Paul George’s increased workload might not start with Clippers preseason opener
By Saturday morning, the Clippers’ last in training camp at San Diego State, coach Tyronn Lue wasn’t yet sure which players might be held out of Monday’s preseason opener, those decisions to be made after further consultation with “a couple of our guys and just kind of see how they feel.”
Should Paul George be one of those given the night off against Denver, it could represent a rare respite.
With Kawhi Leonard’s recovery from knee surgery shelving the superstar for a significant amount of the season, even more will be asked of George, the seven-time All-Star tasked with shouldering a larger share of scoring, defense and leadership during the first year of his contract extension, a workload that could mirror his effort in this past postseason.
After playing through a bruised bone in his right foot during the second half, the 31-year-old lodged the sixth-most minutes of the postseason — nearly as many as Finals combatants Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton, despite playing fewer games. George scored at least 20 points in all 19 playoff games and averaged 9.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists.
Yet it wasn’t enough to top Phoenix in the conference finals, in a series the Clippers had their chances to win, a result that he said serves as motivation.
“Whenever you think about being one series away from the Finals, that has to drive you going into next season,” George said.
Paul George welcomes the responsibility that comes as the Clippers’ unquestioned on-court leader while Kawhi Leonard remains out because of injury.
George described himself as feeling “pretty healthy” Saturday following an offseason anticipating a heavier workload. After taking “a lot of time” away from basketball for rest, he worked out alongside teammates, including point guard Reggie Jackson, forward Justise Winslow — a free-agent signing the Clippers envision using everywhere from point guard to center — and Harry Giles, a center competing for a roster spot.
“Paul’s done a great job honestly,” Jackson said, “working out with multiple guys throughout the summer. So he’s built continuity like that.”
Said Winslow: “I feel like that relationship is growing. He’s someone I feel I can go to and lean on and ask for advice on and off the court.”
That, George said, was done to continue building the kind of connections and trust that underpinned the team’s conference-finals berth while rallying from consecutive 2-0 deficits in the first two playoff series.
“I’ve grown in that area, just from the standpoint of being a little more vocal, and just wanting to be involved, wanting to put things together,” George said. “I definitely see myself growing in that area. But, again, all of it really came down to it just being organic. Fact of the matter, I like missed being around this group.”
For as much as the Clippers want another deep playoff run, they understand it cannot happen just by seeing how high George’s usage rate can go. His career high for a full season came six years ago at 30.4%. His usage registered at 30.5% in the last postseason, yet in the eight games following Leonard’s injury, with options further limited once starters Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac were hobbled as well, George’s usage rose to 34.2%.
Clippers executives hope the mix of new and veteran players will allow the team to extend its championship window several years.
Such reliance on his ability to create points off the dribble in one-on-one situations worked for two weeks in June but isn’t feasible for 82 games, which is why coach Tyronn Lue has sought to reduce some of George’s workload by altering the offense to include more focus on him playing off the ball.
Lue didn’t install plays during training camp’s first week, instead using the time to drill the need to keep players cutting and the ball moving. The Clippers won’t replace Leonard’s 26 points per game with one player. They’ll attempt to do so by making all five on the court an option for whom defenses must account.
“Just try to play through the big [man], get some backdoor cuts, everybody’s active, everyone’s alive, and I think that will help PG out a lot, because you can’t just force feed him and have him go make every play and do everything,” Lue said. “That’s why I want to get our guys used to playing without the basketball, getting some backdoor cuts. Like I said, getting some easy shots throughout the flow of the offense instead of just trying to go through him and let him create every play.”
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