Paul George is expected to make his regular-season debut with the Los Angeles Clippers in New Orleans on Thursday, and no player is more in need of a reintroduction.
George’s reputation requires constant recalibration. While some of that comes with the territory for a ringless superstar approaching the age of 30 —the magic number for when you stop having potential and start having heartburn—pinning down where George fits in the landscape of elite players has always been more difficult because the peaks and valleys of his career don’t follow any sort of expected trajectory.
Sophomores at Fresno State aren’t supposed to become lottery picks, win the Most Improved Player award, and stand toe-to-toe with all-time greats like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade before they’re 23 years old, and everything they’ve accomplished isn’t supposed to be threatened by crashing into a basket stanchion at a Team USA scrimmage shortly thereafter. Players aren’t supposed to stay in Oklahoma City as a free agent, and quickly eclipse one of the league’s brightest stars on the way to finishing third in the MVP race, and they aren’t supposed to get snuffed out in five games during the first round of the playoffs during the very same season.
George’s final season with the Thunder was his best, but it didn’t provide a whole lot of clarity. In his ninth season, George posted career highs in virtually every counting statistic and was the top-rated player by ESPN’s real plus-minus. Few guys consistently did more on both ends to help their team win, but the thought of him being the best player on a potential title team never sat right. Is he the type of guy who has no real holes but isn’t the best at any particular skill in the way Steph Curry or Kevin Durant or LeBron James is? It seemed like George was going to be stuck in the Scottie Pippen zone: universally appreciated as the best player you don’t want to have as your best player.
If that’s the case, the Clippers are hoping they’ve found Scottie his Michael. By teaming up with Kawhi Leonard, George can offer the kind of volume 3-point shooting that has escaped the Clippers through their first 10 games without him. The Clips are tied for 21st in 3-point attempts per game and are 27th in 3-point percentage, and now they’re expected to be without Landry Shamet, a 41 percent career 3-point shooter, for a large chunk of time due to a high ankle sprain. George’s ability to stretch the floor (38.6 percent from 3 last season) and create his own looks from deep will come right on time and provide in a way Leonard (28.6 percent from 3 this season) won’t. The pecking order offensively with Leonard will need to be worked out; George seems perfectly suited to be an electric, high-volume second fiddle (the Gibson Les Paul of fiddles!), but there will be nights when he’s the Clippers’ most dominant player on both ends, regardless of whose load is being managed.
The Clippers are currently sitting at 7-3 with wins over the Lakers, Jazz, and Raptors without the services of George, but it’s been an underwhelming start in a lot of ways. The Clippers are 19.9 points worse per 100 possessions defensively when Leonard is off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, so George’s stabilizing perimeter defense will be welcomed on a team that plays a lot of Lou Williams, a staunch believer that the best defense is a good offense.
To be fair, LouWill may be on to something. A team having three players who each average more than 20 points a game used to be kind of a big deal, but the Clippers practically have that already (Leonard averages 26.8 PPG, Williams 22.1, and Montrezl Harrell 18.4). And they have George, the league’s second-leading scorer last season, still waiting to get in on the action. Patrick Beverley could run point in his Timbs and it might not matter.
Of course, none of it really matters for George until the postseason. Leonard is a made man, but George has some playoff demons to put to bed and an objectively bad nickname (Playoff P) to live up to. The team he spurned in free agency two summers ago, the Los Angeles Lakers, may end up in his way at some point. Everything leading up to that point is glorified target practice. Jordan and Pippen used to hunt Toni Kukoc for sport. Pray for whoever ends up in the crosshairs of Leonard and George, the MVP candidate turned sidekick with something still left to prove.