The hottest trend of 2018 will be reliving 2017’s memes, if Paul George’s conspicuous “distracted boyfriend” reenactment with the Lakers organization this week is any indication. Given how many micro-sagas the Thunder have had to deal with in the past 39 games, it’s easy to lose track of where Oklahoma City actually stands. A recent six-game win streak has gilded its record, but it doesn’t make up for lost time. The media circus surrounding the Thunder’s trip to Los Angeles made that far too clear.
Before Wednesday’s game between the Thunder and Lakers, ESPN reported that the NBA found no evidence of tampering between Paul George and his former Pacers associate head coach (and current Lakers associate head coach), Brian Shaw. Tampering was already discovered between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, over the summer, resulting in a $500,000 fine levied by the NBA. Before the game, George heaped praise on Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball and was given a rousing ovation from the Staples Center crowd during pregame intros. “It was awesome,” George said after the game. “For one, just being home, being in front of friends, family, and then just the respect, the love, the recruitment. It was awesome. It was awesome to get that love.”
George is transparent about his L.A. dreaming to an almost disconcerting degree, though it’s fair to wonder how much differently his stoking the fire would be construed if the Thunder were cementing a top-three seed in the West and not on pace to repeat their record from last season, a campaign with 35 regular-season losses and an early playoff exit at the hands of the Rockets. George told reporters that he’ll be eyeing trajectories this summer, not necessarily get-ring-quick schemes. Beyond their record, and beyond the early doom and gloom of the season, it seems the Thunder have stabilized. They’re currently showing signs of upward progression: They are a top-five defense in the league, and over the past 10 games have by far the highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 117.2 points per 100 possessions, more than four points better than the second-place Timberwolves, who are clicking on similar terms.
Should this caliber of production hold for the rest of the season, maybe we look back on this moment as nothing more than a player expressing pride in his home. But for the fan who sat courtside in a custom-made Lakers jersey with George’s name on the back, for the fans who stayed and applauded the Thunder star after the game as he walked toward the tunnel—it’s all a reminder that the Thunder are auditioning for their future with the second-most coveted free agent of 2018.
If Tony Snell is dimensionally the league’s most average player, George is the Vitruvian NBA superstar: The template of a modern player who can assume the responsibilities of three different positions, shoot 3s both pulling up and from a standstill, and play prideful defense and switch on any assignment. George’s half-season with the Thunder has so far affirmed that his versatility wasn’t just a convenient intellectual exercise for the offseason—he is every bit as plug-and-play as his game suggests. “I can play in any offense and play off any player,” he told reporters this week. The seamlessness with which he moves through different roles makes him singular in the league, though it comes at a stylistic expense. That isn’t to say he doesn’t play the game beautifully, it’s just that his game lacks the kind of idiosyncratic markers that define the league’s biggest stars. You’ll always see someone else in his game.
Watch enough of his pullups, and it’s stunning how his hang, elevation, and release point echo Tracy McGrady’s signature form. Watch enough of his defensive sequences—the way his body juts out and jabs at his opponent, arms always within striking distance—and they’ll begin to blur with Andre Iguodala’s virtuosic, Finals MVP–winning performance in 2015. At his core, George is a defender; his first truly notable moment as a rookie came during the Pacers-Bulls first-round series in 2011, when Frank Vogel threw the kitchen sink at Derrick Rose, giving George a crack at guarding the significantly smaller offensive player. The Pacers lost the series in five games, but it was a peek at what was to come. From those brief instances, we saw glimpses of what would evolve into one of the most complete all-around skill sets in the league. On defense, his legs splay wide, skating up and around his opponent’s footwork. Instead of taking initiative, he guides his opponent into showing his hand. George achieves a mirrored ballet when driving to the rim. Even his offensive playmaking feels rooted in defensive principle.
But it’s that mind-set that might have capped his ability to be the Kobe Bryant facsimile that every kid in the L.A. area aspires to be. He was caught between temperaments. As a lead option, he was too choosy to be truly prolific, but not accurate enough to be efficient. As a secondary option, the limitations he faced at the high end of stardom become virtues. Relieved of the pressure of creating his own shot on every possession, George has settled into being an elite spot-up shooter: He’s attempting almost six catch-and-shoot 3s per game and hitting them at a 42.6 percent clip, which is J.J. Redick levels of accuracy. Attuning himself to the rhythms of an off-ball shotmaker was easy; recapturing his spark as an on-ball creator with Russell Westbrook dominating the ball and Carmelo Anthony carving out some time on the elbows was much more difficult. George is shooting career-high percentages around the basket and from the 3-point line—the zones most likely to be assisted from—but has seen considerable dips in field goal percentage at every midrange zone. He’s effectively turned himself into the best 3-and-D specialist in the league.
But as Westbrook has put an end to his game of deference (the man is averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists in the past 10 games), so, too, has George. George is averaging 27.2 points on 61.5 percent shooting and 58.7 percent from 3 in six games since December 23, despite his usage rate remaining stagnant. He remains one of the best defensive wings in the league; George is a top-five small forward in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, whose positional rankings include LeBron James, who spends most of his minutes at power forward. George was already having an excellent season in spite of his slump for most of the season; his almost superhuman efficiency since the holidays only raises the baseline for the Thunder.
But this week wasn’t about George’s performance, it was about what he represented. It was about fate, hope, and a brighter future. It was a stifling climate, and L.A. fans were thirsty. So, the Thunder offered a mirage.
With 9:31 remaining in a 37-point Lakers evisceration at the hands of the Thunder, George was summoned to the court once more for some reason, flanked by Raymond Felton, Josh Huestis, Patrick Patterson, and Jerami Grant. It felt like a taunt. Billy Donovan, for a moment, was derelict in his duty to protect his stars, trotting out a sliding-doors vision for the fans at Staples Center—a look at what the Lakers, currently only a game from owning the worst record in the NBA, might look like with George leading a lineup of the reserve-level players. For some Lakers fans, it probably looked like a worst-case scenario: George isn’t even the presumed no. 1 on the agenda; he’s meant to be the cherry on top.
George’s talent makes sense in almost every context. An ideal NBA would clone George 30 times over. But without that technology, we’re left with whatever decision he makes come July. The Lakers dream remains a distinct possibility, but there are an endless list of moving parts. It may be easy to envision George on any team, but it’s much more difficult to imagine what it will take for teams to make themselves appealing enough to secure his services.