2019 Summer Feature Series: Paul George
The chatter began over the first month or so of the season, but the din was deafening after a 25-point fourth quarter explosion that culminated in a game-winning three-pointer. Paul George was leading the MVP conversation, and driving the Thunder to a blistering hot streak of 16 wins in 19 games.
A month later, in Philadelphia, George buried a go-ahead four-point play with less than 10 seconds to go. Then in February, at home against the Utah Jazz in double-overtime, George floated in a high-arcing runner over the outstretched arm of towering Jazz center Rudy Gobert right before the horn. In the final home game of the season, with the Thunder needing a win to solidify postseason positioning, George downed the Houston Rockets on a corner three-pointer at the buzzer, capping a sensational 2018-19 season.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 10, 2019
The four game-winning shots and being named to the All-Defensive First Team were the highlights, but throughout the 77 games George played in last season he was absolutely sensational and put together the best overall season of his career.
“It felt great just being in those moments, having opportunities to win games and put the game away on go-ahead baskets,” said George. “I don't get into the whole stats of what I've made, what I've missed. I'm going to shoot it every time if I get a free enough look and feel confident in shooting it every time.”
“Game by game, I was saying to myself, I didn't realize how good this guy really was,” said Thunder General Manager Sam Presti. “He was playing at an exceptional level on both sides of the ball. To me the thing about Paul that's so remarkable is he impacts the game for every minute he's on the court because he plays both sides at such a high level.”
Across the board, George set career-highs and was amongst the league-leaders in a variety of categories in 2018-19, while also being recognized as one of the most dynamic defensive players in the league. He was second in the NBA with a career-high 28.0 points, while also posting career-bests in three other categories with 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals. As George made the third-most total three-pointers in the league, knocking down 38.6 percent of his shots from behind the arc on a career-high 9.8 attempts.
Due to all of his production, and the Thunder’s brilliant start to the season that included twice reaching 18 games over .500, George was named an All-Star starter as he made his sixth-career appearance in the annual February showcase game. During June’s NBA Awards, it’s possible that George will be amongst the finalists for some major league-wide recognition for his play.
“Paul did an amazing job all year long and was consistent, and obviously the best player all year,” said Westbrook. “He was aggressive. He came out with a mindset of he wanted to be the best, and he showed that. He did a good job of staying consistent and was aggressive scoring, defended at a high rate, doing what we needed for him to do for our team to be successful.”
After the All-Star Break, however, George had to miss three straight games with shoulder soreness and rested the team’s final game of the season. After the end of the season, the issue was revealed: George underwent an elective surgery on his right shoulder to repair a partial thickness supraspinatus tendon tear (rotator cuff). George will also address a small labrum tear in his left shoulder with a procedure in the offseason.
“It came at a terrible time,” George sighed. “The team was rolling.”
George’s injury coincided with a slide for the Thunder, as the team lost 13 of 19 games at the end of February and through March. George played in all but three of those games, but he was clearly hampered, shooting over 40 percent from the field on just one occasion.
“I had no other thought in my mind but to be out there and play and ride it out with my guys,” George noted. “I was out there and I was able to compete. I was limited to a sense sometimes, but it didn't stop me from competing.”
The physical and mental toughness George demonstrated didn’t go unnoticed, and his team needed him out there for every minute that they had him. For the season, the Thunder was plus-16 points better per 100 possessions with George on the court compared to when he was off it. Despite not finishing the season the way that anybody within the walls of the Thunder Ion wanted, George’s grittiness was a rallying point for the team.
“I give him a lot of credit. He's not a guy that ever complained,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “He's a tough guy. He plays through stuff.”
“For a guy to just fight through things that he was fighting through just to be that tough and they're resilient and just give up his body for the team and for us, that just shows the type of character and the type of player he is,” added veteran guard Raymond Felton.
For George, this summer will be spent rehabbing both shoulders, and his return to action will be determined closer to the start of the 2019-20 season. Despite the injuries, George’s game has always been a mix of cerebral and passionate, with his length, quickness and instincts serving him in all facets of the game.
George is a versatile, flexible, do-it-all scorer, distributor, rebounder and defender and the team will lean on him heavily next season to make an impact at every level. That’s what he was brought to Oklahoma City to do, and the platform the organization provided for him to do that gave him a massive reason to stay long-term. In 2018-19, George was the Thunder’s MVP. Once he gets healthy, Thunder leadership believes he’ll be ready to reprise the same role next year.
“If he plays 35 minutes, that's 35 minutes of impact you're getting because he can score with it, he can make plays for other people, but on defense he also can negate really great scorers,” Presti explained. “He truly is a two-way player and one of the best if not the best in the league.”