“This is my fight song/
Take back my life song/
Prove I’m alright song/
My power’s turned on/
Starting right now I’ll be strong/
I’ll play my fight song/
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes/
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me”
Yes, this is, in fact, the chorus to “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. But to Oklahoma City Thunder fans and to Paul George, this might as well be the anthem for the upcoming season.
We’re familiar with the song and dance. Oklahoma City traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. We started seeing mental images of Westbrook and George hoisting the Larry O’Brien above their heads in celebration. We also saw the underwhelming season that transpired in 2017-2018. One that ultimately was put to an end as the Utah Jazz defeated the Thunder in 6 games in the first round of the playoffs.
Changes were made. The training this offseason seemed rigorous and goal-oriented. And just like that, it seems like the Thunder are, once again, contenders. Don’t believe me. Just ask LeBron.
There are a lot of championship contenders, but there is only one champion and that’s the Golden State Warriors,” James said. “They are the team that everybody is trying to catch, but you also have the Houston Rockets, who is really good. You have Oklahoma City, the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors – there are a lot of championship-contending teams but everyone knows that trophy goes through Golden State.
But in order for all of that to happen, Paul George needs to show up, and in a big way. I believe he is going to. Not only that; I believe Paul George could be in line for an MVP season. To quote Eminem at the end of “Killshot” (RIP MGK), “Let’s talk about it.”
1. We have Continuity
That’s a word that Thunder fans don’t know too well. Specifically, in the Billy Donovan era.
From year one to year two of the Billy Donovan era, the Thunder lost seven players (Kevin Durant, Dion Waiters, Serge Ibaka, Mitch McGary, Nazr Mohammad, DJ Augustin, and Steve Novak), while gaining a total of nine new players over the course of that next season (Oladipo, Sabonis, Norris Cole, Semaj Christon, Joffrey Lauvergne, Jerami Grant, Ersan Ilyasova, Taj Gibson, and Doug McDermott).
From year two to year three, it was more of the same. The Thunder lost six players and gained a total of 9 new players over the course of last season (George, Carmelo Anthony, Patrick Patterson, Raymond Felton, Terrance Ferguson, Corey Brewer, Dakari Johnson, Daniel Hamilton, and PJ Dozier).
For obvious reasons, people are quick to defend Donovan with the claim of no continuity. Donovan has had a whole season under his belt of working with Paul George. He knows his nuances, his strengths, and his weaknesses. He can now take that information and maximize it. He can run more plays through him and for him, with an understanding of how he works within the offense.
In addition, George also now has a year of experience playing with the Thunder’s core of Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, Alex Abrines, Grant, Patterson, Felton, and Ferguson.
Also, don’t discount the fact that the Thunder aren’t actively trying to convince George to stay. He is here to stay for awhile. No more worrying about stepping on toes. This guy is ready to be coached.
With an understanding of how he plays, and with him already having developed chemistry with his teammates, George should be a lot more comfortable on this team. Also, shouldn’t have to shake off any rust, mentally or physically, because…
2. He is 100% healthy
After the season, Paul George sent Thunder fans into a tizzy when he posted a picture of him on a hospital bed in a hospital gown with the caption, “Good spirits”. Turns out he was having surgery on his left knee due to swelling, much like what happened to Westbrook recently. The surgery was minor in nature as it was mainly to clean up the knee to reduce the swelling on it.
For much of last season, George was bothered by elbow/forearm issues on his shooting arm that affected his shot, especially in the second half. Before the All-Star break, George was shooting 44.8% overall and 43.2% from three. After the All-Star break, those numbers plummeted to 38.5% overall and 32.4% from three. The culprit was a build up of fluid around the elbow that was pressing on the nerve that led to the forearm, which caused the numbness. He had a procedure in which they drained 18-20 (!!!) ounces of blood from a bursa sac in his elbow. For those of you wondering what 20 ounces of something looks like, think of the Gatorade bottle below. THAT. MUCH. BLOOD. Pooled In his shooting elbow.
More on this later, but despite having the procedures done this offseason, Paul is in more than in “Good Spirits”.
