When the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul and draft compensation to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook, it seemed like the Thunder might be headed for a rebuild. And yet, three-fourths of the way through the regular season, Paul has led the Thunder to the league’s best record relative to their Vegas preseason over/under and ahead of the Rockets in the Western Conference standings.
The Thunder have gotten to where they are this season in part by allowing the Point God to take over in close games. That dynamic was on full display in the Thunder’s one-point victory over the Boston Celtics this Sunday. With 13.8 seconds left and the Thunder trailing by one point, Paul trapped Kemba Walker in the backcourt, allowing Dennis Schröder to steal the ball and lay in the eventual game-winning basket. On the next possession, now with the Celtics trailing by one point, Paul took on the assignment of defending Jayson Tatum and forced him into a difficult fadeaway that hit the front of the rim.
By now, Paul’s brilliance in clutch situations has become old hat. While there is no perfect definition for what “clutch” is, it’s instructive to look at what happens in the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points. In those moments, the intensity picks up and the game slows down, creating as close a facsimile to playoff basketball as we can get in the regular season.
This season, Paul leads the NBA in total points scored in the clutch, which is largely a result of the amount of time he has spent in those situations (no team has appeared in more close games this season than the Thunder). But what makes Paul’s season so special is how efficiently he’s scoring those points.
Many players lose efficiency when the game is in the balance, but Paul becomes more efficient. On the season, Paul has a true shooting percentage of 60.9. That number rises to 67.8 percent in clutch situations, second best in the league among players who have attempted at least 50 shots in the last five minutes of close games.
The only player ahead of Paul is Terry Rozier, who has a true shooting percentage of 70.6 in clutch situations. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated to winning in Charlotte. The Hornets are merely league average in clutch games with a record of 16-17, whereas the Thunder are 29-13 in similar games.
To put Paul’s numbers into historical perspective, I looked at the clutch stats for every player since the 1996-97 season, which is as far back as the data goes on the NBA’s Advanced Stats site. The chart below shows the true shooting percentage for the 15 players with the most clutch field goal attempts each season.
Among these 372 players (a few players tied for the 15th-most attempts in several seasons), Paul ranks third, just behind the aforementioned Rozier and Memhet Okur’s 68.4 percent in the 2006-07 season. But Paul’s numbers might be even more impressive than either Rozier’s or Okur’s considering that 91 percent of Paul’s made field goals in close games have been unassisted, compared to 53 percent for Rozier and just 24 percent for Okur. Unlike Rozier and Okur, Paul doesn’t need someone else to set him up.
Approaching 35, Paul isn’t nearly the athlete he once was. He doesn’t race up the court in transition or regularly blow past defenders. In fact, he plays at one of the slowest average speeds in the NBA. Fortunately for him, explosiveness and athleticism aren’t prerequisites to being useful in the clutch. In crunch time, when defenses tighten up and driving lanes disappear, the patient midrange specialist can take over. And Paul has shown to be more than happy to take the elbow jumpers that defenses regularly allow.
This season, Paul is shooting a blistering 53.9 percent in the midrange, tops in the league among players who have taken at least 100 midrange attempts. His shot chart this season further illustrates his effectiveness in the areas of the court that are often ignored in today’s NBA.
A reliable midrange game like Paul’s can be the key to a deep playoff run. Four of the top five players in field goal percentage from the midrange in last year’s playoffs were on teams that advanced to the conference finals or beyond: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and CJ McCollum.
One of the best ways to score against a locked-in defense is by getting to the free throw line—and no one is better than Paul at finding crafty ways to get there. This season, Paul has drawn a total of 94 non-shooting fouls, first in the NBA according to numbers from PBP Stats. In fact, Paul has drawn more non-shooting fouls than shooting fouls, a statistical anomaly among high-usage players. The chart below shows the number of shooting fouls drawn on the x-axis and the number of non-shooting fouls drawn on the y-axis. Paul is all alone in the upper-left-hand corner of the chart.
Since 2000 (the furthest the data goes back), no one has drawn more non-shooting fouls than Paul. Why work harder when you can work smarter?
With Paul holding the reins, the Thunder have arguably the best closing lineup in the NBA. Schröder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams are all threats to score, which keeps opposing defenses from keying in on Paul or any other one player. When those five players share the court they outscore opponents by 29.9 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league for lineups that have played at least 100 minutes.
Paul’s performance this season should help put to bed the notion that he’s no longer a positive asset given his contract and age. The Thunder are outscoring teams by 6.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the court. But when he’s off the court, the Thunder are getting outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions. That makes for an on/off differential of plus-13.4, best in the league for players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass. A return to the All-NBA lineup after a three-year drought seems deserved. And any team that feels it’s a point guard short of championship contention—or the Knicks—may want to consider trading for Paul this offseason.
The biggest question mark remaining for Paul this season is whether he can stay healthy. His last two postseasons in Houston were marred by injuries and what-could-have-beens. So far, he’s been the picture of health in Oklahoma City by playing in 63 out of a possible 64 games. For the Thunder to make noise in this year’s playoffs, they’ll need their Point God at full strength.
Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn.