Since starting the season 0-4—a stretch highlighted by giving up 131 points to the then-inept Sacramento Kings at home—the Oklahoma City Thunder have molted and become one of the NBA’s best teams. Blowout wins over elite teams like the Clippers and Warriors have been peppered in amid a tremendous 17-4 stretch, in which they’ve established their defense as the best in the NBA by a healthy margin and surged all the way to second in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. The man to thank for all that is Paul George.
The conventional wisdom dictated that George would abandon the dusty confines of Oklahoma after one season and six playoff games with Russell Westbrook in order to compete for a championship alongside, say, LeBron James in his hometown. Instead, George returned to the Thunder as soon as free agency started and settled in on the most expensive team of all time as the running mate to a point guard who is, let’s say, aggressive about getting his.
It’s working! Really well! George is averaging 24.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.2 steals per game, all of which are career-highs. All of the other advanced metrics point to this campaign as George’s best statistical season, which is impressive coming next to Westbrook, a man who likes to have the ball in his hands at all times, always, unconditionally. To his credit, Westbrook has backed down this year, using the rock on only 31.9 percent of Thunder possessions, a rate comparable to his first All-Star season in 2010-11. Westbrook also leads the league in assist percentage, and has cleaned up his shot selection. As he’s chilled out, George has stepped up, and their games complement each other perfectly; Westbrook explodes into the lane and creates chaos, George hits shots, cleans shit up, and exploits mismatches.
Last night against the Jazz, Westbrook had one of his increasingly regular bad shooting nights, going 4-for-18 from the floor, 0-for-5 from three, and 4-for-8 from the stripe. No matter: George notched 31 points on just 10 shots, ripping the team that bounced OKC from last year’s playoffs for 17 points in the decisive third quarter.
The shooting is good and cool, and George looks very confident this year, but the most important factor in the Thunder’s hot streak has been the team’s smothering defense. Billy Donovan has talked for years about the sort of team he wants, one built around long athletes who outwork and overwhelm their opponents. His post-Durant squads were weird edifices built in support of Russell Westbrook’s irrepressible athleticism, and they were not what anyone would exactly call system-driven.
Now, with George in his second season, Donovan has built the defense he always dreamed of. OKC steals the rock more than any other team, which leads to a good helping of fast break points. In halfcourt sets, Steven Adams’s considerable bulk allows George and fellow long guys Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant to get aggressive; as the Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks points out, OKC attacks the pick-and-roll better than almost every other team. Grant and his 7-foot-3 wingspan both recently moved into the starting lineup, and he’s been great. Consider also that Westbrook is having the best defensive season of his career, and you have a five-man unit that has no holes in the pick-and-roll and is defined by its aggression. They close out with gusto on the three-point line, and OKC’s opponents shoot the fourth-fewest threes and the fifth-worst percentage from long-range. This is, as a very long quote from Donovan shows here, the point.
No other team gets more extra possessions per game than OKC. They lead the league in both defensive rating and offensive rebounding percentage, two categories that have tended to be mutually exclusive in recent years. As the league has integrated components from the Rivers-Thibodeau system over the past half-decade, teams have abandoned chasing offensive rebounds, a famous staple of Doc Rivers’s Celtics title teams. If you don’t crash the glass, you can get back in transition and eliminate some of the easiest points in the game. But if you have plus-rebounders at every starting position and someone as large as Steven Adams fighting on every possession, you’re going to get yourself more opportunities by sheer force of physicality.
And they’re doing this all without Andre Roberson, one of the NBA’s five best on-ball defenders. Roberson went down with an injury last year, and the Thunder only had a league-average defense without him. George can guard every position comfortably, and every pass that comes within his considerable orbit is a steal target. He’s probably been the defensive player of the year so far, to say nothing of the fact that he’s also been the Thunder’s best shooter. This play shows it all; he’s so long that he completely obliterates what is normally considered a legitimate passing lane, and once he gets the rock, he can handle and pass and shoot like a superstar.
The successes and failures of the post-Durant Thunder have been almost entirely determined by Russell Westbrook’s merciless hold on the franchise. This season, and last night’s game in particular, have proven that for the first time since Durant left, the Thunder now have a team that can still play at a high level even when Westbrook’s grip fails him, or gets too tight. Nobody is more responsible for that than Paul George.