There was a time during my winter break when I thought to myself, “Emmett, it’d be great if you wrote a few columns before heading back to school so you could really work at a nice pace upon your return.” You know what I did instead? Not That. A whole lot of Not That. Some of the Not That was working on my thesis (full brag). Some of the Not That was hanging out at home, taking notes on movies that probably don’t deserve to have notes taken on them. Some of the Not That was hanging out with my gritty, small-town friends.
But the most notable part of the Not That, for the purposes of this article, was when I went to the Trail Blazers versus Thunder game at the Rose Garden in Portland on Jan. 4 (An aside: the arena is technically called “Moda Center,” but that’s just corporate hogwash, for which I have no time—unless it’s a brand of clothing, a pop-music hit, the Oscars, every major sporting event, every fast-food chain or most other facets of my life).
On that charming Oregon night, The Thunder beat the Blazers,111-109. I sat between my friend (Hussein) and my mom (Mom). My friend and I screamed, we booed, we chanted, we leaned into the animalistic underbelly of sports fandom. My mom was entertained too, perhaps more by us than by the game. It was a fantastic game. Outrageous fun.
The story of the game was Paul George, and the story he authored was weaved between the punishing presence of Russell Westbrook, the dazzling wizardry of Damian Lillard and the defensive dexterity of Nerlens Noel. George’s story was one of subtle excellence. A story of under-the-radar impossibility. And it was a story that now must be placed within a larger narrative: Paul George is one of five remaining MVP candidates, and he’s the best candidate among them (the other candidates: James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard).
At this point in the season, I think that there are only two truly compelling arguments to be made for who is most deserving of the MVP. The first argument is centered around the fact that James Harden is on an offensive run right now that has been (statistically) equalled or bettered by just three players in NBA history: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. In other words, Harden has gone full Andrew Laeddis, and his lighthouse is a second MVP trophy. Any defender who has tried to step in his way has been left shuttering on a very lonely island.
Arguing George’s MVP case is more difficult than arguing Harden’s. That’s why I’m writing this article. Because I love (fake, inconsequential) challenges.
Two seasons ago the Oklahoma City Thunder went 47-35. Russell Westbrook won MVP. He averaged 32-11-10 on 43/34/85 splits. He was the first player to average a triple double since Oscar Robertson.
I was very late to the “Russ deserves the MVP” party, but at some point the statistics and the gravity of his nightly theatrics transcended any possible counterpoint. Watching Russ in 2016-2017 was like watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. spin donuts around Main Building in a 1999 Toyota Sienna; it was horrifying, it was exhilarating, it was stupid and it was still somehow undeniably impressive (Note: this is my first-ever NASCAR reference! I think I felt 1,000 brain cells die as I wrote it!).
This season, per FiveThirtyEight, the Thunder are on pace to win 52 games. Russell Westbrook is shooting 41 percent from the field, 24 percent (!) from three and 65 percent (!) from the free-throw line. His supporting cast—sans George—is Steven “Drogo” Adams, Dennis “The Mediocre Menace” Schroder and a bunch of specialists (defensive, mostly). Simply put, it is a supporting cast that is fairly one-dimensional. It is a supporting cast that can play great defense, set good screens and make way for great players to do great things. But despite the fact that Westbrook is on pace to finish his third consecutive season averaging a triple double, he has not been great. In fact, by his lofty standards, he has not even been good. Ipso facto, the Thunder should not be good.
And yet the Thunder are much, much better than they’ve been since Kevin Durant slithered to the Bay. With the possible exception of the Lakers (hello, Sir Anthony Davis), I think that the Thunder serve as the best possible challenger to the supremacy of the Golden State Warriors. I think that’s because of Paul George.
George is averaging 27-8-4 on 45/40/83 splits. He leads the league in steals. He is tied for the league lead in deflections. He leads the league in loose balls recovered. He is second in the league in defensive win shares, according to the official NBA website, behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, on whom George dunked so hard the other night that a Division III referee tried calling a technical foul from his couch.
But stats are not going to prove convincing in arguing for MV-PG. Because James Harden is running through NBA defenses like my junior year self ran through shortbread cookies in the Deece. To convince you that Paul George should be MVP, I’ll need to try something different…
Here’s the TakeQuake: the way the NBA is presently constructed, and the way the Houston Rockets have decided to play basketball, James Harden should be doing what he is doing. The entire league—its rules and its trends—is set on maximizing space and unleashing the true potential of iso-ball. The Rockets have exploited that tendency to an extent that is borderline upsetting; they’ve run more isolation sets for Harden than any other NBA team has run for their entire team (Rockets Wire, “Rockets’ James Harden Has Had More Iso Plays Than Any NBA Team This Season,” 01.16.2019). Harden is the godly exploiter of a faulty system. He is dominant now in a way I’m not sure he could be in a different era, and that’s as much a compliment to him as it is a qualification to his greatness. He has mastered a distinctly modern art. But how heavily should we reward a man who is gaming the system? How heavily should we reward a man who has been given every opportunity imaginable to accrue record-breaking numbers? There’s a political analogy to be made here, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t do that this week.
What Paul George is doing is not supposed to happen. Aside from Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, no player has duplicated his two-way excellence since Jordan. He is the Boston Dynamics version of a 3-and-D player. He is playing the most complete game in the NBA right now, and he’s doing it on a team that has no business being as good as it is. George, not Westbrook, is now the reason the Thunder are a formidable threat to win the Western Conference.
The final word: Harden excels within a carefully structured, zeitgeist-defined system. Paul George can do what he’s doing anywhere. To paraphrase the great philosopher, LeBron James, I want the guy who fits-in, not the one who fits-outs.
Am I convinced by my own argument? Not fully.