LA Clippers superstar Paul George is a very special type of player. A 6’8, 220 pound shooting guard with a sweet stroke from three, elite defensive chops and athleticism attacking the rim doesn’t come around every draft. His journey from Indiana to OKC to the LA Clippers is also its own special story. But PG’s career so far does have a somewhat recent historical comparison: Dallas‘ Dirk Nowitzki.
Let’s get one thing out of the way here. Dirk stayed with the Dallas Mavericks for his entire 21 year career, and Paul George is on his third team with the LA Clippers. But I argue that, on teams that aren’t winning championships, we’re not going to see Dirk levels of loyalty to a team anymore. The current comparison in that regard is Stephen Curry, and are you certain he’s still a Warrior if they never won a ring?
Paul George’s career leading up to his second season with the LA Clippers makes him this generation’s Dirk.
Outside of number of teams, the comparison works well. Physically, Paul George is oversized at his natural shooting guard position, much like Nowitzki was as a 7 foot tall power forward. They both have a silky smooth jumper that they’re best known for, but they’ve both got a really nice attacking-the-rim game (young Dirk was much more athletic than the statue we remember).
After their first few seasons, both were expected to be one of those guys always competing for championships, but year after year it didn’t quite happen. Then both Paul George and Dirk Nowitzki had a failure that was put inordinately on their shoulders.
For Dirk, the Dallas Mavericks capital R Rolled in 2006-07. They won 67 games and Dirk averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists while joining the 50/40/90 shooting club. His performance won him league MVP. Then in the first round, they encountered the “We Believe” Warriors, led by Baron Davis.
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The Warriors were the 8 seed going just 42-40, but they upset the favorite Mavs. Dirk had a really poor shooting performance, but still put up 20/11 while adding 2 assists, 2 steals and a block per game. It was a terrible series loss, and Dirk didn’t play up to MVP levels, but the reputation he earned outweighed that. After 06-07 it was “soft,” “choker,” “can’t be the best guy on a title team.”
Contrast that with Paul George in OKC the year before he joined the LA Clippers. The Thunder won 49 games and George averaged 28 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on great shooting. His performance got him a career-best 3rd place in MVP voting. Then, in the first round, they encountered the Portland Trail Blazers.
This was the infamous series where Dame Lillard hit an absurd deep shot over Paul George and waved goodbye (little did he know he was waving goodbye to Paul George the Thunder player, as he’d soon be traded to the LA Clippers). That series cemented Paul George as “Playoff P,” the choker who puts up regular season stats but can’t win when it matters.
But, I mean, look at his stats in that series. He averaged 28.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists. His shooting numbers took a hit, but the man put up numbers. I’m not saying he played like the third best guy in the league, but given the junk he catches for this series you’d think he never scored.
Of course that reputation was (unfairly) cemented in the bubble, when PG struggled with anxiety and depression in the weirdest playoffs the NBA has ever had.
Both Paul George and Dirk Nowtizki built reputations as elite players before postseason struggles were somewhat overblown and gave them reputations as dudes who would never win. Dirk wouldn’t shed that label until the first year of the Heatles, when he had a clutch postseason run in which he defeated a Lakers team with an aging superstar before overcoming the Heat’s Big 3.
It’s just a shame there’s no aging Lakers superstar or newly formed Big 3 in the Eastern Conference that could help PG cement this comparison.