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Can Paul George Reward Kawhi and the Clippers’ Faith?

George might be the NBA’s best no. 2 option, but his teams have always come up short in the playoffs. Now everything is set for that narrative to end in Orlando.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Paul George’s reputation for putting his foot in his mouth is quickly catching up with his game. He called himself “Playoff P” in Oklahoma City, then flamed out in the first round in back-to-back years, re-signed there to complete “unfinished business” only to ask out a year later, and has repeatedly changed his story about why he wanted out of Indiana, most recently hinting it was because the team wouldn’t acquire Anthony Davis.

But George can shift the focus back to basketball when the NBA returns in Orlando at the end of the month. He is good enough to swing the balance of power in the league. Kawhi Leonard could have played anywhere and teamed up with anyone this offseason. He gambled both his future and the Clippers’ on George. Now his new costar has to reward the faith.

We haven’t seen what the two can do together at full strength. With George recovering from two offseason shoulder surgeries and Leonard sticking to a load management program, the two had a record of 17-7 in only 24 games together before the shutdown on March 11. George wasn’t quite himself, either, when he was on the floor, averaging 29.6 minutes per game in 42 overall games, the third fewest of his career.

The Clippers could be the big winners of the layoff because it gave their oft-injured stars some much-needed rest. Everyone knows what a healthy Kawhi can do in the playoffs. The questions are about his new running mate.

George has always had awe-inspiring talent. He is one of the biggest (6-foot-8 and 220 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) and most versatile guards in the league. He’s a six-time All-Star who became a legitimate MVP candidate for the Thunder last season, averaging 28.0 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.2 steals per game. But he didn’t look the same after injuring his shoulder in late February, an injury that may have contributed to a first-round loss to the Blazers.

Consistency is the one thing preventing him from being a top-five player. There have been plenty of nights in his career when George has been completely unguardable. He just hasn’t strung enough of them together. Despite being an elite outside shooter, he has never shot that well from the field. His career 2-point field goal percentage is 47.0, far behind players like Kevin Durant (53.2), Kawhi (53.4), and LeBron James (54.9). He doesn’t finish at the rim like those guys, and settles for more long 2s than he should.

George never got over the hump in six postseason appearances with the Pacers. They pushed the Heat to the brink twice, but the biggest skin on their wall was beating the 2012-13 Knicks. George’s two playoffs with the Thunder were all over the map. There were games where he looked like an all-time great, including two where he scored 36 points on 20 shots, but there were just as many where he didn’t show up.

Joe Ingles got in his head in their first-round loss to the Jazz in 2018, holding the star to five points on 2-of-16 shooting in the closeout game. And George was on the wrong end of the series-deciding shot in 2019, when Damian Lillard knocked down a deep pull-up 3 over him as time expired:

The Clippers are counting on George to do more with less. This is the first time in his career when he has clearly been the second banana. He was the undisputed best player in Indiana, while he gradually overtook Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. George no longer has to keep everyone else involved in the offense or create his own shot in crunch time. He can pick and choose his spots on both ends of the floor, going up against less talented defenders while playing on and off the ball, and taking turns guarding the ball with Kawhi.

There might not be a player better suited to being a no. 2 option. George checks every important box:

  1. 3-point shooting. He’s a knockdown shooter (39.4 percent on 8.6 attempts per game over the last three seasons) who can fire off movement (84th percentile leaguewide when coming off off-ball screens this season) with a quick release and a high launch point. He can’t be left open, and defenses have to track him all over the court. The hidden benefit of his shooting, beyond spacing the floor, is that it allows him to score without holding the ball. George is no. 33 in touches (51.6 per game) among the 36 players averaging more than 20 points per game this season.
  2. Playmaking. This might be the most underrated aspect of his game. George isn’t an elite passer, but he can make plays out of the pick-and-roll and find the open man when defenses collapse. He’s averaging 3.9 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game this season.
  3. Size and defensive versatility. George is elite at defending all four perimeter positions. He can pick up smaller guards full court and bang with bigger forwards in the paint. He can also fit into any defensive scheme, whether it’s chasing guards over screens and allowing his big men to hang back, or switching on pick-and-rolls.

Few players can do all of those things. Most who defend like George can’t shoot like him. And the ones who can aren’t as capable of running an offense. His ability to do everything is what makes him such a perfect fit in Los Angeles. He can take pressure off Kawhi on both ends of the floor while also being able to keep the offense humming without Leonard.

The way that George has been used since leaving Indiana puts him in unique company historically. In each of the past three seasons, he has been well above these four key statistical benchmarks: seven-plus 3-point attempts on 38% shooting, 1.0 steals, and 3.0 assists per game. No player 6-foot-7 or taller has ever done that before. That’s important because it shows that we’ve never seen anyone combine floor spacing, size, defense, and passing like him. Durant and Kawhi could probably shoot as many 3s as George in smaller roles, but they have always played closer to the basket.

George is essentially a hybrid of two of the greatest second options in NBA history: Klay Thompson and Scottie Pippen. George is one of the only players in the same ballpark as Klay as a shooter and one of the few with the same type of length and athleticism as Pippen. He’s just never gotten to play off someone like Steph Curry or Michael Jordan before this season with Kawhi.

The best way to see George’s value is to run through potential playoff matchups in the West. Two-way wings with his size don’t grow on trees. Denver doesn’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-6 on the perimeter. Oklahoma City is at its best with three-point-guard lineups. George towers over everyone in the Houston rotation. Even teams with perimeter size usually don’t have someone for Kawhi and George. Utah would need Ingles to work his magic on George again, while Dallas would be counting on Tim Hardaway Jr. to slow him down.

George looms even larger in a potential battle with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The biggest hole in their rotation is a lack of big wings. The only ones they have are LeBron and Kyle Kuzma, neither of whom excels at chasing shooters around screens.

But that gets back to the larger question with George. Just because he has the tools to win matchups doesn’t mean that he will do it. His inconsistency was on display in his two games against the Lakers this season. He had 17 points on 5-for-18 shooting on Christmas Day and 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting in March. No one knows which version of PG will show up in Orlando. Klay became a legend because he made shots when it mattered. George doesn’t have a Game 6 in Oklahoma City on his résumé. His most famous playoff moment is getting scored on.

George will need one to be worth the king’s ransom the Clippers gave up for him. There’s an alternative universe where Kawhi didn’t demand to play with him and the Clips still have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five future first-round picks. Given how much time George missed this season, that team might even have a better record while having the flexibility to trade for other stars down the line.

That flexibility is gone. The Clippers are locked into Kawhi and George, even though both can opt out of their contracts in 2021. Los Angeles has only one first-round pick until 2027 and little young talent left on its roster. The franchise sacrificed its future to bring George home and put him in the perfect situation to succeed. It’s on him to make it worth it.