Our exit interview series on the 2023 Clippers continues with a review of Podcast P himself, Paul George.
Weight: 220 pounds
Position: Shooting Guard/Small Forward
Years in NBA: 13
Key Regular Stats: 23.8 points, 5.1 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 3.1 turnovers in 34.6 minutes per game across 56 games played (all starts) on 45.7/37.1/87.1 (5.3 FTA attempts) shooting splits (58.8 True Shooting)
Postseason Stats: Missed all five playoff games with a knee injury
Expectations were high for Paul George coming into the 2023 Clippers season. After an injury riddled 2022 campaign where he played in just 31 games and had his lowest scoring efficiency (True Shooting of just 53.8) since his third season back in 2013 (excluding his extremely shortened 2015 season) and the second lowest of his career. Playing without Kawhi Leonard was not as rosy for PG, who was expecting to return to his place as the Robin to Kawhi’s Batman in the Clippers’ quest for a ring.
In terms of production, considering Paul George has been steady-ish for his Clippers’ tenure, the expectation was more of the same: 22-24 points, 5-6 rebounds, and 5-6 assists per game with strong defense. In short, the expectation was for Paul George to play at an All-Star, All-NBA Third Team level as the Clippers’ second-best player on hopefully one of the best teams in the NBA. The other main hope was for PG to play in more games compared to the 48, 54, and 31 in his first three Clippers’ seasons.
Well, it was a mixed bag. Paul George technically did play his most games in a Clippers uniform at 56 (though because the 2021 season was just 72 games, he played a higher percentage of games that year). Paul George did also, somewhat controversially, represent the Clippers at the 2023 All Star Game. His production was right in line with his Clippers’ averages, with slightly lower points, rebounds, and assists being negated a bit through reduced turnovers and efficiency back in line with his first two seasons. On paper, the season doesn’t sound so bad – though 56 games is still quite low.
In reality, it felt a whole lot worse. It’s partially because George’s knee injury kept him out of the playoffs, resulting in yet another early Clippers’ exit. But it’s also because the Clippers disappointed all season, going 44-38 compared to 42-40 the previous season despite getting 56 games of PG and 52 of Kawhi Leonard versus 31 and 0 the year before. The rotations were a mess, the team seemed dispirited at times, and there just seemed to be a lack of leadership. Kawhi and PG are quiet guys by nature, and while they work very hard and play hard, the lack of locker room leadership was noticeable.
Not only that, but Paul George’s influence seemingly factored into the roster being so bad, as he was by all accounts a primary driver of the John Wall signing. Wall, of course, was a disaster, and Paul George and Ty Lue’s desire for a “traditional point guard” to handle the ball meant the team couldn’t bring back valuable backup center Isaiah Hartenstein. George was then the main proponent of the Russell Westbrook signing. And, while Russ had some very good moments for the Clippers, I ultimately still wish the Clippers hadn’t signed him so they could have gotten a longer look at starting point guard Terance Mann and high-minutes player Bones Hyland.
While it’s fine that PG wants to play with friends and guys he trusts on the court, his lack of leadership and his abrogating the responsibilities of a franchise player (like not wanting to handle the ball as much because Jrue Holiday pressured him one game) were major parts of this season’s failures. Too often PG was invisible in games the Clippers needed him. He was still very, very good, a clear top 30 and probably top 25 player in the NBA. But he’s no longer top 10, or close, and that’s a bad sign for the Clippers.
And, while it’s not his fault at all, Paul George missed the playoffs entirely. The Clippers have had the 213 era for four seasons, and had Kawhi Leonard and Paul George healthy together for just one postseason – the first season with the collapse in the Bubble. At some point, the Clippers will need to figure out if their superstars can ever make it healthy through a regular season to get them to where they need to be to make a deep playoff run, much less stay healthy through the grueling postseason itself. And, speaking of which…
Injury Discussion Sidebar
I feel like I haven’t really given my thoughts on the Paul George end-of-season injury situation, so here goes. To me, all of this stuff is a self-own by the Clippers. It’s not Paul George’s fault that he wasn’t back for the playoffs. It wasn’t Paul George’s fault that he didn’t give any clear injury updates, just “I’m working as hard as I can to make it back for the playoffs”. It’s not even, really, Paul George’s fault that he released his “actually, my injury was a six-week recovery” update on his podcast a couple days after the Clippers’ season ended. This all is on the Clippers.
Now, one could argue that the Clippers don’t release true injury updates for three reasons. First, you have the gamesmanship element in forcing the Suns to prepare for a Paul George contingency and add some extra stress to the series. There’s no real evidence this does or does not work, but I can’t imagine the Suns really thought he was going to play anyway. Second, there’s the “by keeping the door open, you boost his teammate’s spirits and give the team and the fans hope”. I simply don’t buy this. I kind of doubt that his teammates didn’t know the full outlook on his injury – it would have been very hard to keep that a secret inside the locker room. And even if they didn’t know, would it really be hope that was inspired, or doubt and uncertainty? As for the fans, while some people talked themselves into a PG return, that only made them even more disappointed when he didn’t come back. Finally, there’s the thought that the Clippers’ players are secretive and don’t want their injury updates made public. That’s fair enough, though I don’t really understand it.
In the end, the only thing that the Clippers got out of not saying up front that Paul George’s injury was a six-week timeline and he would miss at the very least the entire first round of the playoffs is some extra media coverage, criticism of George (and Kawhi when he sat out before the meniscus diagnosis was released) from national pundits and fans, and some extra engagement for Podcast P. Maybe the Clippers don’t care about what the national media talking heads say. But they should care about what their fans think, and it’s very clear that their handling of injury news, especially with their stars, is harming fan opinion rather than helping it. That’s all.
Future with Clippers
Paul George is signed for the Clippers for next year at a fully guaranteed rate and has a $48.8M player option for the following 2024-2025 season. He’s said all the right things about wanting to be a Clipper for a long time, and his heart truly does seem to be in Los Angeles with a Clippers uniform. For their part, the Clippers have also publicly stated their desire to keep the 213 era going, which means of course some kind of extension or new contract for Paul George.
The rub, of course, is that PG is entering his mid-30s, a time where most players start to truly decline, and he also hasn’t been able to stay healthy during his Clippers tenure thus far. Will the Clippers really be willing to pay him a mega extension or new contract paying him over $50M per year when he’s made just one All-NBA Third Team and two All Stars as a Clipper? Would Paul George be willing to take somewhat of a cut on that – still an insane sum of money – to help the Clippers out and get that final long-term job security? Both questions are unknowable at this point, but “no’s” are fully possible.
That contract question, combined with the Clippers’ incredibly disappointing 2023 season, raises the theoretical possibility of a Paul George trade for the first time. If he wants a max extension and the Clippers don’t want to give it to him, could both sides decide on a mutual parting? It seems unlikely at this stage, since George’s age, injury history, and plateaued play means his trade value probably isn’t that high. Ultimately, my guess is that PG is a Clipper for at least next season, and odds are decent that he signs some sort of deal to keep him in a Clippers jersey for the long-term.