BOSTON — Paul George is the perfect complementary player. That feels like an insult given our collective obsession with treating stardom as if its a zero-sum game, but it’s meant as praise.
George can do everything required of a superstar. He can not only score and create his own shot, he’s also a world-class defender, a solid rebounder, and a willing playmaker. If that’s not a star then we need to reconsider the cosmos.
Yet, PG goes about his work in a way that naturally blends with a co-star of equal or slightly higher billing. In Oklahoma City, that would be Russell Westbrook. The two have fit so well it feels like they’ve been together for years, rather than months.
The ability to support another star player is a vastly underrated skill in the NBA and few do it better than George. This feels like the role he was born to play, providing balance and ballast for the benefit of the larger whole.
“He sees the value in playing the game right way,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Takes great pride on the defensive end of the floor. Less worried about his offense and he’s much more worried about defending. He’s never once said, ‘Hey run a play for me or get me a shot.’ He gets it within the flow of the game.”
Throughout his career, George has run up against the arbitrary parameters of the star system. He was clearly the best player during Indiana’s near-miss run, but that was more of an ensemble production. When the rest of that cast when their separate ways, George wrestled with the demands of being a solo act.
He scored and produced like a star with the Pacers. He made all-star teams, participated in the Olympics, and kept Indiana in the playoffs. All of that wasn’t enough to keep Frank Vogel employed, Larry Bird in his job, or make anyone truly happy with the situation.
No one wins alone in the NBA. The competition is too great and contending teams are too stacked to expect any other outcome. The collective might of George and Westbrook give OKC a chance. When you add Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams to the equation, the Thunder are a dangerous foe come playoff time.
All of that leads to a crossroads moment this summer when PG will be a free agent. You may have heard that he’s intrigued by the idea of playing in his hometown of Los Angeles. You’ve no doubt also heard that the Lakers would love to add him to their crew of young talent.
The Lakers offer the promise of big ideas and bold plans, to say nothing of the allure of Los Angeles. The Thunder, of course, have those first two things already in place if PG commits to staying in Oklahoma. Most people consider it a 50-50 proposition and a strong postseason push may be just the thing to tilt the balance in OKC’s favor.
To be sure, the Thunder have had a strange season. They struggled early, got it together in December, and took off in January before falling back to the pack in February after the loss of Andre Roberson.
Losing Roberson was tough because no other team was equipped with two elite perimeter stoppers. Veteran free agent Corey Brewer — picked up from the Lakers, ironically — has supplied a shot in the arm and renewed hope that this Thunder team can disrupt the playoffs.
The last month has been solid, with OKC winning six straight and nine out of 11 before inexplicably blowing a five-point lead in the final 14 seconds to the Celtics on Tuesday. The loss hurts because the margin between third place in the West and eighth is razor thin, but getting into the postseason is the only thing that truly matters.
While the Warriors and Rockets are a cut above the competition, the Thunder are one of only four teams (along with Houston, Golden State, and Toronto) with a top-10 offense and defense. That’s the traditional line of demarcation that separates the contenders from the rest of the pack.
Given the way this season has gone and the sense of immediacy that surrounds George’s summer, the playoffs offer both a momentous challenge and an opportunity. If they are to truly contend it will depend in large part on George’s ability to elevate his game.
He has been a phenomenal postseason player over the years, going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in a pair of conference finals. In later postseason matchups, George kept Indy afloat with huge scoring barrages under dire circumstances.
George doesn’t have to carry OKC in the playoffs. He just has to be himself. That’s a luxury few teams can provide and it’s one PG now enjoys. The playoffs will be a telling moment in his career, as will his decision this summer.