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Paul George chased down James Harden in transition, extending his right arm to defend in a rather meaningless game in August 2014 — a Team USA showcase event at the tail end of the NBA offseason.
A gruesome leg injury ensued — a season-ending, compound fracture of both bones in George’s lower right leg — on an awkward crash with the stanchion of the Las Vegas hoop.
Over four years later, and a healthy George is playing the best basketball of his life while chasing down a surging Harden for the 2018-19 Most Valuable Player award.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are 25-15, trailing first-place Denver by 2.5 games and second-place Golden State by 1 game atop the Western Conference ladder. Jerami Grant is having a breakout campaign, Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel have provided a spark to the game’s lowest scoring bench from last year (25.9 points per game) and Russell Westbrook still has room to improve despite the team’s first-half success.
But George is the biggest reason for spearheading head coach Billy Donovan and company to the league’s seventh-best record — and the numbers justify that notion.
Through 39 starts, George is posting team-highs in points (26.8, also a career-high), three-point field goal percentage (38.4 percent), minutes (35.4), offensive win shares (3.3), defensive win shares (2.9) and overall win shares (6.1). His offensive and defensive value is tops on the roster, and puts him at a premier level in the NBA…
- 1st in steals (85)
- 1st in defensive win shares (2.9)
- 2nd in steals per game (2.2)
- 4th in points (1,046)
- 4th in three-point field goals (132)
- 5th in field goals (358)
- 5th in defensive rating (101.1)
"Since Dec.1, Paul George is 2nd in the NBA in PPG with 30.9 including three 40-point games, all OKC victories."
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) January 8, 2019
The 28-year-old forward is arguably the best defender in the league, and his offensive production is comparable to other MVP candidates.
Harden is still a clear favorite for the highly coveted honor, as he holds the No. 1 VORP (4.3 value over replacement player) — a telling stat that also ranks above Anthony Davis (3.8), Giannis Antetokounmpo (3.7), Nikola Jokic (3.5), LeBron James (2.9) and George (2.8) — but the Thunder hold a 1.5-game advantage over the Rockets (23-16).
Antetokounmpo and Jokic are on the best teams, Davis has the most win shares (5.1) and highest player efficiency rating (30.7) and James has catapulted the Lakers into playoff contention, complicating the six-way race even further. Cases can be made across the board.
Career-highs in points (26.7), 3-point makes (3.3), rebounds (8.1), assists (4.1) and steals (2.3) per game.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 4, 2019
Part of the reason George has taken such an impactful step forward from 2017-18 is his usage, a total that has risen from 25.7 percent to 29.7 percent. His role in Donovan’s offense is much more apparent than before.
George’s increase in performance on both ends of the floor has thrusted Oklahoma City into the limelight and overshadowed the shooting struggles of Westbrook, who has a career-low 47.8 true shooting percentage. By signing a four-year contract worth $137 million in July 2018, PG has finally grown comfortable with a franchise that has posted winning records over the last nine years.
Harden and Antetokounmpo have a grip on the MVP race, but George is on pace for a career year. If he maintains this level of play and the Thunder can gain a convincing advantage over the Rockets and Bucks by the season’s end, then Paul George could very well be hoisting hardware when all is said and done.