Like a masked bandit sliding through a laser security system with intent to pilfer a priceless diamond, the Oklahoma City Thunder have weaved their way through the dangerous Western Conference undetected this season. With an impressive 18-10 record, they currently hold the third best record in the West.
The man who gets what little headlines OKC garner is of course former MVP Russell Westbrook. However, his amigo Paul George has been the architect of their early season triumphs. After a successful start to his Thunder career, George has looked even more comfortable in his second go-around.
Just over a quarter of the way through the season, PG13 is averaging 24.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Even while posting his best ever points per game totals, he is still managing to stay efficient, connecting on 44.3 percent on his field goals and 37.7 percent of his 3-point shots.
Even with an offensive arsenal and defensive savvy that could easily be construed as that of a top 10 player, Paul George has flown under the radar this season. He is barely spoken about in the national media, despite taking the reins of his high-caliber squad. There is nothing empty about his numbers either, the 28-year-old is straight up dominant.
With Russell Westbrook dealing with multiple nagging injuries, as well as adjusting his game to better suit his teammates’ needs, George is seeing more time with the ball in his hands. He has increased his usage rate to 27.4 percent from 24.7 percent last season, leading to an increased confidence and sustenance in pick-and-roll and isolation plays.
Instead of being relegated to a slashing and spot-up shooting role, the five-time All-Star has been allowed to operate the way a star like himself should. Standing at 6-foot-9 and possessing superb ball-handling skills, George is deadly when he gets a head full of steam going toward the rim. Whether it’s coming around picks or just taking his defender one on one, George coming downhill on drives is like a lion hunting down a gazelle.
There are 56 players who have attempted over 200 drives so far this season. Of those 56, George ranks 6th in field goal percentage, hitting on a searing 55.6 percent his shots. He isn’t going to blow by defenders with pure speed like his triple-double gathering teammate, but he uses nifty dribbling, pump-fakes and an underrated strength to give interior defenders hell:
With his ability to take the ball to the cup, it makes life even easier for George to get open for long-range shots. Pushing up on him and trying to deny jumpers is a death sentence for defenders who aren’t trying to be made to look silly. So, as a result of that fear, they back off just enough to get punished. That molecule of space is all George needs to get his pretty-looking shot off. Of players jacking up two or more 3-pointers per game, only Eric Bledsoe, Steph Curry and LeBron James hit at a better clip than Paul George’s 42.6 percent on pull-up triples.
Since he made his name in Indiana with a Pacers squad that pushed LeBron to his limits in the Eastern Conference, George has been a threat with the ball in his mitts. This year though, he has taken his on-ball game to another level. An elite off-ball mover and catch-and-shoot shot-maker. When he is destroying teams off the bounce the overlooked superstar is one of the toughest assignments the league has to offer.
On the other end of the court, George is just as menacing for opponents, perhaps even more. He has consistently been one of the NBA’s most terrorizing perimeter defenders, and he hasn’t experienced any drop off this season with an increased offensive role. Instead of saving energy defensively like some offensive stars do, George has maintained an elite level of energy on the side of the floor where energy and effort reigns supreme.
He ranks third in deflections and first in loose balls recovered per outing so far. His 2.1 steals a night are tied for the second best mark in the league, and his 2.71 defensive real plus-minus rating is second only to Robert Covington among all shooting guards and small forwards. When you comb through those statistics, it’s no stretch to assume George is right in the thick of the Defensive Player of the Year conversations.
With his ability to power through screens like a rabid hound chasing a feed, and a tendency to get a disrupting hand into plays, George makes life a living nightmare for ball-handlers. When he is roaming around off the ball, he is just as effective, too. Never a victim of zoning out, the defensive master is ready to pick off an errant pass or slide into a helping position to make a stop for 48 minutes a night:
There are very few players that can impact a game the way Paul George does on both ends. The fact that he is a demonic defender allows him to have the occasional off-night on offense, or vice-versa. However, those lulls are coming few and far between this season.
A rare talent, it’s been refreshing to see George get back to and beyond the level of play he was demonstrating before his freak leg break in 2014. Now all that’s left for his 2018-19 résumé is for the wider NBA community to click on to just how amazing he has been. If he keeps this up, it won’t take long.