Uh-oh. Paul George is the Clippers' best player.
Last night, the Clippers lost to a Nuggets team missing its three best players playing on a road back-to-back, and it reinforced what I’ve been thinking all season: Paul George is the Clippers’ best player, and if that remains true, the Clippers are screwed.
George is a fascinating character, as equally capable of thought-provoking musings and jaw-dropping dunks as foot-in-mouth gaffes and perplexing mistakes. And he’s spent a lot of time thinking — and talking! — about his ideal role on the Clippers.
To ESPN, at the start of last season: “I'm the two. Kawhi's the one, I'm the two. So that part we nipped in the bud. Like, there's no ego when it comes to that.”
On JJ Redick’s podcast a few months ago: “I haven’t won at any level. I haven’t won at high school, I haven’t won in college, I haven’t won in the NBA. What do I have to do to win? I have no shame in Kawhi’s one, I’m the two.”
These clips were lauded at the time, the sign of a great player accepting his optimal role. George has had plenty of success as the best player on a team, including some bitter battles against Miami when he was a young Pacer and a more recent run to the Western Conference Finals after Kawhi Leonard went down early in the playoffs. We’ve seen plenty of other players continue striving to be the alpha on teams with far less playoff success, so for George to show that self-awareness is rare.
But it’s no longer honest. For better or worse, George is the best guy on the Clippers, at least right now.
After the team traded for Harden, George reportedly offered to become a "glue guy" to help establish a clearer pecking order for the Clippers, but coach Ty Lue had enough of that approach after one passive game:
"You're not a glue guy!" Lue told George, in front of the team. "You're a f---ing bad motherf---er!"
That expletive-laden encouragement was enough to spark George, who has since averaged more than 25 points per game (even after last night’s six-point debacle against Denver).
Overall, George is having arguably the second-best season of his career, behind only the 2018-19 Oklahoma City campaign that ended with George earning a third-place MVP finish. He’s averaging 24.2 points on above-average 59.3% true shooting (which takes into account free throws) while leading the Clippers in points, shot attempts, free throw makes and attempts, usage, and steals. In the eight games since Ty Lue yelled at him, George has been a smidge behind point guard James Harden in touches per game with 66.8, nearly fifteen touches more than Kawhi Leonard despite a similar minutes load. George is the unquestioned leader of the offense.
You know what George looks like on offense: the slinky drives, the pull-up jumpers. He’s aggressively hunting threes when centers are too slow to step up. Even when they do, it’s usually not enough:
But while the on-ball stuff gets the highlights, George has long been one of the most underrated off-ball players in the league. He’s a willing screener and an active cutter, and the Clippers have a variety of packages to create chaos and get him the ball on the move:
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Immediately after the Harden trade, George was confined to spacing the court from the corners too often for my liking. But he’s been much more involved since the first few games. The chemistry with Harden is still developing, but Harden’s unique passing abilities should eventually level up George’s off-ball activity, such as on this terrific start-of-quarter play:
I love this little pet sequence the Clippers use to get George a designed duck-in on defenses looking for a cut to the three-point line:
Hat tip to Dallas writer Iztok Franko for noticing that the Clippers ran that exact same play two games in a row to start the fourth quarter, getting a bucket each time.
(Side note: the Clippers’ offense has shown a few flashes of creativity in the last few games, Denver excepted. The results haven’t always followed, but Lue needs to install more motion to revive a moribund, iso-heavy approach — and the players need to buy in.)
Turnovers have long been a George bugaboo — his handle has always been smooth, but his decision-making is a little loosey-goosey. Historically, nobody loves to split the pick-and-roll more, to often disastrous results. But the addition of Harden has clarified George’s role — with either Harden or Westbrook almost always on the floor, George doesn’t have to distribute as much and can focus on scoring. That’s resulted in fewer assists but also the second-lowest turnover rate of his career.
While only a quarter of his shots come at the rim, he’s converting at near-career-best rates. Neither his midrange nor his three-point percentages feel wildly unsustainable, but his overall efficiency has been boosted by turning one 18-footer into a 24-footer each game.
Defensively, George remains a monster. Watch as he harasses Tim Hardaway around a screen and then jabs at him like a boxer, forcing a retreat until the ball gets knocked out of bounds:
George is perennially a league leader in deflections, and his 3.3 per game are tied for fourth-most this year.
