For much of this season, Paul George has been in the MVP conversation, which isn't quite the same as being an MVP candidate.
The former description is typically reserved for players who are having great seasons but aren't really considered serious challengers for the award. Symbolically putting those guys in the "conversation" is less an endorsement than an acknowledgment that they deserve some down-ballot love. And for a while, that seemed like recognition enough for a season in which one of the NBA's dozen or so best players took his game to a new level.
But over the past few weeks, as George has continued to pile up marquee performances and magnify his two-way impact, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward has hoisted himself out of the realm of perfunctory recognition and into legitimate contention for the league's top individual honor.
The case for George's candidacy is pretty simple: He's the NBA's second-leading scorer and its best perimeter defender. He tops all players in Real Plus-Minus and on/off differential; the Thunder - who sit third in the Western Conference - perform better than the league-best Bucks when he's on the floor, and worse than the league-worst Cavaliers when he's on the bench.
We could leave it at that, but instead, let's take a closer look at George's leap, how he's been so effective, and what's made his season so special. And let's start with what he did to the Utah Jazz last week.
Against the division rival that bounced him and the Thunder from the first round of the playoffs last year - while haranguing him into 2-of-16 shooting in the series-ending Game 6 - he delivered a 45-point, nine-rebound, six-assist, zero-turnover masterpiece, capped by a stunning game-winner in double overtime. It was a microcosm of George's season; he attacks with a plan, and he's increasingly hard to stop once he sets that plan in motion.
A couple weeks earlier, another signature outing from George left another division rival shaking its head in awe. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, George opened the game by splitting a trap on a high pick-and-roll and barreling down the lane for a violent one-handed flush. On the ensuing offensive possession, he curled off a down screen, caught a pass near the elbow, immediately took a loping step back behind the arc, and splashed a 3-pointer. The Thunder never trailed after that. George finished with a 47-point triple-double.
One game prior to that, George poured in 45 points, shouldered the primary defensive assignment on fellow MVP candidate James Harden, and hauled in 11 rebounds, including a huge defensive board in traffic that helped ice a win over the Houston Rockets. The Thunder erased a 22-point halftime deficit to get there.
In those performances (and many others), George has shown off a newly refined game in which he exudes calm and looks completely in control, never harried or flustered. With a quick, liquid release, the ability to shoot over nearly any defender, and the pristine footwork and keen spatial awareness to tap-dance out of long twos and into threes, he's boosted his rate of long-range attempts (he's launching nearly 10 a night) at no cost to his efficiency:
The biggest change to George's shot profile is that he's pulling 3.8 threes off the dribble per game - nearly double his average from last season - and hitting 41 percent of them, second only to Steph Curry among high-volume pull-up shooters.
George is also attempting fewer shots in the mid-range and more of them at the rim. With a more varied handle that includes a redoubled affinity and aptitude for his behind-the-back dribble, he's getting more mileage out of his serpentine drives. He has counters to every move, which help him shake free even when he's stymied at the initial point of attack. Crucially, he does an excellent job of keeping his dribble alive, which allows him to patiently prod until a seam opens.
His handle may not be as tight or as elegant as, say, Harden's or Kyrie Irving's or Chris Paul's, but due to his strength and balance, it's just as difficult to push George off the ball. His 9.7 percent turnover rate is by far the lowest of his career, and rare for someone who uses so many possessions. Only two other qualified players - Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard - have turnover rates below 10 percent with usage rates above 29 percent this season.
It's difficult for defenders to adjust to a game that's as arrhythmic as George's, simultaneously laconic and explosive. He seems to recognize that challenge; he's become expert at shifting gears, not just as a means of keeping perimeter defenders on their heels, but as a way to create openings at the rim. He alters the timing and length of his strides on the gather to get interior defenders to commit a beat too early. Watch how badly Derrick Favors mistimes his jump here:
When a player begins to master the finer points of NBA basketball, you'll often hear that the game has "started to slow down" for them. The game slowed down for George a long time ago, but now he's one of the rare players who can make it slow down or speed up for everyone else.
George is attempting more field goals, 3-pointers, and free throws than he ever has, but he never seems like he's forcing anything. George's shots come within the flow of the Thunder's offense, and he's more than happy to give the ball up when defenses blitz him or show extra bodies on his drives. He's making more productive passes than ever, with 14.3 percent of them going for assists - a top-10 mark.
Honing his two-man dance with Russell Westbrook has allowed George to play with more ease and fluidity. George can be equally devastating playing on or off the ball - creating his own shot or letting Westbrook create one for him. In some of their diciest moments this season, the Thunder turned to the Westbrook-George pick-and-pop, leveraging Westbrook's driving threat to draw attention away from George as he slips the screen.
Convincing Westbrook to loosen his grip on the steering wheel is one of the triumphs of George's season. Westbrook's always presented a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Is his blot-out-the-sun style of play born out of necessity, or did he create that necessity by pushing his teammates to the fringes of their utility? Regardless, if Westbrook deserves credit for ceding more control to George, then George deserves credit for earning Westbrook's trust and proving worthy of that control. Westbrook's usage rate has come down to "only" 31.3 percent - still a huge number, but his lowest in nine years. (It's down from 34.1 percent last year, and an NBA-record 41.7 percent in his MVP season the year prior.)
What really cements George's MVP candidacy - and what separates him from the most recent winners of the award - is his ability to take over a game at either end of the floor. Defensively, he's a world-class pest. He invades your space, takes away your oxygen, and never lets you get comfortable. His hands are constantly swiping at the ball, then skittering out of the pocket just in time to avoid fouling. He gambles a lot, but it doesn't really feel like gambling because of how often it pays off. George leads the league in deflections and steals, and he's by far the biggest reason the Thunder force more turnovers than any other team.
Between his length, agility, and balance, George is as hard to get around as he is to stay in front of. Even if you do gain a half-step, he'll be breathing down your neck, ready to challenge your shot from behind. And one of his more underrated assets is the body control and core strength to close out hard without leaving his feet or letting his momentum carry him past the shooter. Closeouts like this are not attackable:
Beyond exhibiting excellence, however, an MVP season usually has to tell a story. Telling the story of George's season means rewinding to July 1, the first day of 2018 free agency, when George got on a stage with Westbrook and stunned the basketball world by agreeing to at least three more years in Oklahoma City.
After a disappointing season with a team he'd never planned to play for in the first place, George was overwhelmingly expected to bolt for his hometown Lakers, where he could play sidekick to LeBron James. But George stayed put, without even taking any meetings, and has actually outperformed James. In the process, he's managed to paper over Westbrook's worst shooting season in a decade, take co-equal spiritual ownership of the Thunder, and re-establish the franchise as one of the league's sturdiest after it spent two years in flux following Kevin Durant's painful departure.
George probably isn't the best player in the NBA, but that's not necessary in order to be the 2018-19 MVP. The award accounts for circumstance, for the way a player interacts with the ecosystem that houses him, and for personal growth in the face of new challenges. How do you weigh the importance of rewiring the instincts of a notoriously intransigent teammate? How do you weigh the value of George deciding to stick around a snakebitten small-market franchise, and then validating that decision by becoming the best version of himself and fundamentally altering the team's DNA?
And will the answers to those questions be enough to propel him past Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo? For as good as he's been, the slope still runs steeply uphill. Harden is having one of the greatest scoring seasons in history, and Antetokounmpo is some kind of post-human evolutionary outlier who's arguably making an even more pronounced two-way impact for the team with the league's best record. But George has, at the very least, put his name alongside those two in what's become (for now) a three-person race. That in itself is an extraordinary accomplishment.