder are hovering around league average in defensive rating. Without George to make things difficult for opposing wings (and often guards), it wouldn't be realistic to see them in the playoff hunt. Some believe the debate over the top “two way players” is completely stupid. But if you enjoy it, George has certainly belonged in the top tier of that discussion.
Will this be a one-year experiment?
George's contract expires at the end of the season, with the Lakers set to roll out a max contract for George to return home. That is, if they fail to land LeBron James first. Or who knows, both of them could plan their moves together.
Presti lost the second-best player in the world — and best all-around scorer ever — in 2016 … for nothing. The franchise banked on Kevin Durant re-signing once they came one win from advancing to the Finals. That still wasn't enough. Durant walked. It was five years after they traded James Harden.
At the trade deadline in February, Presti didn't even think twice about moving George. They were 31-25 at the time, but a potential playoff run seemed to be worth the risk. They had just trounced the Warriors by 20 points — in Oracle Arena — two days prior. There was no way George was on the market.
But will Presti get burned again?
It isn't too lovely that Oklahoma City is in danger of missing the postseason, or at least falling to the bottom two seeds. It would equal a matchup with the Rockets or Warriors, inevitably ending in a first round disaster.
It can't be ideal for George that OKC is only 22-21 in games decided in “clutch” time. You know what else can't be too enticing? The fact that Anthony has taken 73 shots in the clutch this year, compared to George's 52. Meanwhile, Westbrook is sitting high at 155. George is the only one shooting over 35 percent from three in the clutch … yet he has the lowest volume.
If they get eliminated in the first round, what incentive does he have to stay? He grew up an hour from Staples Center in Palmdale, California, and the Lakers may finish with 36 or 37 wins this season. If LeBron is out of the equation, it would still create a realistic lineup of George, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle if the Lakers' front office decides to pay him in restricted free agency.
That's a lot more shots, sunshine, youth, and glamour. It's comparable money, arguably better coaching, and almost a playoff team.
To some degree, we've seen George embrace a new role in a destination he didn't see coming.
In three short months, we'll find out if this was just one bumpy detour on his route back home.