Hierarchy doesn’t seem to be a concern for Oklahoma City. Winning has that effect. Russell Westbrook, the loyal, unquestioned face of the franchise since Kevin Durant’s departure, has taken a back seat this season to the man he convinced to stay, Paul George. Whose team it is matters less than who’s having the best game, and as of late, George has made every game his. In besting Milwaukee 118-112 on Sunday, George was the best player from start to finish. He had 21 points and five made 3-pointers in the first half alone, and he finished with 36 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
George is playing like a 3.0 iOS update of himself. George slowly established himself as an All-Star in his first four seasons in the NBA, averaging 15.3 points and 6.1 rebounds as his Indiana Pacers emerged as the biggest threat in the Eastern Conference to the Big Three Miami Heat. But a gruesome leg break in a Team USA exhibition kept him out of most of the 2014-15 season. Post-injury George averaged more points (22.9 over the next three seasons), but his career trajectory began to plateau. He was a consistent All-Star, but his production stopped short of elite status.
But this George has been a revelation—he has transcended from wealthy to the 1 percent in a matter of months. Maybe George hadn’t fully recovered from his injury until now. Maybe he needed last season to mesh with Westbrook. Whatever the reason, he’s playing on another level, averaging 27.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and four assists. He’s arrived—as evidenced by the fact that he earned a starting nod in this year’s All-Star Game over the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic.
No one is stealing James Harden’s MVP buzz during this stretch of games. Harden’s only competing with history right now: He’s hit 23 straight games of 30 points or more. George is, however, in the conversation, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry. Still, while George’s name might be on the list, someone had to come tell the bouncer to let him in. But even though that group may only be playing for second, George is slowly making his way to the head of the pack. On Sunday, he literally jumped past Giannis.
Thunder fans are used to going to war for their slighted players; there’s a fully staffed hive of OKC fans with their Twitter fingers ready to rebut anyone attacking Westbrook’s style of play. (Key search word alerts: “Russell Westbrook,” “Russ,” “Westbrick,” “3-point percentage,” “ruin,” “fourth quarter,” “not again.”) It’s been that way since Durant left in 2016. What’s different now is that fighting for George sometimes feels like admitting Westbrook’s shortcomings. The latter is in the midst of one of the lousiest shooting seasons of his career, and he’s the worst high-volume 3-point shooter in the league. And even though Russ appears to be taking a back seat to George, he will still shoot the Thunder out of games from time to time. Which becomes even more difficult to defend when he has a teammate next to him who’s one of the best high-volume 3-point shooters in the league.
Yet despite the disparity in production, there are no signs of a power struggle between the two. George made the shocking decision to stay in Oklahoma City last summer because of Westbrook; in turn, Westbrook has ceded some of his in-game territory to George. George is taking a hair more shots, playing slightly more minutes, and scoring five more points. Russ is still Russ—he had a 13-point triple-double on 5-for-20 shooting Sunday—but he’s playing in a way that doesn’t interrupt George from being his best self. That cohesion has brought out the best in the Thunder as a whole: The win over Milwaukee was OKC’s fifth straight, nudging the team to 31-18 overall, third best in the Western Conference. FiveThirtyEight has the Thunder pegged for 52 wins this season; in Westbrook’s MVP season, they finished with 47.
There is some irony in the lack of MVP chatter for George, since Westbrook’s MVP season became a daily debate over whether he did or did not deserve it. George can’t get much of one or the other. But no one is talking about what a mistake it was for him to re-sign with the Thunder, either.