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

Feb 01, 2019 10:07 PM EST
Credit:

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.”