Depending on who you talk to, the 2021-2022 NBA Season was supposed to be something along the lines of a “rebuilding year” or a “bridge season” for the Los Angeles Clippers.
As Kawhi Leonard continues his recovery from a partially torn right ACL, the Clippers weren’t counted as one of the title contenders and have largely been overshadowed by their playoff disappointments over the past few seasons. Other teams have also gotten some of their players back and will be at full strength by the turn of the calendar, vaulting them ahead of Los Angeles.
With their backs against the wall and the pundits more or less counting them out, Paul George has taken it upon himself to answer the call.
The Palmdale, California native had been asked about his role prior to the start of the season and George naturally pointed to his stint with the Indiana Pacers, where he became the man and even overcame a gruesome leg injury to return to top form.
George has been averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.2 steals in 13 games this season, numbers that are somewhat reminiscent of his MVP-caliber season with the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2018-2019. The six-time All-NBA selection’s defensive contributions go beyond his steal numbers, as his ability to cover guards, forwards, and at times centers cements his status as one of the NBA’s best two-way players. His increased numbers compared to seasons past are attributed to the absence of Leonard (and maybe the lack of a true point guard besides Eric Bledsoe) and the seven-time All-Star’s usage of 34.2 this season is easily a career-high and the third highest in the NBA behind Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
His offensive efficiency has noticeably gone down despite the increased production and that naturally comes with the added attempts and the heavily contested shots George has to take without Leonard. Nevertheless, he continues to be a crafty slasher who can make shots from near-impossible angles despite contact. That he converts on 89.3 percent of his free throws (on 4.3 attempts) only helps his and Los Angeles’ case.
Having no Leonard to lean on has meant that the attention is now all on him, and that orchestrating the offense falls largely on his shoulders. His 4.3 turnovers per game this season are also a career-high but they come with the playmaking he has had to shoulder due to the current circumstances. Sure, the likes of Bledsoe and Nicolas Batum can create plays for others, but they also rely on George’s drives and kicks as these are what really opens up opportunities for the rest.
The Clippers’ heavy reliance on George was on full display against the upstart Chicago Bulls, who earned a 100-90 win over Los Angeles. Shooting woes led to their downfall as the Clippers couldn’t complete another rally against the Bulls despite briefly taking the lead in the fourth quarter and making all 21 of their free throw attempts. Aside from George, who scored 27 points on 25 shots, Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson were the only other double-digit scorers for Los Angeles. It was the complete opposite for Chicago, whose offense was firing on all cylinders led by DeMar DeRozan’s 35 points on 16 shots.
With the loss, the Clippers dropped to 8-5, which currently puts them at sixth place in the West. Their next 10 games will be Western Conference affairs as apart from the lowly Detroit Pistons, matchups against the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks (twice), and the Memphis Grizzlies will provide tests in what could be a grind of a season for the Clippers. Minus the Warriors, their upcoming opponents will potentially be the ones they will try to fend off in order to avoid the play-in later on.
Shorthanded as they are this season, it is best not to sleep on the Los Angeles Clippers. Without Kawhi Leonard, they were able to eliminate the Utah Jazz and took the Phoenix Suns to six games in last year’s Western Conference Finals. Paul George was instrumental in that run and he is not shy to put the responsibility (and the flak that may come his way) on his shoulders.