Beyond missing all or most of next season and throwing a big wrench in the Clippers’ player personnel strategies this offseason, it’s hard to predict the full fallout of Kawhi Leonard’s mystery-shrouded ACL surgery, which the team announced Tuesday, offering no timeline for the superstar’s return.
One outcome, however, is all but guaranteed: an increase in Paul George’s workload, which was not insignificant to begin with.
Without Leonard, and short of another high-level star being brought abroad — which, given L.A.’s salary cap restraints and souring title chances, is exceedingly unlikely — next season George will be asked to take over substantial leadership duties and have the ball in his hands in most critical scenarios.
What that means for wins and loses remains to be seen, but certainly it will amplify his statistical volume, leading some to already predict a big year for the 11-year veteran. Bookmakers think so, too.
As of Thursday, per DraftKings Sports Book, George is considered 15th most likely to win MVP at +3500. That’s better than Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving (+4000) and just behind Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (+$3000), and is five spots higher than where George was listed on offshore gambling site SportsBetting.ag. prior to Leonard’s announcement. DraftKings currently lists Luka Doncic as the most likely winner, at +400.
George Has Been Close Before
Naturally, 15th place is a long way from carrying home the MVP trophy, and as a final position wouldn’t even register George in the official vote tally. But if George, who signed a four-year, $176 million extension in December, can keep the Clippers near the top of the Western Conference, as they were last year, his chances will skyrocket.
Following Leonard’s sidelining, which occurred from a Joe Ingles bump at the end of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, George certainly played like an MVP candidate. In the eight subsequent games, George averaged 29.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 41.6 minutes — all well above his regular season slash line of 23.3/6.6/5.2 and a big reason the Clippers were able to advance past Utah and push the Suns to six games despite missing one of the league’s top playoff performers.
While overall his shooting efficiency dipped with Leonard out, going from 44.4% from the field and 36.1% from three to 43.8% and 30.4%, George nevertheless put together some of the biggest games of the entire postseason.
In Game 5 against Utah, the first without Leonard, George went 12-for-22 from the floor and was all over the glass, scoring 37 points and grabbing 16 rebounds en route to a Clippers eight-point win. And, on the brink of elimination in Game 5 against Phoenix, George silenced his Playoff P doubters with 41 points on 15-for-20 shooting, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals, keeping L.A.’s season alive and joining Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant as the only players to score 20 or more points in 18 straight playoff games. (George would make it 19 straight in the next game, but just barely, scoring 21 on 6-for-15 shooting as the Clippers were finally eliminated.)
Big Numbers Won’t Be Enough (Probably)
Though George has not been in MVP contention the last two seasons, he is certainly no stranger to the MVP conversation. With Indiana in 2013-14, his fourth year in the league, George was ninth in MVP voting. And in 2018-19 in Oklahoma City, playing alongside Russell Westbook, himself a perennial MVP candidate, George placed just behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden for third in voting. (Leonard, then with Toronto, placed ninth, and Westbrook tied Rudy Gobert and LeBron James for 10th position.)
Of course, if George is to make a run at MVP he will likely need to be put up wins in addition to big numbers. Over the last 40 years, only five players have won the award while not representing a first-place team — Moses Malone ’82, Jordan ’88, Karl Malone ’99, Westbrook ’17 and Nikola Jokic this past season — which means George will need significant contributions from his supporting cast.
In the playoffs this season, particularly following Leonard’s injury, Reggie Jackson provided a massive scoring boost, but may have played himself into a bigger free agency contract elsewhere. Same too for free agent Nicolas Batum, who led the Clippers in playoff plus-minus but could be moving on to more lucrative horizons this offseason.
But regardless of what happens with Jackson and Batum, soon-to-be third-year guard Terance Mann will need to continue his rise up the NBA ranks if George is to have a shot at MVP and the Clippers a shot at staying relevant. Following an eye-opening regular season, Mann had a few big games in these playoffs, including a 39-point explosion in L.A’s clinching Game 6 against Utah, but he was also subject to brutal shooting droughts, such as going 4-for-15 from the field and 0-for-5 from three in the final two games of the Phoenix series.
But while Mann had to fight for minutes from the bench at times last season, he will almost certainly get many opportunities to prove himself from the get-go this coming season, as he is slated to take Leonard’s spot in the starting lineup.
And if George’s own history is any indication, this could be just the time and opportunity Mann needs to elevate his game and status. In 2012-13, George’s third year in the league, he garnered the first of seven All-Star bids when his minutes spiked from 29.7 to 37.6 following an injury to Pacers star Danny Granger. George, who’d averaged just 10.0 points over his first two seasons, averaged 17.4 in that breakout season, and in the years since, aside from 2014-15 when he only played six games, his scoring average has never dipped below the 20-point threshold.
Last season, Mann averaged 7.0 points in 18.9 minutes, taking only 5.2 shots per contest. All those numbers should rise tremendously this season, and if they go up enough — like, a lot — George could, in turn, hoist his first MVP trophy.