March 4, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

NBA MVP in making? Paul George determined to silence critics

Kawhi Leonard first noticed the hints of what was to come from his teammate last fall.

With his surgically repaired shoulders healthy, and a mind only recently removed from the “dark place” he found himself in following the Clippers’ postseason collapse, Paul George attacked drills during a joint offseason training session alongside Leonard with noticeable speed.

“He put his mind into his work,” Leonard said. “A lot of his stuff was like kind of game-simulated, working on the passes, reads.”

Marcus Morris heard the clues in George’s tone.

“He told us that before the year started that he was going to come with it,” Morris said.

Like his teammates, George could not have predicted the details of the blistering start that has followed — the career-high 51.5% shooting, 5.2 assists per game and 7.5 plus/minus. That the Clippers would be 10 points better with him on the floor, and six points worse when not.

Yet as the Clippers saw leading up to training camp, there were also breadcrumbs signaling the prove-it determination that has fueled George’s numbers. He felt it, too. His pride wounded from last season’s end, he said he felt a clear belief of how his new season would start.

“I’m coming back with vengeance,” George said after scoring 26 points Friday in the Clippers’ 138-100 rout of Sacramento to continue his red-hot play. “I didn’t like, not so much of the noise and everything around it, but just the fact that people saw weakness. And I had to address that. I had to answer that. That fueled me. That put me in a place where I wanted to come back and be myself again.”

Highlights from the Clippers’ 138-100 road win over the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.

The true extent of the bounce-back by George and the Clippers won’t be measured until the postseason, when the chance comes to exorcise the demons of the latest playoff struggle for a franchise defined by decades of them.

Yet to start, the 6-foot-9 forward has not only played like himself again but often looked like his best possible version in helping the Clippers produce the league’s second-best offense and a 9-4 start.

“After the tough year last year, it was the only way I could respond,” George said. “… I had nothing but to get better. That was the only thing on my mind and the only thing was to get better.”

George made four of his eight three-pointers against the Kings, the 10th time this season he’s made at least four three-pointers, which ties for the league lead with Portland’s C.J. McCollum. His shot chart, where zones tinged green represent an accuracy 10 percentage points better than the league average, is the same color as the light coach Tyronn Lue has given him to fire away.

“I feel as though he’s having an MVP season.”

Marcus Morris on Clippers teammate Paul George

George has made 83% of his three-pointers from the left corner, 63% from the right and nearly 48% beyond the arc in between. The Palmdale native has been careless with the ball at times, committing a career-high average of 3.9 turnovers. But when he has held on to it for a shot, it has usually resulted in only good things. George has made 57% of his catch-and-shoot opportunities and shot 46% off the dribble.

“I feel as though he’s having an MVP season,” Morris said. “I’m happy for him, man. I’m happy to see that aggressiveness and I know for a fact that he had something to prove, and I know that’s the way he’s feeling. So we’re excited, man. And every game I’m telling him, ‘No let-ups, man. Step on they neck.’ And that’s what he’s been doing.”

While shooting 35% in last season’s first-round playoff series against Dallas, including a three-game stretch in which he made just 10 of his 47 shots, George expressed feeling depressed and anxious and went public about his decision to speak with a psychologist.

His 21-point average and 38% three-point shooting against Denver in the second round were forgotten amid the team’s collapse after leading the series 3-1. Leonard and George combined to shoot two for 18 after halftime in a Game 7 loss that left the franchise 0-8 all-time with a chance to clinch a berth in the conference finals.

NBA peers joined the chorus on social media mocking the Clippers and George, lacking the two-time Finals MVP credentials of his teammate, has continued to hear about it, in particular. A verbal dispute earlier this month with Phoenix’s Chris Paul and Devin Booker was sparked, George said, by “a lot of chirping and people just living in the past.”

George has acknowledged using that “noise” as motivation while also insisting he has moved on from worrying about the very same discussion. During an appearance on the “All the Smoke” podcast in December, George predicted that because he had been healthy enough to train for the first time in two years, after surgeries on his shoulders limited his 2019 offseason to rehab, he felt close to his form entering 2018, when he was a top-three candidate for most valuable player.

He called himself in a “healthier mind state” after Friday’s 38-point win, and not only because the Clippers had not allowed a double-digit lead to slip away, as had become a trend.

“I give him credit, but he was able to work out this summer,” Leonard said. “Last summer he was limited, probably only could shoot 10 shots a day or so with his shoulder surgeries. And yeah, he’s coming out with determination and he’s focused.”