The risk and potential triumph of Paul George’s public revenge tour

After the LA Clippers’ upset loss in the playoffs last season, Paul George has quite publicly taken on a leadership role for the team.

It wasn’t long after the spectacular failure of the NBA bubble that Paul George peeked his head out into the internet and once again upped the ante.

In an interview with Ronnie 2K, upon hearing he had fallen to an 88 rating in the game, George — an avid gamer to whom that rating actually means something — pledged a revenge tour. “It’s going to be amazing training heading into this season,” George said. The PR campaign was underway, but so was something more visceral.

George was speaking just days after the LA Clippers were upset by the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, a series in which he played quite poorly. There were embarrassing shots off the side of the backboard, and several nights where he went viral for his new nickname, “Pandemic P.” It was probably a pretty bad time to be Paul George.

But rather than lay down, George took ownership for his mistakes, including by explaining to reporters how he struggled with mental health in the bubble. Right away, he was doubling down on his own abilities and creating expectations for himself.

Throughout the offseason, partially as a result of the Clippers firing Doc Rivers and reshaping the roster, reports about the team’s culture and how it was formulated by George and Kawhi Leonard came down regularly, painting the two superstars in a bad light. It was clear George and Leonard were taking full advantage of the perks of being the top dogs on a team without a clear hierarchy, but perhaps not taking on the full leadership duties that come with that. After an upset loss in the playoffs, they were met roundly with criticism.

No matter the cause, the team’s resolve was not strong enough to maintain a 3-1 lead over Denver in the second round. That falls on the best players at the end of the day.

The next time we saw George, he was accepting all of that playoff failure and the culture that, in part, seemed to lead to it. During a postgame interview with Charles Barkley on TNT, and when asked about the reporting that George and Leonard had controlled the practice schedule, held up the team plane at times and frustrated teammates, George responded that “it’s a reason” that star players “get to that level” within their organization, hardly denying the reports.

Before long, George was back in the news after nearly blowing a big lead over the Phoenix Suns on the road in a game in which he jawed at Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cameron Payne during the Suns’ comeback. While Los Angeles ultimately won the game, George added it to the growing chip on his shoulder.

“I had a tough year last year,” he said postgame. “I’ve got to play up through that. I’ll go through the fire.”

Setting aside that George rightfully feels indignant that players are taking the opportunity of him sharing his struggles with mental health to go at him in a way they never did before, the moment felt like it tied together the various frayed edges of Georges’s mentality this offseason. In one postgame interview, George crystalized the disappointment from the bubble, the challenge of leading the Clippers and the disrespect from his peers into a statement of purpose for the rest of 2021.

What is riding on this season for Paul George?

There’s a high degree of risk involved with going about your business this way. Typically this type of confidence is only proclaimed by the absolute top talent in sports. By publicizing his own relationship with his faults, showing doubters that he heard them loud and clear, and still promising to deliver, George is setting himself up for intense scrutiny depending on what happens to the Clippers this season.

So far, the six-time All-Star is scoring over 25 points a night on 50 percent shooting and has been LA’s most consistent offensive threat in addition to a key part of the team’s defensive identity. The 8-4 Clippers look solid, and while George will never quite be the go-to scorer or defensive stopper that Leonard is, there’s something to be said for George putting pressure on himself to fill the leadership void on this team.

In Year One of this era of Clippers basketball, the team had no voice. Rivers never seemed to claim control over the group, and a bunch of players with different incentives started to get chatty with the media and outspoken on the court. One, Montrezl Harrell, was let go this offseason, but for the most part, the rest of the roster is still intact. New head coach Tyronn Lue was hired in part to bring a clearer identity to the group, but among the players, George has stepped up.

The whole situation makes it hard not to contemplate Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two players as iconic for their craven competitiveness as anything they did with a basketball in their hands. Those two became infamous for their ability to fire themselves up with the smallest of challenges and use public spats to drive them to the next accomplishment. They both were discussed ad nauseum in 2020 because of Bryant’s passing and the airing of The Last Dance, but despite his accolades not matching theirs, it appears this is just who George is and how he inspires himself to get back up.

There’s something more traditionally respectable about players who are internally driven. There are memes of LeBron James’ game face, screencaps of moments in which he reached down to something prehistoric to find the energy to finish the job. Jimmy Butler gave us another great example in the bubble, slouched over the LED screens under the basket as he carried the Miami Heat to victory in the Finals.

Those images feel like proof of something we can’t relate to in athletes. They provide a semblance of an answer to the simple question — “how?!” — that we all ask as these athletes awe us. But how George has acted these past months crushes the notion that athletes are something more than human, that their celebrity, skill and high salaries make them capable of surpassing the motivation tactics of mortals. Not so for George.

Like many of us, he handles everything out in the open. His job happens in front of everyone, meaning his biggest failures are literally broadcast for all to see. Rather than respond internally, or quietly behind the scenes, George responds with his own, pointed force to get back at the folks who slighted him while he was down. There’s a fascinating power in coming back with something just as loud as the doubt.

But within that power, there is also that risk. Should the Clippers fall short of their championship aspirations again, and especially if George starts launching 3s off the stanchion again, criticism will be even sharper. You can’t double down and not get twice the punishment if you fail.

Because these are usually conversations reserved for the absolute top tier of athletes, it makes it all the more consuming to see what happens next for George. We know we will measure the next chapter of James’ career by whether he wins a championship and gets closer to Jordan. There’s a certain stair-step upward that we are monitoring with Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The no-man’s land in the middle is where George finds himself, and while it’s a perfectly respectable place to be, George doesn’t want to settle for that, and he wants us to push him past it.

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