As he points out in Tim Bontemps article: “The knee is doing good. It still has a long way to go. … It looks like I’m doing well, but I’m still working through some stuff, and still working on trusting and putting full confidence in my leg. I’m a little ways away, but there’s no pain, there’s no swelling, there’s nothing I’m concerned about. I’m just not at the level I need to be. There’s no limitations. All it is, is taking steps, all it is, is progression. I’m just trying to get ready and prepare for training camp down the line.”
So while George is coming into training camp seemingly healthy, his teammate is still in recovery. That teammate could very well be the reason PG gets vaulted, not just into the MVP conversation, but also the Defensive Player of the year conversation. That man is…
3. Andre Roberson
According to NBA Stats, in the 2018 season the two man lineup with the best defensive rating was Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell (Rolls eyes to the back of my head) with a rating of 95.3.
Of the 2500 two man lineups listed the lowest minute total was 1008 minutes by Jonas Valanciunas and OG Anunoby (h/t Raptors Rapture). With that being said, in 762 minutes together, Andre Roberson and Paul George posted a 94.2 defensive rating. Ninety. Four. Point. Two.
Roberson is one of, if not, the top perimeter defenders in the NBA. When healthy, he is able to focus his attention on the opposing team’s primary scorer/ball handler, which leaves PG to wreak havoc in the passing lanes.
When Roberson was healthy, George led the league in both steals and deflections. In fact, before the All-Star break, George was leading the league in steals at 2.2 per game. After the All-Star break, when the team really started to feel Roberson’s absence, his steals per game fell to 1.6.
When Roberson is healthy, George is able to thrive defensively, and in turn, the Thunder become that much better of a defensive unit. When Roberson went down, George had to take on the “lockdown” responsibility, which likely affected his play on the other end of the court.
This year however…
4. He will have more Opportunity
As I mentioned earlier, Russell Westbrook underwent an arthoscopic knee surgery about a week and a half ago. While it is hopefully nothing major, Sam Presti confirmed in his preseason press conference that the team would “never push Russell or any player onto the floor. It was a pretty minor thing he had done. We’ll see how that reevaluation goes.”
While the Thunder did make a move to acquire guard Dennis Schröder over the offseason, there is a lot of scoring to be replaced in Westbrook’s absence. Schröder will pick up primary ball handling responsibilities, but there will be plenty of opportunity for George to do damage on the scoring front.
Of course, what fans are really hoping for is that George comes out this season on fire, looking like the Playoff P that played in Game 1 of their series against the Jazz last season. And while that likely isn’t sustainable, it’s not absurd to think that it might happen in short bursts.
But sadly, after the playoffs, we saw something that disappointed fans, and gave the haters their necessary ammunition. PG seemingly disappeared when the Thunder needed him the most. People questioned whether George was as good as we all thought he was, which sets him up beautifully for…
Understandably, fans were a little disappointed with George after the season. But in reality, George shot 40.1% from deep and made more threes than he ever had in his career (ALL WHILE DOING IT WITH A GATORADE BOTTLE WORTH OF BLOOD POOLING IN HIS FREAKING SHOOTING ELBOW). But still, people wondered whether he lost his touch.
A season after he posted a career high in steals, people were saying that he wasn’t a lockdown defender because “he was owned by a rookie (Donovan Mitchell)”. I mean, he was, but he was also playing hurt.
When he decided to stay in Oklahoma City, many said it wasn’t because he enjoyed playing on OKC, or because he developed a deep relationship with Westbrook, Donovan, or Presti, or because he felt like he had unfinished business. No. Instead, they said it was because he didn’t want the pressure of playing in Los Angeles.
As I have been saying from the jump, I think PG is in the midst of an MVP season. He is healthy going into the season, rejoining a team he is familiar and comfortable with, has a lot of early opportunities to be the primary scorer, and looks to be one half of the best perimeter defending duo in the NBA.
But the most important thing of all, is the man has an axe to grind. He has something to prove. He has all the motivation he needs as the Thunder chase the ultimate goal of an NBA title.
I think his mindset this season is like the last line of the song.
“I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.”
Fight on, PG.