Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied
At some point, what you are becoming and who you are meet. Sometimes you decide the time and place of that meeting; most often, you do not. Rarely is it easy, a Craigslist handoff that satisfies both parties over a diner coffee at some halfway point. Someone is usually coming away sour. Given that who you are now, in the present, has the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonably safe to say that who you are looks at who you were and wonders how, exactly, you are standing here, right now, like this.
Who is Paul George, now? I can tell you – anybody who watched the NBA at the beginning of the last decade can tell you – who Paul George was in 2014, which was a would-be dominant force meant to supplement the LeBron-stopping powers of Roy Hibbert and the rest of his merry band in Indiana.
Following Tuesday night’s Game 7 loss against the Denver Nuggets, however, in a series George’s current team, the Los Angeles Clippers, many observers heavily favored to win and one in which those very Clippers were up 3-1, the question becomes much more hazy: who is Paul George, and what is he going to be in terms of championship contention in the forthcoming NBA?
We accepted Paul George into our hearts as a young two-way hero for the Indiana Pacers at a time when they were the foremost challengers, at least in-conference, to the most hated team in the NBA at the time, the Miami Heat. Alongside Hibbert and the likes of Lance Stephenson, David West and George Hill – the latter of which was, ironically, traded for Kawhi Leonard on draft night in 2011 – Paul George ignited our hearts with his gutsy-yet-fluid offense, the piano in what was otherwise Frank Vogel’s STOMP revival.
In two consecutive postseasons between 2013 and 2014, George and the Pacers had at least a share of the series lead over the Heatles, confounding and disrupting prime Heat LeBron in a way that only the Dirk-led Mavericks had before and the baloncesto bonito Spurs would after. Defensive mismatches and a direct portal to a then-stalwart in Hibbert in the middle clashed with the stylish Heat, causing the only real doubts about East supremacy during LeBron’s time in South Beach.
Then, LeBron went back to Cleveland to form a younger Big Three, and George gruesomely broke his leg during a stint with Team USA. A pair of short-lived playoff appearances after he recovered, George landed in Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. A pair of playoff appearances there, as well as an expensive contract extension and an ill-fated nickname, and George has worked his way to southern California, his home turf, playing for a team which gave up most of the next seven years of its future in order to secure his services.
At this point, it seems objectively fair to ask, the surrounding blogosphere and his own feelings about sticking around Los Angeles notwithstanding: is Paul George a journeyman All-Star? Or, perhaps more importantly, is he a key player that actually helps a team win its most important games?
Before we go further, a few notes: first, Paul George is an incredible, otherworldly basketball player, a multiple-time All-Star across both conferences and exactly the kind of player on both ends that any team needs to win.
Second, it isn’t his fault the Clippers gave up as much as they did to get him, or that they prioritized a front-loaded roster. It also isn’t his fault that that roster, while well-rounded to the point of having two Sixth Man of the Year candidates on its bench, rested on its laurels and relied on George and Leonard exclusively to generate anything resembling offense when the going got tough against Denver, a team that has blossomed into something truly special over the course of these playoffs.
Finally, both Leonard and Doc Rivers deserve some blame as well. While he is an accomplished coach with a title under his belt, Rivers has perhaps unwittingly been the NBA’s Bernard Montgomery for much of the last twelve years. Leonard’s Monstar-like disappearance in Game 7, on the other hand, was most stupefying, as he has had a claw in ending two generational dynastic-type runs in the past decade.
Without question, Paul George is someone you want on your basketball team. Playoff P, however, may not be, and his recent vintage – whom some have dubbed “Pandemic P” – is even a worse reflection. George’s teams have faced sixteen instances of “win or go home” games; in them, his teams are 7-9.
In those games, he ends up being mostly fine, averaging right around his career numbers in raw counting stats as well as shooting and in advanced metrics. When he checks out, though, it’s a different story – Game 7 on Tuesday night was among the worst offenders, culminating in the now oft-circulated stat that the Clippers traded more draft picks or rights to draft picks (five) than George made field goals in Game 7 (four).
In win or go home losses, George’s averages tumble almost across the board. His shooting falls, and his turnovers increase. He scores fewer points and is less disruptive in passing lanes on defense. He is a slightly better rebounder than in his career, and he picks up his blocks a bit, but otherwise, he’s a shell of himself.
His advanced stats paint an even worse picture: his true shooting percentage falls over ten percentage points, and his effective field goal percentage falls nearly the same. He corrals slightly more offensive rebounds and has a slightly higher block rate, but his overall rebound, assist and steals percentages all fall, as does his usage rate. His turnover rate soars as compared to his regular season numbers. Worst of all: his net rating, an egregious -29 in win or go home losses.
Again, there are plenty of externalities involved, and both the total win or go home games and win or go home losses are small sample sizes, especially as compared to his regular season totals. The straws are a bit limited when George’s team has its back to the wall, but he has had All-Star teammates at each of his stops so far, which is the formula for winning a title, or at least consistently getting past the second round of the playoffs.
There isn’t a team in the NBA that wouldn’t want Paul George among its ranks. But when George himself is downplaying Denver’s long-term plan three years ahead of losing to them, and then calling a series-winning shot by Damian Lillard “a bad shot,” and then saying this year’s Clippers weren’t a title-or-bust team after saying that very team expected to win it all, it’s hard to take George’s play in tight situations at face value.
The Clippers are going to run it back, more or less as-is, next season, whenever and however that happens. They don’t have the financial flexibility to do anything else. Maybe the fissures that have revealed themselves postmortem in Los Angeles are just the manifestations of frustrated players right after being eliminated. Maybe we’re right back here next year, at the same time in the league’s calendar, staring down the free agencies of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Who is Paul George, and what is he as compared to what we thought he could be in the midst of back-to-back conference finals runs in 2014? He is almost inarguably a better, more well-rounded player than he was pre-injury, which cannot be overlooked.
He has rewritten perceptions about him before, and he has the power to do so again. Whether that means developing some other part of his game in order to better complement Kawhi Leonard and the rest, taking a backseat and joining up with some other premier star down the line at another stop or turning Playoff P into an exclamation point rather than a punchline, only he can truly know now. The rest of us will know soon enough.
 Vogel, of course, is the current head coach of the Western Conference Finals-bound Los Angeles Lakers