Chris Paul had just hit the dagger to clinch his first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, a feat that had eluded him for 16 years. But he had to twist the dagger too: After hitting a stepback 3 to put the Suns up by 26 late in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, he either stared at or said something to Clippers guard Patrick Beverley as he passed by. Beverley turned around and shoved Paul in the back, sending him head first into a crowd of Suns players. Beverley was ejected and ultimately suspended for the first game of next season. Paul rose from the ground with his arms raised high, like a prize fighter, and a big grin across his face.
Paul’s ability to get under players’ skin is as much a part of his legacy as his on-court organizational skills or his preternatural passing. He’ll flop, flail, and try just about everything else to earn a trip to the foul line. He’ll butter up the referees in the hopes of getting a favorable call. It’s effective if he’s on your side, but an absolute headache if he’s not.
“If a guy just kind of rubs against your elbow every time you shoot it, where he’s not fouling you, but he touches your elbow. Or when you’re handling the ball, [he] gets into your leg a little bit. Those types of things build up, and then you see someone else reacting out of frustration,” says David West, a 15-year veteran who played alongside Paul in New Orleans. “It’s not so much that he hit you or did something intentionally to hurt you. He’s a gamesman, man.”
The problem is when Paul’s manipulating ways start to grate on his own teammates. Paul has been described as a control freak, and while his grip on a game is an asset when you’re winning, it can be unbearable when you’re not. After Beverley was tossed, DeMarcus Cousins was caught by cameras shouting at Paul what appeared to be “You wonder why nobody fuck wit’ your weak ass.”
Cousins, playing for his fifth team in five years, has had plenty of his own run-ins with opponents and officials in his career, but he’s not the only one who feels that way about Paul. Reported clashes led to Paul’s ouster in both Los Angeles and Houston. But in his sabbatical in Oklahoma City, and now with Phoenix, Paul found the right audience for his stern messages. Balancing his competitive spirit and the greater good always has been a challenge for Paul, but finally finding the right mix has positioned him and the Suns just two wins away from an NBA title.
West saw a lot in his basketball career, but among his fondest memories is the first time he met Chris Paul. It was 2002 and West was a student at Xavier trying to make extra cash as a counselor at the Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis. The likes of Daniel Gibson and Corey Brewer were on the court, but West remembers the 17-year-old who barked orders, was the fastest guy in the gym, and could lock down your best player. “Just dynamic,” is how West describes the young Paul.
West would later team up with Paul in the NBA, on the New Orleans Hornets. He also remembers the growing pains Paul endured trying to outsmart NBA players. West says Paul was so smart, even as a 21-year-old, he’d occasionally make mistakes thinking too much. Paul would chase an offensive player from behind, tap his off-hand to make it seem like he was positioned on the opposite side of the ball, then steal the ball when the opponent had his guard down. It worked so well that he all but abandoned getting in front of players in transition. Soon, players started blowing by him for easy buckets.
“I think that would be a case where you’re like, ‘OK, that works sometimes, [but] probably won’t work against Jason Kidd,’” West says.
Paul would get especially annoyed when a teammate wouldn’t shoot after receiving the ball from him, even if they were covered. “You might miss it, might bobble it, but probably the worst thing would be not shooting it,” West says. West liked his jumpers from the elbow, typically out of a pick-and-pop, far away from defenders. Paul would pass it to him, assuming he was in the right spot, but if West wasn’t wide open, he would swing the ball to the nearest open teammate. That drew the point guard’s ire.
You’re moving it to a guy who can’t shoot as well as you can, Paul would bark. Shoot the ball!
West adjusted, telling himself to be ready for Paul’s unexpected yet accurate passes. During his tenure in New Orleans, West shot nearly 50 percent from the field and was twice named an All-Star. But being Paul’s teammate also had its drawbacks. When rookies would show up five minutes before practice, he’d ask “Yo, what do we have to do to change here?” When the tardiness continued, he’d jokingly tell the players’ parents, “Hey, you got to get your son here on time.”
Paul wanted everyone to work as hard as he did, to win like he wanted to win, and to sacrifice like he did so the unit could be better.
“If you’re a guy that isn’t competitive, doesn’t take things seriously all the time, doesn’t know how to [lock in] when it’s time to stop playing around and just have that right approach? Yeah, he’s going to clash with you,” West says.
Matt Barnes always respected Paul’s approach. “I don’t give a fuck who likes me on the court. I’m not out there to make friends,” Barnes says. “[And] I don’t think he’s out there to make friends.”
When Paul wanted out of New Orleans in the 2011 offseason, and the Lakers became a prime destination, Barnes, then a Lakers forward, got on the phone with Paul. They talked about a potential backcourt partnership between Paul and Kobe Bryant, how Paul’s demanding ways could jive with Bryant’s steely approach.
