Paul George looks reborn in Los Angeles, but he hasn’t changed all that much. He’s healthier than he was last season, when he was coming off two shoulder surgeries, but he’s still the same polarizing talent who gives baffling interviews and seems to have a unique ability to irritate opponents. The key to his hot start this season is that the Clippers now have a more George-friendly team. That was clear in their 112-107 win over the Suns on Sunday, when George—39 points on 15-of-24 shooting, 4 assists, and 2 steals—almost single-handedly beat one of the best teams in the West.
George, who just signed a four-year, $190 million extension, is averaging 25.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game, with career highs in field-goal percentage (50.8) and 3-point percentage (49.2) as well as assists (5.1). His strong play has balanced out a difficult start for Kawhi Leonard, who’s dealing with a facial injury (that’s forced him to wear a mask that looks like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Dr. Doom), to help the Clippers get off to a 5-2 start, tied for the West’s best record. Some of George’s shooting numbers will regress with time, but this is more than just a hot streak. New head coach Tyronn Lue’s system is making the All-Star’s life easier.
There has been a telling shift in the team’s offense. Lue has turned George into a primary ball handler at the expense of the mainstays from the Clippers’ previous era. Look at the change in the top 5 players in touches from last season:
Top 5 Clippers Players in Touches
|Paul George (65.0)||Kawhi Leonard (64.2)|
|Kawhi Leonard (60.8)||Lou Williams (61.9)|
|Serge Ibaka (43.0)||Paul George (52.3)|
|Patrick Beverley (41.1)||Patrick Beverley (52.1)|
|Nicolas Batum (40.6)||Montrezl Harrell (49.8)|
This roster fits better around Kawhi and George, whose integration was a struggle all season. The two stars were in and out of the lineup because of injuries, while the returning players never accepted the change in the pecking order. Doc Rivers was loyal to Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell, and kept them in roles that fit their games. But all that is out the window under Lue. Beverley is averaging the fewest shots (5.7 per game) he has since his rookie season, Williams is down to no. 6 on the team in touches (35.7), and Harrell is on the Lakers.
The new starting lineup with Ibaka and Batum has been a revelation. The unit is the runaway leader in net rating (plus-33.7 in 67 minutes) among lineups that have played at least 50 minutes. Ibaka gives the Clippers a new dimension as a stretch center who opens up the floor instead of shrinking it. Batum has been a new-age Boris Diaw, rediscovering his game on a contender after wasting away on a bad Charlotte team. He’s a ball-mover with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and an ideal 3-and-D wing (45.8 percent on 3.4 3-point attempts per game).
Look at the floor spacing that leads to an open George 3 in this sequence. Four Clippers are spread out around a Kawhi post-up, with Batum instantly swinging the ball to George after he receives a cross-court pass:
It’s not just on offense, either. Batum opens the game with difficult defensive matchups to keep George and Kawhi fresh. His top assignments so far this season include Devin Booker, CJ McCollum, D’Angelo Russell, and Jamal Murray. Ibaka, unlike Harrell or Ivica Zubac, can comfortably switch screens at the end of games, allowing George to use his ability to defend players at all five positions:
Showcasing George extends to his time with the second unit, where he has been part of an equally dominant lineup (plus-36.4 in 21 minutes) that puts him with three ball handlers in Williams, Luke Kennard, and Reggie Jackson, and a roll man in Zubac. Unlike last season, when George often was a bystander for Williams and Harrell, he now runs pick-and-rolls with Zubac. That group also takes advantage of George’s two-way ability by using him to guard the ball and allowing more offensive-minded perimeter players to hide. George defended Chris Paul and Devin Booker at different times on Sunday in those lineups.
The final change Lue has made is who George is attacking. Another benefit of giving him the ball with more shooting around him is that it allows him to hunt the weakest defender. George, an elite 6-foot-8 shooter who can play on and off the ball, is one of the most difficult covers in the NBA. It doesn’t matter who is guarding him when he’s hot. But it does matter when he’s cold. That’s what stood out in the Clippers’ first-round series against the Mavs last season, when George went through one of the worst shooting stretches of his career. He went 4-for-17 in their Game 2 loss, and took almost all his shots against the Mavs’ best defenders, instead of running pick-and-rolls at players like Luka Doncic and Trey Burke.
George is doing more matchup hunting this season. He uses screens in these sequences to go from facing Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder to Dario Saric and Langston Galloway, respectively. There was nothing the latter two could do:
George closed out the Suns in the final seconds Sunday with a pick-and-roll that allowed him to attack Deandre Ayton in space. He got into the lane and found Batum for an open 3:
Just about everything was difficult for the Clippers last season. Rivers was a stubborn coach who stuck to his guns and didn’t make enough adjustments. There was plenty of low-hanging fruit for Lue, who was their primary assistant last season, to pick once he moved over a spot on the bench. Lineup flexibility and star empowerment were the keys to his success in Cleveland, and he’s brought that same approach to Los Angeles. If the Clippers can stay healthy, they should only get better as the season goes along.
The big decision for Lue will be how to use Marcus Morris when he returns from a knee injury that has kept him out all season. Batum has been so good as a starter that it might make more sense to feature Morris and his more ball-dominant style on the second unit. The most intriguing lineup option is replacing Beverley with Morris, and playing five players 6-foot-7 or taller who can all spread the floor and guard multiple positions. This is a scarier Clippers team than last season’s, largely because they have a more creative coach who puts his players in the best position to succeed.
George said it best Sunday: “Last year was last year. I’m in a new situation. I’m in a different mindset.” It still might not be enough. Expectations are sky-high for the Clippers, who can’t prove anything until they get to the playoffs. George will have to play this well in the playoffs for them to win a title. And he has a long history of coming up short on the biggest stage. There’s no way to know whether this will be the year he finally changes that narrative. But he’s set up to do it better than ever before.