Updated:
Original:

Could Paul George Become The 2021-22 MVP?

Author:
Paul George holding an MVP trophy

Paul George has always been a player that has been touted as a superstar since his Indiana Pacers days. Even though Paul George's status as a top-tier wing in the NBA, many people have slammed him previously as a player who was disappointing in the playoffs. If one goes back to the time of the 2019-20 bubble when the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead, it would be easy to see the sentiment about Paul George was far from positive.

His most recent playoff run with the Los Angeles Clippers has proved a lot of critics wrong though. He managed to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to their first Western Conference Finals in franchise history, even after Kawhi Leonard went down with an ACL injury against the Utah Jazz. It's clear that George stepped up in the postseason and took the responsibility of being the team's offensive focal point.

With Kawhi Leonard being out for the majority of this upcoming season, Paul George will have increased touches and usage on the Clippers. He will be the No. 1 option for the Los Angeles Clippers, and the lone superstar on his team. Paul George's talent and team situation begs the question: can Paul George potentially win the MVP award? In this article, we examine the possibility of that becoming a reality.


Paul George Has Been Considered For The MVP Award Before

Some fans may have forgotten about this, but Paul George was once a top-3 MVP candidate on the Oklahoma City Thunder. During the 2018-19 regular season with the Thunder, Paul George averaged 28.0 PPG, 8.2 RPG, and 4.1 APG. He also got 2.2 steals per game, and at the surface level, his stats made him a worthy candidate for the award. While he didn't end up winning the award, in the right setting, Paul George can replicate that level of play.

While Paul George's basic box score statistics have gone down since his move to the Los Angeles Clippers, with higher volume and usage rate, he should be able to put up those types of numbers for the MVP award next season. We haven't seen that level of play yet from Paul George in Los Angeles, but he'll be forced into that role once again in the 2021-22 season.

When we look beyond the box score it seems as though some things have improved in Paul George's game since his Oklahoma City days. It must be said that the improved spacing that Paul George has on the Los Angeles Clippers plays a part in those statistical improvements. According to BBall-Index's statistics database, Paul George has had a 72.91% lineup spacing rating on the 2020-21 Clippers, ranking the spacing around him at the 92nd percentile among all NBA players.

While the database doesn't have data for the 2018-19 Thunder lineup spacing rating, we can infer that it wasn't good based on the fact that only two players on his team were above league average in 3PT percentage (35.5% per StatMuse): Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson. Neither player shot above 4.0 attempts per game either.  Meanwhile, the 2020-21 Clippers were the No. 1 shooting team in the regular season. 

As per the improvements themselves, Paul George has improved statistically in a lot of offensive areas. The first area that George improved in would be his finishing. He averaged 13.1 adjusted drives per 75 possessions, an increase from his 9.4 during 2018-19. George's percentage of unassisted shots made at the rim also increased since then, from 61.3% to 83.8%. The spacing around him has helped Paul George be more aggressive when driving to the cup.

In terms of shooting percentage, Paul George was a stellar 3PT shooter in 2020-21. He shot 41.1% from the 3PT range in 2020-21, as compared to 38.6% in 2018-19, though some of that is definitely due to lessened volume. In particular, Paul George shot the corner 3PT shot much better than his time in Oklahoma, shooting 54.76% in 2020-21, as compared to 42.9% during 2018-19. Paul George's efficiency numbers will likely go down due to volume next season, but not by insane amounts.

Something to be noted too is that Paul George's isolation scoring has gotten better, with his 1.02 points per possession in isolation plays putting him in the 94th percentile of NBA players. During his 2018-19 season, that number was only 0.90 PPP, putting him in only the 73rd percentile. His total isolations per 75 were the same between the two seasons, at 4.6. Paul George is a very good one-on-one player: that will be crucial for him as a No. 1 option, as there will be times where the offense breaks down and he needs to create for himself.