The deal fell through, courtesy of a David Stern veto, but Barnes would team up with Paul a season later on the Clippers. Los Angeles’s other team routinely ranked among the league’s best but chronically underachieved, never making it out of the second round in Paul’s six seasons.
“Headbutting and ego was the downfall of our Lob City team,” Barnes says. “I think that we definitely had one of the best teams in the league. I think we definitely had an opportunity to win a championship with that team. … There was just times where our stars would get into it, like every other team. But I think that hindered us a little bit more.”
Barnes had been in the league for a decade, and on eight different teams, before he joined Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Paul’s domineering style wasn’t new to him. “Chris is a throwback point guard,” Barnes says. “Chris is like an ’80s or ’90s point guard, where what he’s saying is correct, but his delivery may be off. Back in the day, you can yell, cuss, and we understood it was for the greater good of the team.”
Not everyone felt the same. Barnes says the Clippers acquired veterans like Grant Hill, Willie Green, and himself to act as buffers between Paul and some of his teammates. But as those vets left, it became tougher to work through the differences. Reports of internal strife mounted, ultimately leading to Paul’s sign-and-trade to Houston in 2017. He lasted just two seasons with the Rockets, coming one game shy of the Finals in the process, before James Harden had enough, too.
Back in the New Orleans days, Bobby Brown says Paul would treat his teammates like family, even if you were an undrafted player brought into training camp as an extra body. “Oh, come to the house,” Brown, a reserve for the 2009-10 Hornets, recalls Paul saying. “We cooking.”
In Phoenix, the house is open again.
“He’ll invite us over. Like, ‘More than welcome to, not like everybody has to come, but if you’re not doing anything, you can pull up. Chef’s cooking this and that,’” Mikal Bridges said earlier this week. “In the NBA, usually people have things to do. You get there … there’s about eight to 10 people there. Like, oh, everybody kind of showed up here. You just want to be around this man.”
Paul’s trade from Houston to Oklahoma City in the summer of 2019 was once thought of as the beginning of the end. The injuries were piling up. His contract was viewed as one of the league’s biggest albatrosses. And enough had circulated about his bossiness that it was hard to envision another star player wanting to team up with him.
But Paul found new life with the Thunder—and critically, teammates who wanted to follow his lead. Paul, now in his mid-30s, got serious about his health, and embraced a plant-based diet. And this time, his overmanaging helped make sense of a Thunder roster filled with young players looking to make names for themselves and vets tossed into trades to make the cap math work. A three-point-guard lineup of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder became one of the most potent combinations in the league. The Thunder as a whole became virtually unbeatable in the clutch, and earned an improbable postseason berth.
More importantly, Paul’s OKC teammates had nothing but glowing reviews.
“I got a brother for life,” Gilgeous-Alexander said earlier this season. “I’m thankful for being his teammate.”
Schröder complained often this season with LeBron James and the Lakers, but he credits his time in OKC, and with Paul, for helping to change his career. “He’s a great person, his family is nice. I learned a lot from him,” Schröder said last December.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when given an opportunity by the Thunder to help choose his next destination, Paul chose another young team in Phoenix. This season, he’s taught Bridges the importance of two-for-one opportunities, and made sure center Deandre Ayton was in the gym every day.
“First thing he told me was ‘You know, the thing that’s going to keep me in the league for a long time is angles.’ And I was like, angles? I was like, ‘I do everything. Angles?’” Ayton told reporters after Game 4 of the West finals. “You know, hey, it’s just angles of the screen, angles to get the rebound, being in position for an offensive board and just stuff like today, just using what he said and him just always keeping that in my head. Me being in the pick-and-roll with him, you know, this is—I won’t say it’s easy, but he makes it easy to where either he’s open or I’m open and we’re going to get something out of it. That’s what I’ve been learning through the reps with him.”
Ayton credits Paul as “the best thing that happened to my career.” And he’s far from the only Suns player to heap praise on the 36-year-old. When Paul missed the first two games of the West finals after testing positive for COVID-19, his teammates FaceTimed him immediately after coming off the court.
“Our team is built a little different,” Paul said recently. “We have a real team, like a team where you can’t just key on one guy or two guys. Everybody on our team is capable of having a big game and everybody is comfortable and accepts their roles.”
It took nearly two decades, but Paul has finally found the perfect balance for his particular brand of leadership. But he hasn’t necessarily changed his ways, especially in the heat of competition. Before he baited Beverley into an ejection in Game 6 of the West finals, Paul targeted Cousins, one of his long-running nemeses. After Paul made a layup late in the third quarter, Cousins grabbed the ball out of the net and Paul jutted his head in the direction of Cousins’s elbow. Paul fell to the floor and reached for his neck to exaggerate the contact.
Cousins stood there, bewildered. As Paul lay flat on his back, his teammates all crowding around to help their leader up, another big smile appeared.
“He didn’t create [flopping],” Barnes says. “You have to adapt to the game. You adapt to what the game is or get left behind.”