Paul George's Thunder, NBA ascension is complete
It was only the third game all season the Thunder played without Paul George, but that March night in San Antonio was, to that point, the biggest indicator of the All-Star forward’s value.
You could hear the frustration in the voices of Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder. The Thunder had just taken a 14-point loss on the chin, victims of a third quarter in which it had little offensive fluidity and Westbrook and Schroder went 1-of-7.
When the guards were asked about the missing impact of George, they each bristled as if the answer was obvious.
"The MVP’s not on the floor, it changes the offense a lot," Westbrook said.
George may not win the Most Valuable Player award this season, but his value to the Thunder and ascension to the league’s elite is without question.
It was confirmed last week when George was showered with accolades daily, from places on the All-Defensive and All-NBA first teams, to his place as one of three finalists for both the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP awards.
The Thunder has had a player named to an All-NBA team for 10 straight years, the longest current streak in the league. It’s a point of pride for a franchise with only 11 seasons under its belt. Yet, the Thunder has never had a player, not even Kevin Durant, held in such high regard by league observers on both ends of the court in a single season.
Not many teams have.
Since the 1987-88 season, only 13 players have finished in the top three in Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year voting in the same season. It’s an exclusive group of Hall of Famers and those who will eventually be enshrined.
George, along with Milwaukee’s Giannis Anetokounmpo, will be added to the list this season.
"There’s a point in the season where it was like game by game, I was saying to myself, I didn't realize how good this guy really was," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. "He was playing at an exceptional level on both sides of the ball.
"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. 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. He truly is a two-way player and one of the best if not the best in the league, and he really had it going early in the year, and he was leading us."
So important was George that the Thunder’s season came unglued after multiple shoulder injuries led to a drop in efficiency. Now, eyes turn toward George’s recovery from right rotator cuff and left labrum surgery.
George’s season was unprecedented in Thunder history. Westbrook has been an All-NBA selection eight times but never an All-Defensive team pick. Andre Roberson has made the All-Defensive team, but hasn’t sniffed All-NBA. With the Thunder, Durant and Serge Ibaka ran through a half-decade of respective All-NBA and All-Defensive selections. Neither pulled off both in a single season.
George’s season may not result in that rare double of MVP and Defensive Player of the Year — only Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) have won the awards in the same season — but his role as the center of the Thunder has become clear, from an All-Everything affirming week in May all the way back to a March loss in San Antonio.
And just as the Thunder’s season hinged on George playing some of the best all-around basketball in the league, the Thunder’s upcoming season will be shaped by his two-way abilities.