On November 11, the Clippers needed to outlast the Heat in the fourth quarter of a game that went down to the wire. So they gave the ball to Paul George and then gave it to him again and again. First he drove to the rim and finished in traffic, and then he hit two stepback jumpers with defenders draped over him. In between the offensive plays, he ripped the ball away from Kyle Lowry and stepped in front of Bam Adebayo to take a charge. He closed it out by stealing an offensive rebound and dribbling out for a pull-up 3.
It was the kind of all-around performance that made George a star in the first place. He’s had a far better career than he’s often given credit for. George has made seven All-Star Games, six All-NBA teams, and four All-Defensive teams. That has been easy to forget in his time with the Clippers, where he has been known more for coming up short in the postseason. That began to change after Kawhi Leonard tore his ACL in last season’s playoffs, and George closed out the Jazz in games 5 and 6 of their second-round series.
George has been even better this season, averaging 27.0 points on 44.6 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 2.2 steals per game. The only other players who are scoring and passing at the same rates as George are Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic. None are getting as many steals. George is an elite two-way player who impacts every area of the game in a way few can. He may no longer be the lockdown defender he was in Indiana, but he still takes a lot of tough assignments. He has guarded Anthony Edwards, CJ McCollum, and Gordon Hayward for large stretches of games this season.
George is proof the conventional wisdom has it backward. It’s not easier for stars to be second options—it’s harder. George can’t be this kind of player when he’s playing next to Kawhi. According to NBA Advanced Stats, he’s getting an extra 10 touches per game and holding the ball for a half minute longer compared to last season. He also has a greener light and is taking 4.3 more shots per game. That allows him to get more comfortable on offense. George can go deeper into his bag and shoot his way out of slumps. He doesn’t have to wait for the ball to come back to him. He can decide when he wants to shoot every time down the floor.
His role is much different next to Kawhi. He has to shoot 3s and create space for his costar to attack. The percentage of George’s field goals that come from beyond the 3-point line has dropped by almost five points from last season. His 3-point rate is a good indicator for how often he’s initiating offense. This is the lowest it has been since his last season in Indiana.
For as great a shooter as George is, he’s at his best when he doesn’t rely on his 3-point shot. He’s one of the biggest (6-foot-8 and 220 pounds) and most athletic wings in the NBA. He bails out smaller defenders when he settles for jumpers and the majority of defenders guarding him are smaller than him. There’s nothing they can do when George puts his head down and goes to the rim. Attacking the cup also makes it easier for him to set up his teammates. George isn’t James Harden or Curry. They are ballhandling wizards with elite basketball IQs who have played point guard their whole life. They can dominate games while operating 25-plus feet from the basket. George is better when his game is built around 2s, not 3s.
None of this means George can’t play with Kawhi. He’s one of the few first options in the NBA who can also be an excellent second option. He made the All-Star Game last season as a sidekick. The problem is that he’s still expected to dominate like a first option when he’s stuck in a smaller role. He can have great games, but it’s harder for him to string them together. More of his shots come from 3, so he’s more prone to slumps and it’s easier for him to fall out of rhythm. Playing off of Kawhi is hard. Leonard is not a natural playmaker. That was something he added to his game as he got older. Kawhi doesn’t come into games looking to set anyone up. He gets buckets and looks to pass when he’s doubled.
George and Kawhi don’t have complementary games. That’s why it always seems like it’s harder for the Clippers in the playoffs than it should be. The proof is in the game logs. George had three 34-plus-point games in last season’s playoffs. All came in the eight games when Kawhi was out. He had three 30-plus-point games in the bubble playoffs. Kawhi had more than 25 in only one game. There have been only three playoff games (Game 5 against Dallas in 2020 and games 3 and 4 against Utah in 2021) when both went for 30-plus points. It’s no coincidence they won those games by a combined 83 points. The fundamental problem for Los Angeles is that it’s hard for Kawhi and George to have great games at the same time. That’s because they are eating off each other’s plates.
We haven’t seen this version of George when he’s playing with Kawhi. Not consistently. This version of George is an MVP contender who could make first team All-NBA if he stays healthy. He has carried the Clippers to a 9-5 record and a tie for the no. 3 seed in the West. That’s impressive when you consider his supporting cast. His second option is Reggie Jackson and his point guard is Eric Bledsoe.
The Clippers haven’t needed a second star. They have found a successful formula: surround George with solid veterans and arguably the best coach in the NBA in Tyronn Lue. There’s no one better at playing chess than Lue. He has a queen whom he can move all over the floor in George and a bunch of pieces who he can mix and match around him.
We saw that play out in Los Angeles’s victory over the Jazz last season. It didn’t matter that the Clippers lost Kawhi in the middle of the series. Lue figured out how to beat Utah without him. The Jazz put shooters and passers around Rudy Gobert and counted on him to protect them on defense. So Lue downsized and played Marcus Morris and Nic Batum at the 5, forcing Gobert out to the 3-point line and exposing all of Utah’s bad perimeter defenders. That’s how Terance Mann scored 39 points in Game 6. The book on the Jazz is out. Lue gave the rest of the league a lesson and didn’t even charge a fee.
The Clippers have a puncher’s chance against anyone in the West, which is weaker than it has been in a long time. George can be the best player in a series and Lue can hunt and probe until he finds a weakness in the opposing team. But that doesn’t solve the problem of how to fit George and Kawhi together. That will not matter if Kawhi doesn’t return this season. Even if he does come back, he’s coming off a torn ACL, so he probably won’t be at 100 percent.
But they will need both at full strength to win a title. Los Angeles should learn from how Toronto built around Kawhi. Kyle Lowry was the Raptors’ second-best player. He averaged 14.2 points per game, his lowest scoring average in any of the past eight seasons before he joined the Heat this season, and 8.7 assists, the best mark of his career. Lowry gave Kawhi the space he needed to cook by focusing less on scoring and more on keeping everyone else comfortable. The Clippers haven’t had anyone who can do that. Their point guards have been Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. Bledsoe has been solid this season, but he isn’t that guy either.
Los Angeles has to thread the needle at the position. The Clippers need someone who can run the offense and still be a threat to score. That player also needs to be at least decent on defense while also being enough of a threat from 3 to spot up. Not many point guards check all those boxes. Even fewer would be willing to take as much of a back seat on offense as they would need to next to Kawhi and George. The biggest problem is that such a hypothetical player would also need to come cheap, since the Clippers have no cap room and few trade assets.
The good news is that there is one potential answer. John Wall proved that he can still be effective last season in Houston, averaging 20.6 points on 40.4 percent shooting and 6.9 assists per game. He’s also become a better outside shooter than people realize, averaging 33.4 percent from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game through the past six seasons. He won’t need a huge role on offense and he’s big enough to be a switchable defender. There’s also an important off-court element. Wall is a five-time All-Star who can command respect in the locker room. He will defer to Kawhi and George but won’t let them push him around, either.
Wall isn’t playing for the Rockets this season. They are holding him out to develop their young guards and hoping to find a way to trade him. But that will be almost impossible when he’s making $44.3 million this season and has a player option for $47.4 million next season. The odds are that Houston will buy him out, either at the trade deadline or in the offseason. Los Angeles could then sign him to a minimum contract and make a run at a title next season with a healthy team.
The Clippers have exceeded expectations without Kawhi because George has returned to elite status. The next step is making him a better second option when Kawhi returns. Bringing in Wall is the best way to bridge the gap between the player that George is and who they need him to be.