Paul George: Oklahoma City Thunder's Best Player

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been Russell Westbrook's team for the past three seasons, but this year, the tide is beginning to shift as Paul George's responsibility as a scorer has had to increase.

It seems as if I have spent the last decade of my life defending and arguing for Russell Westbrook's greatness. From him taking last second shots over Durant in the earlier part of the decade, to his magnificent and historical 2016-17 campaign that resulted in an MVP award, to averaging a triple-double for what is likely to be his third straight year, Russell Westbrook has became the most important player on the Thunder, but also the most polarizing.

Still, to this day, Russell Westbrook remains the most important player on the Thunder roster through his improved defensive awareness, facilitating ability, and his overall competitiveness. But it's Paul George's time to be this team's best player.

Last season, the Thunder acquired Paul George in July and Carmelo Anthony a couple days before training camp kicked off. George described this tumultuous season as it having "too much pressure". As he and Carmelo felt the pressure building, it seemed like more of a schematic "fit" issue rather than a chemistry issue.

Between their three stars last year, their offense revolved mostly around one-on-one turns each of the three would take, resulting in little continuity and efficiency. To George's credit, he was the only one out of the three that looked to thrive in those types of situations. But still, George's performance last season is nowhere even close to the level that he's at this year, and a big part of that is the departure of Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony's absence has led to even more opportunities for George and he's thriving in his increased workload. This can be seen evidently when Westbrook missed a stretch of six games due to an ankle injury, a stretch of games that saw the Thunder go 5-1. All of this has lead us up to the month of December 2018, George's best month as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In December George became the Thunders' best player, averaging 30.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game, while shooting 49.3% from the field and 43.2% from three. No performance was greater than his 47 point output against the Nets, in which he drilled a game-winning three-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining.

Being in attendance at the Thunder @ Nets game on December 5th, you could feel and see the momentum fully swinging into George's favor, as the Thunder rallied from a 20 point deficit in a Barclays Center full of Thunder Fans.

In that game, it became evident that Westbrook couldn't run the entire team on his own, and shouldn't have to. He's carried the complete burden of this team for two straight seasons, doing everything humanly possible, but now it's time to for Westbrook to let go of some of that responsibility.

Westbrook has adapted throughout the course of the season to be more comfortable off-ball, allowing George to have more one-on-one pick and roll action with Steven Adams at the top of the key. This has come after coach Billy Donovan told ESPN's Royce Young that George asked Donovan to "stop running plays for him".

So many times before that, Donovan would run off ball screens to get George the ball in the high post, but this allowed George minimal space to operate. In a crowded environment, George was stuck shooting long midrange jump shots. Now George seems to have more space, catching the ball further from the rim, allowing him more drive opportunities and dribble-pull up jump shots.

This switch in play-calling by Billy Donovan has made George into a facilitator, as he's averaging 3.9 assists per game, the most he's averaged since his 2015-16 season in Indiana.

George, more comfortable in his increased role, has become better in every facet of his game; scoring, distributing, and playing defense. Even with some recent misses late in late game situations, most notably against the Minnesota Timberwolves, George seems willing to be the "guy" down the stretch of games.

This couldn't come about without Westbrook's willingness to take a backseat to George, something that some superstars would not have done.

Still, with so much attention on George, the wins for Thunder are accredited to the team and the losses always fall on Westbrook's shoulders. An unfair outcome, but that's how it goes for the Thunder. Westbrook continues to be the emotional leader, the floor general, and the ball hawk he is on defense, and this is why I will continue to say that he is the most important player on the Thunder, but not their "best" player anymore.

It shouldn't be the case that for one to praise George, they have to tear down Westbrook, a popular narrative that thrives in today's discourse. We should be able to analyze two great players, one which is playing better, but one that is as important to his team as anybody in NBA.

Paul George's play has catapulted himself into the MVP discussion and will earn him sixth all-star selection. His two-way greatness has been undeniable this season and has formalized the Thunder as a realistic threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference.

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