Moore: If Defense Matters, Shouldn’t Paul George Be Getting More MVP Love?

Moore: If Defense Matters, Shouldn’t Paul George Be Getting More MVP Love? article feature image
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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George

  • Paul George is playing like the Defensive Player of the Year and has taken his offensive game to another level ... so why isn't he getting more hype or NBA MVP?
  • In an exclusive interview with The Action Network's Matt Moore, George declined to make a case for himself to win MVP, so let's do it for him.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Paul George isn’t here for the hype.

The Thunder star is happy to tell you what makes his teammates great, what makes the OKC defense so lethal. He’ll talk about his coaches, the city, the organization and the culture that has come together to make OKC a force in the West yet again. He’ll talk about Steven Adams’ dexterity and why Russell Westbrook is underrated this year. He’ll even make James Harden’s case for Most Valuable Player. But he’s not going to make the case for himself.

That’s made clear to me before I enter a small room at the Thunder practice facility, which is itself hidden away, North of downtown Oklahoma City. It is nondescript, with a small “Thunder ION” logo and a Thunder flag out front. My Lyft drivers don’t know where the hell they’re taking or picking me up from.

Like most things with OKC and the Thunder, not having to flaunt it is kind of the point.

I tried to get George to make an MVP case for himself, but he wouldn’t bite.

So let’s do it for him.

The idea of George as MVP seemed preposterous to start the season. After all, George plays next to Russell Westbrook, ye old Lord of the Triple Double, and there was no way OKC would have the team success, or George the usage rate, to be in the conversation.

However, two funny things have happened along the way. 1) The Thunder are back to doing what they’ve done nearly every year for almost a decade, which is “win a boatload of games,” and 2) George has taken his game to an entirely new level.

He’s averaging a career high in points (27.3 per game), rebounds (8.0), steals (2.3). Want to know how many players have ever scored at least 26 with at least 8 boards and at least 2 steals per game?

Jordan. Drexler. And George so far. That’s it.

George is knocking down clutch shots. George is leading the West’s third-best team in scoring. And he’s doing it all while not needing the ball as much as his contemporaries, with the lowest usage rate of the four major candidates — Harden (-500 odds), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+350), and Steph Curry (20-1) along with George — and doing so as the best defender on the third-best defense in the league, and the top unit in the Western Conference Death Gauntlet.

All of which helps to pose a key question: If defense matters to you, why isn’t Paul George (25-1 odds) your MVP?

THE IMPACT

The first thing you need to know is a cold hard fact: George is making the Thunder better in every category when he’s on the floor.

The Thunder offense hums at 111.2 points per 100 possessions when George is on-court, a rate that would rank top-10 league wide, and a full 13.3 points better than when George is on the bench. (Truth be told, this is more an indication of how structurally weak the Thunder are without him.)

The defense also allows only 101.4 points per 100 possessions with him on-court, which would rank No. 1 in the league by a wide margin, and is six points better than OKC’s defense without George.

That latter point is more important for us to look at. The offensive numbers are helped by playing with starters, better shooters, better playmakers, better players. But defense in the NBA is largely the product of all five players within a system.

OKC is stacked with great defensive players: Long, athletic guys who can challenge on the perimeter and attack opponents at the rim to protect it. Yet the defense is still noticeably better with George on the court, as he’s having by far the greatest impact of any rotation player.

Not only that, but the Thunder generate a better assist rate, a better rebound rate, a lower turnover rate, and a higher shooting percentage with George on the floor.

Again, literally everything is better.

“I was taught you have to do a little bit of everything,” George says in our exclusive interview. “That’s how it was in Indiana [with the Pacers]. Coach Vogel used to preach ‘Do multiple things.'”

Among the many things George does well? He might read the defense as well as any player in the league.

THE READ

You’re cutting to the rim. Your ball-handler has the angle. You have separation, your defender is lagging behind. And then, bamf! The ball is no longer yours. It’s going the other way in the hands of OKC’s MVP candidate.

You know George is guarding you, and you know his length. But he turns his head. You’ve got a second here, better make it count. Get to the corner… nope. He closed the gap too fast:

You’re Chris Paul. You have corner shooters in transition. George has lagged off to help in the paint. There’s the angle… nope. He wanted you to throw that pass.

