Paul George excelling in point-guard role for Clippers. Will Lue keep him there?
The point guard and the pupil sat next to one another on a padded section of the scorer’s table Sunday afternoon in Dallas, two minds trying to arrive at one vision for the final quarter of an eventual Clippers victory.
Expect more of the same in the future as coach Tyronn Lue, a former NBA point guard, entrusts wing Paul George with a new role of de facto point guard, a job he began in a Friday win in San Antonio and continued in Sunday’s victory against the Mavericks.
Two years after Lue challenged George and Kawhi Leonard to improve their playmaking and George carried it out through working with former assistant Chauncey Billups, George said that experience gave him comfort in recent days when coaches asked him to more directly initiate the offense after his return from a hamstring injury. The move comes with the team’s traditional point guards in flux: Reserve John Wall is out at least another week with an abdominal injury while longtime starter Reggie Jackson was moved to the bench two weeks ago, his ballhandling duties initially going to wing Terance Mann.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George help the Clippers score 33 points in the fourth quarter of a 112-98 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
Mann remains a starter. And Leonard initiates the offense, as well. But now George is handling a larger share of bringing the ball upcourt, a job he said feels “natural.”
“I told PG, ‘You’re not a traditional point guard so you don’t have to facilitate and try to make the play, like, you got to go get yours, as well,’” Lue said. “And he’s been doing a good job of just trying to make the right play, the right pass but you’ve got to be aggressive. He’s doing a good job of just understanding what we want to run and how we want to run it.”
Two victories do not make a trend. But the Clippers (25-24) hope they can start one. This season, their offense ranks 26th in producing 111.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass, the statistics database that strips out “garbage time” possessions. Against San Antonio and Dallas, the Clippers averaged 133.9 points per 100 possessions.
Those numbers could just as easily be pinned to Leonard scoring a combined 66 points in his last two games, and reserve Norman Powell a total of 45. But George has also played a key role. Nine of his 12 assists Friday came after George reached the paint, or was near it on a drive. After only four first-half shots Sunday, stymied by Dallas’ zone, George responded by repeatedly finding ways into the paint. This is the way George has to play, Lue said.
“It just gives you another attack guy, he creates plays for us, get downhill and I don’t have to do it all game,” Leonard told The Times. “I can get some catch-and-shoots now and when I got the ball bringing it up it’s the same thing, we’re just helping each other out.
“Mann is doing a hell of a job, he’s still running it. I just think Paul being who he is as a ballhandler and three-point shooter, mid-range shooter, it helps us.”
With the role change, George “has to sacrifice the most” because he won’t get some of the shots that were typical when he played off the ball, Lue said Sunday. But the change was made in part because George still has the option to attack first, keeping him engaged, the coach said. With Leonard scoring 30 points Sunday to extend his streak of at least 24 points to seven consecutive games, the offense will tilt ever more heavily toward Leonard, but Lue did not want that to come at the cost of his co-star’s rhythm.
It addressed a valid concern, George said.
“I felt like I would lose my rhythm just because, rightfully so, we got one of the best players and one of the best playmakers and when [Leonard] has the ball in his hands, good stuff happens, so we’re going to run stuff through him,” George told The Times. “Perfectly fine with that.
“Flip side of that sometimes it is tough when you haven’t shot it in two, three, four, five possessions and then now you get one and it’s like all right, I’m tuned up. But then I might not shoot again for another two, three, four possessions and so you might find it’s like OK, my shot, I need to put a little more touch on it, but then you don’t shoot it again. It’s a little tough to stay in rhythm sometimes. Yeah, this works great for me where … while I’m out there, I’m trying to get him opportunities and look for him and make the game easy for him because he’s so efficient and shoots the ball so well.”
Entrusting the new responsibilities to George means accepting the risk of turnovers. George had turned the ball over on 18% of his possessions as the pick-and-roll ballhandler entering Saturday. On 25 pick-and-roll possessions in which he’d been trapped, his turnover rate had jumped to one-third, per Synergy Sports.
Operating at his most efficient means making the simple pass, Lue has stressed. George scored 16 points with 12 assists and zero turnovers against San Antonio. He added 21 points and four assists and five turnovers against the Mavericks, though none of the turnovers came after halftime as the Clippers outscored Dallas by 19 to cruise to a 14-point win.
Not everyone in the NBA is convinced the team will play without a traditional point guard for long. The Clippers are said to be interested in upgrading the position ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, and Lue has said in recent weeks he would prefer to keep a point guard in his rotation. Within the locker room, players’ opinions on the topic differ: Several believe a “traditional” point guard is needed to optimize the offense. Others say it’s an outdated notion so long as ballhandlers are unselfishly moving the ball from one side of the court to another, forcing rotations that can open driving lanes.
Kawhi Leonard is once again showcasing the skills that make him one of the NBA’s elite players, but the Clippers’ defensive struggles are a concern.
“If we go toward this way to finish the season I’ll love it,” George said, “but, you know, I think just with how we play and if we’re going to play with four wings and a big or at times five out with our small ball, then I think that’s where I feel we have the advantage where we can stay big and we still got a facilitator and playmaker on the floor and can get us into sets and get us into good shots.”
On Saturday, Lue indicated he feels the same way. The wing-oriented lineups he tried against the Mavericks built around George, Leonard and Powell could be a “really, really good unit for us.”
“Marcus [Morris], Nico [Batum], PG, Kawhi or [Robert Covington] in that mix along with Norm or Luke [Kennard], whatever, those are going to be some good lineups for us,” Lue said.
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