As we enter the stretch run of the NBA regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers have a lot to prove. Though the team is third in the West with a 43-20 record and has won 17 of their last 21 games, the regular season seems unimportant. After Los Angeles blew a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, the focus is on the Clippers redeeming themselves and delivering upon the hype and promise that came when Paul George and Kawhi Leonard loudly joined the team during the 2019 offseason.
At the center of the Clippers’ playoff struggles last year was George. The Robin to Kawhi’s Batman, George shot under 40 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from behind the three-point line in 13 games. George’s troubles in the postseason started in a first round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks when George went 10-for-47 over a three-game stretch and admitted that he dealt with anxiety and depression while being isolated in the bubble.
Facing the sting of last season, George has bounced back in his 11th NBA season. The 6’9” wing is averaging 23.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals. George is having his most efficient season, posting career-highs in true shooting percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage. As the Clippers position themselves as one of just a handful of teams that have legitimate claims to win a championship this season, George will have to turn his recent postseason struggles around for the franchise to make some noise.
When a professional athlete secures an endorsement deal, it’s supposed to be a joyous occasion. Over the course of a few years, George signed a sponsorship deal with Gatorade and received his own signature shoe from Nike. In a dream scenario that only a select few of his peers experience, George had reached the pinnacle of relevance in the association.
For the first six years of his career, George established himself as the plucky star of the underdog Indiana Pacers. He also showed grit and determination by returning to All-NBA form after he fractured his leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014.
The inflection point in the public’s view of George was the Gatorade spot that aired late in the 2016-17 season and took off during the 2017 postseason. The ad featured George quenching his thirst with a bottle of Gatorade before he nails a game-winning shot and calls “ballgame.”
While the commercial was airing, George was swept out of the postseason that year by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and in an ironic twist of fate, he bricked a late three-pointer that would’ve tied the fourth and final game. The memesbegan to roll in as George’s track record of missed clutch shots became a point of discussion. At that point, he was 0-for-15 on career go-ahead shots with less than 20 seconds left. The numbers still don’t look great. This season, George is shooting 8-for-27 (29.6 percent from the field) in clutch situations according to NBA Stats.
That offseason, George requested a trade from Indiana and his wish was granted as Indiana dealt him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The clutch curse and the memes continued to follow. George anointed himself Playoff P in 2018 before the Thunder’s first round series against the Utah Jazz. Since then, George’s playoff heartbreaks have only been more damaging. George and his teams have only been victorious in one of his last four playoff series with the Thunder and Clippers.
It’s not so much that George has lost, but it’s also the way that he’s lost. In 2018, George had just five points on 2-for-16 shooting in 45 minutes as the Jazz eliminated Oklahoma City. In an elimination game against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019, George played very well (36 points on 14-for-20 shooting), but he guarded Damian Lillard on the final possession that saw Lillard nail a three-point buzzer and call series. After Lillard’s shot, George came off as a sore loser. In his postgame press conference “I don't care what anybody says, that's a bad shot.”
Then last year in the bubble, George shot 4-for-16 and scored 10 points in Game 7 of the Clippers’ second round elimination against Denver. George became social media fodder again when he hit the side of the backboard on a shot attempt late with the Clippers’ collapse nearing its end. The nickname has come to define George’s career to the public. Now, fans regularly label him “Pandemic P” or “Wayoff P.” The memes have essentially overtaken George’s career.
The narrative around George has transformed since his initial rise as the young phenom that seemingly shot up out of nowhere to rise from defensive specialist to two-way star. Some of his great playoff performances in his career have become easily forgotten.
There’s his 37-point eruption against the Heat in Game Five of the 2014 Conference Finals. He scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to stave off elimination. He had a 30-point, 11-rebound performance in Game Seven of Indiana’s 2014 opening round win against the Atlanta Hawks. In 2016, George (27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals) dragged a Pacers team whose three next best players were George Hill, Monta Ellis and Ian Mahinmi to a near upset of the 56-win Toronto Raptors in the first round.
When all of George’s career moments are added up, the good and the bad probably cancel eachother out. Winning is the cure-all that could solve all of his problems. LeBron James and Kevin Durant lost regularly in the postseason and eventually altered the narrative around their careers by winning championships. Kyle Lowry developed a reputation as a lovable loser after all of Toronto’s playoff failures before a 2019 championship seemingly erased all of the ghosts from Lowry’s past.
The Clippers have flown under the radar a bit this season. They have made several changes around their two stars to take that next step. The Clippers replaced head coach Doc Rivers with Tyronn Lue. On the court, they added Serge Ibaka, Rajon Rondo and Nicolas Batum and moved on from Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Only time will tell if they’ve found the winning recipe.
At this stage of his career, the regular season accomplishments of George don’t matter. A likely Hall of Famer already, the playoffs will be the true test that defines his career. If he can at least step up in those key moments, George can change his story.