George’s reads are incredible. Just ask his teammate, Steven Adams:

“His reads, ridiculous,” Adams tells The Action Network, with a shake of his head in disbelief. “His timing of when to go after stuff. It’s not just gambling. It’s gambling while minimizing as much risk as possible. It’s not like he gives up on the play a lot. Some people like to gamble, and then they’re so far, they just ruin the whole play. It’s just … complete shit and you have to just try and make do with it. But he does a good job of taking a stab at it and be able to get back.”

The Thunder lead the league in deflections. George ranks third overall in deflections per game at 3.7. No pair of teammates combine for more per game than George and Westbrook, no trio more than Westbrook, George and Adams.

Their hands are everywhere, all the time. Challenging, tipping, intercepting.

None of this is new for George.

“It’s been several years,” George says of when he first became able to pull this off. “My early years in Indy, I was making plays like that. I was taught you have to do a little bit of everything. That’s how it was in Indiana. Coach Vogel used to preach ‘Do multiple things.’ Shrinking the floor, playing two guys at once, and then knowing how to manipulate the passer into thinking his guy’s open and then at the last second making a jump on the ball. That just comes from instincts and being around the game for so long. I know my length. It’s just being aggressive.”

Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George

OKC’s defense ranks third in the league despite a very brief dip against bad opponents, and the Thunder are also top-five in pace.

That combination used to be seemingly impossible as teams had to slog the game down to defend well. The Warriors broke that trend in 2015, leading the league in pace and defense.

This style works for the Thunder. Their incredible length not only gets them the ball, but it often puts them in positions where their phalanx of athletic wings can ram the ball down the opponents’ throat.

“I think honestly we have one of the most athletic starting 5 groups,” George says. “We’re long, we’re fast, we’re quick. When we’re tied in, when we’re locked in, I have the length, JG [Jerami Grant] has the length, Terrance Ferguson has length, Steve-O, Russ, we can really shrink the floor and use our quickness to our advantage. That’s why we’re so good at just flying all over the place.”

The Thunder are tied for first in the league in points off turnovers per 100 possessions. With George on the floor that number increases by 6.2 points per 100 possessions, a huge amount.

Like Adams says, the defense is never compromised with George defending. Opponents shoot just 27.4 percent on spot-up plays with George defending this season via Synergy Sports.

Ball-handlers in pick-and-roll shoot just 41.4 percent vs. George, with a 27.2 percent turnover rate, third best in the league. (Westbrook is No. 1.)

Try and ISO him, which of course rarely happens, and you get just 0.763 points per possession in return.

George is disrupting the defense off-ball while shutting it down on-ball. He’s converting possessions into offense.

That’s DPOY stuff.

Now, what about his offense?

NO RHYTHM, JUST FLOW

Most star players need the game shaped around them.

LeBron James needs the ball and shooters around him. Westbrook needs a big with whom to pick and roll and cutters/stand-still spot-up weapons. Jimmy Butler needs the ball. DeMar DeRozan needs the ball. James Harden. Giannis Antetokounmpo. On and on, guys need the ball.

George doesn’t need anything to be effective.

He’s good on-ball, shooting 58.9 in effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot situations (77th percentile). He’s great coming off screens, shooting 53.6 eFG (66th percentile).

In isolation, he scores 0.886 points per possession, 53rd percentile. In the pick and roll, he has a 52.4 percent eFG, scoring more than a point per possession, good for 93rd percentile, third-best in the league with at least 100 possessions.

You get what I’m saying. You put George in any type of situation, and he’s going to be efficient, effective, and just destroy you over and over.

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George and Russell Westbrook

“I just feel on the court I’ve been blessed and I’m lucky to be able to do a little bit of everything,” Paul says. “I feel good in pick and roll, I feel good in pick and popping, I feel good in ISO, I feel good in transition. The reason I play both ways is I don’t pride myself on doing just one thing. When I get on the court, I just let instincts happen. I think throughout my whole career. In Indiana, I was a spot-up guy at first. I knew how good I was offensively but that had to come with time, to have the trust of the coaches to let me explore other areas.”

In preseason, George asked the team to stop running plays for him, as ESPN reported. Coach Billy Donovan says he still runs plays to get George the ball, but the plays aren’t designed for a specific purpose, like a shot for George, and instead they play to his strengths in reading the defense.

