If there’s a club that wishes it could fast-forward through the All-Star break, it would be the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are the NBA’s hottest team and are winners of 11 of their past 12 contests.
Russell Westbrook is in the middle of a historic triple-double run. The team, which couldn’t hit a 3-point shot for the first month of the season, now can’t miss from outside — and has put itself firmly in contention for a top-two seed in the loaded Western Conference.
But the biggest development of late has been Paul George playing the best basketball of his life, morphing from a trusty sidekick into the Thunder’s 2013-14 MVP version of Kevin Durant.
That isn’t an exaggeration. Durant racked up 40.8 points, 9.4 boards and 7 assists per 100 possessions on a lofty 63.5 true shooting percentage during his dominant campaign. Since Jan. 17, George has logged 41.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per 100 possessions on 67.9 true shooting, boasting better assist-to-turnover and steals rates than Durant had in 2013-14.1
There’s obviously an enormous difference between playing as hot as George has for a month and doing so for an entire season. Still, his transformation could end up being noteworthy for one key reason: It’s the closest thing we’ve seen to a changing of the guard on the Thunder since Westbrook took over after Durant’s departure.
For years, Westbrook critics have suggested that he’d give his teams a better chance to win by taking a step back. More often than not, he ignored these voices. And once he had the spotlight to himself, he broke an NBA record for the highest single-season usage rate while also averaging a triple-double over a full season — and that 2016-17 OKC team finished sixth in the West and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Westbrook tried playing more unselfishly last season, though that largely seemed to backfire. But it seems to be working now.
In the midst of the worst shooting season2 of his career, the 30-year-old Westbrook has eased his foot off the pedal during the team’s surge. He has taken 19.4 shots per contest this season, his fewest since the 2015-16 campaign. And during Oklahoma City’s 12-game hot streak, Westbrook attempted just 17 shots per night. (Prior to that, he was taking a little more than 20 shots per game.)
Westbrook still has considerable value. He continues to be a force when he bends defenses, and he’s finishing at the rim more efficiently than ever. His triple-double Monday marked his 10th straight, giving him the longest single-season stretch in NBA history. If he keeps up his current pace, this would be Westbrook’s third consecutive season averaging a triple-double.
But make no mistake: George is leading this team. And it’s been that way all year.
Because Westbrook missed the start of the season, when he was coming off a late-offseason arthroscopic procedure on his knee, George was the club’s lone workhorse at times to begin the year. That was something he rarely enjoyed last season, when the offense generally saw George, Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony take turns shooting.
Somewhat stunningly, at this rate, George is already just 10 games or so away from eclipsing his shot attempt total from last season. His shot chart this season looks essentially the same as last year’s, but the clarity about his role seems to have helped his game immensely. George, perhaps more comfortable with Westbrook and the team now, is playing as if he realizes that it’s generally a good thing for him to take the reins on offense.
So is George’s unreal stretch enough to propel him to the top of the MVP race? One factor in his favor is that he’s elite on both ends of the floor. The Thunder rank among the top-3 defenses — despite defensive specialist Andre Roberson not having played a minute all season — largely because of George, who is leading the league in steals and loose balls recovered while ranking second in deflections. George has certainly pieced together a solid defensive player of the year candidacy.
But he has two big obstacles in his MVP path. Giannis Antetokounmpo — who averages 27 points, nearly 13 boards and 6 assists per game while playing great defense — has powered the Bucks to the NBA’s best record. And while offensive juggernaut James Harden is often seen as a defensive lightweight, his metrics — 2.2 steals per game and a league-leading 209 deflections — compare favorably with George’s.
But George may care more about his team’s fortunes than his individual accolades. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model views Oklahoma City as a legitimate challenger to the Warriors in the West. While Golden State is still a massive favorite, the projections show considerable respect to the Thunder, giving them an 11 percent probability to win the NBA championship — a figure that’s not far off the Raptors and Bucks, despite those two playing in the less competitive Eastern Conference.
However you slice it, the fact that Oklahoma City has believers — whether they’re rooted in computer algorithms or actual fans — is a credit to George’s unbelievable play as of late.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.