George’s elastic wingspan, active hands, and intelligence make him an ideal passing lane bandit. Here, he correctly identifies that his man, Devin Vassell, is cutting into a space already covered by Kawhi Leonard. So he hides in the paint like a lurking crocodile, just his nose showing above the water, until an unsuspecting Zach Collins passes the ball directly to him for an easy meal:
But despite all that, George's limits as an alpha dog are apparent. Although he doesn’t have the record-scratching stop-and-survey tendencies that Kawhi Leonard possesses, a frustrating number of possessions begin and end with George bludgeoning the ball to death:
George shoots just 37% from the field on possessions with 7+ dribbles, an ugly number. Distressingly, nearly a fifth of George’s shots fall in this group. The addition of Harden hasn’t decreased their frequency (although anecdotally, they appear more often when Harden and Kawhi are both riding pine, when George feels the urge to play more hero ball than he should).
George is a well-rounded and versatile scorer, but he’s not elite at any one play type. Synergy classifies him as “average” or “good” at spot-ups, in transition, coming off screens, and in isolation (the best players rate as “very good” or “excellent”). The one major area where Synergy says he excels, shooting out of the pick-and-roll, is artificially boosted by shooting 15-of-29 from deep on those plays. As we saw above, it’s a good shot for him, but it’s unlikely to fall more often than flipping tails as the season progresses.
When the jumper is splashing, George has always looked unstoppable. But it doesn’t hit quite enough for him to approach, say, Kevin Durant levels, and he doesn’t have anyone as talented as Devin Booker backing him up (or is it Durant backing up Booker now?). In other words, as good as George is (and he’s very good), he isn’t the level of scorer that the absolute best players need to be to lead their team to the promised land — at least without significant help.
Kawhi Leonard’s counting stats look fine (21 points per game on similar shooting splits as George), but that’s a significant drop-off from the scoring robot we’ve seen when healthy over the last few years. Something about Leonard still doesn’t look right. He carried the scoring burden against the Nuggets in lieu of George, but it took him 26 shots to get to 31 points, and they looked ungainly. He can’t get to his spots as easily as he once did — just 17% of his shots have come at the rim, the lowest number of his career by far. They’ve mostly been replaced by floater-range toughies.
While Kawhi’s jump-shooting numbers look fine on the surface, a jumper-only diet isn’t nutritious enough to survive on. Kawhi needs his physical burst back to redistribute his shot selection to something with a healthier balance.
Unfortunately, neither James Harden nor Russ Westbrook provides much more steadiness. Both still bring important things to the table: passing and shooting for Harden, pace for Westbrook. But Harden’s well past the point where he can be an elite force night in and night out, and Westbrook is essentially a high-usage energy guy when he comes off the bench.
It sucks to watch, because frankly, George is playing awesomely. He is likely the third-best second fiddle in the league, behind only whichever Suns star you think is the beta and Damian Lillard (and given the defensive discrepancies, I wouldn’t argue much if you took George over Lillard). George’s nits would be microscopic if Leonard were playing up to snuff. But number-one guys are always under a magnifying glass, so we have to focus more on what George can’t do as the number one than on what he can as the number two.
The Clippers aren’t buried. The recent insertion of Terance Mann for Russ Westbrook looks like a winning decision. Even after last night’s horrific showing, the Clips’ starting lineup of Harden/Mann/George/Leonard/Zubac is destroying opponents by +24 points per 100 possessions, an absurd number. The same lineup with Westbrook instead of Mann was getting outscored by a brain-melting -27 points per 100. That’s a hell of a swing — driven heavily by opponent three-point shooting variance, but still!
Kawhi has also started slow in the past and recovered just fine. He’s not always been a guy who bounces back from injury without missing a beat like Durant. It’s entirely possible he finds his legs and burst as the season progresses, just as it’s possible his legs explode yet again. Harden and Westbrook will settle into their roles, and the Clippers could make another move around the margins.
So, yeah, George as the number-one guy isn’t an ideal situation. Heck, Paul George isn’t even Paul George’s ideal alpha dog. But last night was a great example of where the Clippers are now: George put up one of the worst games of his career while going 2-for-13 from the field, and the Clippers subsequently lost to Point DeAndre Jordan. Leonard’s inefficient 31 points weren’t enough; the Clips only go as far as George can take them.
At his best, he’s somewhere around the 15th-best player in the league right now, give or take a few spots. Champions have formed around players of that caliber: the 2014 Spurs had a declining Tim Duncan and rising Leonard plus a strong supporting cast, the 2008 Celtics had a quartet of excellent but not top-five guys, and the 2004 Pistons arguably didn’t have a single superstar (I wouldn’t make that argument, but many do!). But all those teams had multiple guys around that range. Leonard hasn’t been anywhere close to this point, much less Harden or Westbrook.
PG is playing more than well enough to uphold his part of the bargain. But he’s been thrust into a role he isn’t suited for, and the Clippers may pay the price.
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