“If you run stuff for Paul to get him a shot, or you run something for him to drive the ball to the basket, that’s not what he wants,” Donovan told The Action Network. “He wants to be able to play in such a way that he’s reading the defense, he’s playing off the defense, he’s taking what the defense is giving him.

“He’d rather just randomly play and get [his points] out of the freedom of the game and he feels like with his ability to be able to drive and shoot and play in the mid-range and get fouled, in the course of 36-38 minute, he’s going to score.”

Against the Bucks on Sunday, George scored 21 points in the first half. He ate them up. In the third quarter, the Bucks began layering their defense while Khris Middleton face-guarded him. George scored just three points, and yet the Thunder’s lead stretched to 16. When George went to the bench, the Bucks went on a 15-5 run to get it back within 7.

He went on to score 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the fourth to seal the game. Players talk so often of needing rhythm to get their offense, but here’s George, pouring it on, shutting it off, then re-igniting to lead his team to a win, all in one game while playing top-level defense.

After being taken out of the offense in the third, he closes the game with a crucial assist to Steven Adams, a full on poster jam on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a pull-up 3-pointer dagger.

The phrase “doing it all” is used a lot in the NBA. Paul George is quite literally doing it all, under whatever conditions his team needs.

“The thing to me that was so impressive about tonight was that in the third quarter, (the Bucks) made a conscientious effort to get under him, to prevent him from catching the ball. They crowded him and were really physical with him,” Donovan said after the game. “He didn’t get many shots in the third quarter, and he may have only scored three points. This speaks to his greatness as a player: the fact that he has the patience and understands the length of time in the game, he just plays. And even though he only scored three points or didn’t get very many shots, he just plays. He knows there’s another quarter coming, and he defends and just gets lost in the game.

“I have great respect and admiration for the way he plays because he’s never one of those guys where ‘Hey I only got two shots in the third quarter, I’m not getting the ball, run some plays for me.’ He just plays and finds ways to get it.”

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George

THE MVP CASE: HE DOES WHAT IT TAKES

I asked George whether defense needs to be appreciated more in the MVP conversation. This was a softball. “Yes, because it’s difficult,” was all I was looking for.

I wasn’t asking him to talk about himself, or his game — I just wanted to know objectively if defense shouldn’t be more highly considered.

Instead, George used fellow MVP candidate and reigning MVP winner James Harden as an example of what he really thinks matters when you say “valuable.”

“I think the biggest thing that should be factored in is the guy that’s going to do whatever it takes to help his team win,” George said. “I’ll speak on James’ case. He’s the only guy that can create and do things [for the Rockets]. I think you have to account for the guy that’s going to do whatever it takes. And I think defense, when there’s a guy that’s willing to play on both ends and is relied on to score and to make plays offensively and at the same is relied on to get stops and guard the best guy on a nightly basis, [that] has to be accounted for, as well.

“But that’s not to take away from what James has done. To be honest, James would be exhausted if he had to [play defense] at the level he’s doing it offensively. He’s putting up 60 and they’re winning by 3 or 4. I just think it’s whatever [each] guy does to help his team win, that’s what should stand out for the MVP.”

But if we take that framework, and we ask “Who’s doing the most for what it takes for his team to win?” George is carrying the offense while Westbrook struggles through one of the worst shooting slumps of his career.

He’s leading the third-best defense in the league, not only in terms of guarding his man, but the plays he makes that create steals and specifically help the way his team plays.

He’s guarding the best offensive wings. He’s being guarded by the best defensive wings.

And the Thunder are on pace for 50-plus wins.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George and Josh Hart

George may not win MVP this season; Harden’s performances are bending what we thought individual players could do on a nightly basis, and Antetokounmpo has even more wins while being a phenomenal defender in his own right and a statistical machine. Stephen Curry will have his say, as well, in the end.

But this moment should not slip by you. If you look at what you need in the NBA, you need players who can attack the rim (✅), hit shots from the perimeter (✅), run pick and roll (✅), spot-up (✅), switch onto bigger opponents and contain faster ones (✅), make plays (✅), and players who won’t disrupt your entire structure with what they need (✅).

Paul George doesn’t have to try and generate the hype about himself.

It’s here already.