The Clippers have mostly the same roster as last season. Even with Kawhi Leonard out, they will have a very good 3PT shooting team featuring plenty of great shooters such as Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum. If the team shooting holds up for them, we will see Paul George have a lot of space to operate with increased volume on his shots. That's a recipe for Paul George being able to put up numbers offensively and make him an MVP candidate.


Paul George Needs To Replicate His Playoff Numbers For The Whole Regular Season

In the 8 games that the Los Angeles Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs, Paul George averaged 29.6 PPG, 11.0 RPG, and 5.6 APG. It's obvious that he's had to carry an immense load for the team during the playoffs, and he's certainly shown that he can take over as a No. 1 option. He also upped his averages without Kawhi Leonard in the regular season, averaging 26.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 4.9 APG over 11 games.

What he will need to do to win the MVP award, is to put up numbers similar to the ones from his playoff run throughout the whole 82 games of the regular season. One of the knocks on Paul George in recent years has been his inconsistency. He can get into shooting slumps, that much most fans know. But if Paul George gets into a slump next season, the Los Angeles Clippers will have no one to carry their offense. 

To be an MVP, you have to be able to perform night in and night out. Everyone has bad games, but the best players give you something even on an off-night. One of the key things during the Clippers' series against the Jazz and Suns, was Paul George being aggressive and knowing that he is the focal point of the team. Next season, he will continue to play that role, and hopefully, he can perform like an MVP. The Clippers will certainly need it.


Paul George's Situation Next Season Is Similar To Other Superstars Who Have Won/Been Considered For MVP

Something that could potentially hinder Paul George's MVP case is the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers aren't projected by many to be a stellar regular-season team. For example, John Hollinger of The Athletic suggests that the Los Angeles Clippers will have a record of 38-44, good for 10th in the Western Conference.

The Los Angeles Clippers are not stopping any projections stop them though, and there's little doubt that they are going into the season and trying to compete. They re-signed key contributors in Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson and acquired Eric Bledsoe via trade. The betting markets view the Clippers more favorably than Hollinger too, with the projected win total for the Los Angeles Clippers being 45.5 per Peter Dewey of BetSided.

Keeping the negative projections in mind, if the Los Angeles Clippers outperform and get to the 4th or 5th seed, there's no question that Paul George will be touted as an MVP candidate. In fact, plenty of players have been in consideration or even won the award after elevating rosters with subpar talent. 

We can look at his former teammate Russell Westbrook, who won the 2016-17 season MVP while bringing a mediocre roster to the playoffs as the 6 seed. Or Stephen Curry in 2020-21, who was a top 3 MVP candidate that carried an offensively lacking Warriors team to the play-in tournament. Paul George himself was considered for the MVP in 2018-19 even though the Oklahoma City Thunder were the 6 seed.

It's true that voters do value team records and leading rosters to wins. But there's precedent for Paul George potentially becoming an MVP candidate/winner if he manages to surprise everyone and lead the Clippers to a high seed while averaging insane numbers.


Conclusion

A lot of things have to go right for the Los Angeles Clippers and Paul George next season for him to win the MVP award. There's no doubt that other superstars will be competing for the award as well, and Paul George will have to outperform them to be considered. There are plenty of analysts that have previously stated Paul George is not an MVP-caliber player, and there's no question that it's going to be an uphill battle for him.

However, Paul George winning MVP is not impossible. The Los Angeles Clippers can still be a somewhat good team with the veterans on the roster, and Paul George has been a No. 1 option in the past. If he can tap into that mindset and give the Clippers semi-efficient production on volume, then the voters will likely view him favorably in MVP discussions.

It remains to be seen if Paul George will be able to become the version of himself that is a legitimate MVP candidate. He's already silenced his haters in the playoffs. Now, the Clippers will just need him to keep that same energy during the 2021-22 season, and perhaps we'll get a look at "MV-PG" soon enough.

Source for advanced stats: BBall-Index