Chris Paul was supposed to fade away. The future Hall of Famer was exiled from a title contender in Houston last summer to a rebuilding franchise in Oklahoma City with little hope of escaping thanks to his massive contract. But he turned an obstacle into an opportunity, taking control of a roster that had just lost Russell Westbrook and Paul George and turning the team into one of the best in the West.
Oklahoma City is 40-24 and tied for the no. 5 seed heading into the NBA restart in Orlando. It’s all thanks to Paul. The Thunder have their best net rating when he’s on the floor (plus-6.8 in 2,003 minutes) and their worst when he’s off (minus-5.4 in 1,098 minutes). He’s back in the role he was born to play, commanding the offense and maximizing everyone around him.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Paul always controls tempo, runs a million pick-and-rolls, and makes the right decision, whether it’s knocking down pull-up jumpers or finding his teammates in their sweet spots. He’s not the defensive ball hawk that he was in his prime, but he’s still a menace on the help side. He times swipes perfectly to create turnovers and wins scrums for rebounds against players twice his size.
There are two reasons the Thunder could punch above their weight in the playoffs. The first is a three-point-guard lineup featuring Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder. It’s one of the most lethal combinations in the league, with a net rating of plus-28.6 in 401 minutes. They are three ball handlers who can shoot off the dribble, space the floor, and make plays for each other, and it puts the defense in an impossible position. That group is Oklahoma City’s 17th-most-used three-man combination this season, a number that will skyrocket once Thunder coach Billy Donovan shortens his rotation.
The second reason is Paul’s ability to close games. He can always create a good shot out of the pick-and-roll and seemingly never turns the ball over. At 35, he’s having one of the greatest clutch seasons of all time. Paul has willed the Thunder to victory after victory down the stretch this season:
It’s a dramatic reversal from his time in Houston, when he rarely got the chance to do much with the game on the line. Paul leads the NBA in clutch points this season (146) after being fifth on his own team last season (23) behind both Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker, among others.
It looked like CP3 had lost a step. He was in and out of the lineup with the lowest scoring average (15.6 points per game) and field goal percentage (41.9) of his career.
Slowing down is inevitable for a player with as many miles on his body as Paul. He has played the second most minutes of any player since 2005-06. But his decline was made worse by an offensive system based entirely on its best players beating their man off the dribble. Paul can’t win on pure speed anymore. He needs the ball to move from side to side to create cracks in the defense for him to exploit. A huge part of his scoring jump this season (17.7 points per game on 48.9 percent shooting) is that he’s in a system built around him instead of James Harden:
CP3’s Offensive Systems
|Teams||Shots out of isolations||Shots for pick-and-roll ball handler||Passes per game|
|Teams||Shots out of isolations||Shots for pick-and-roll ball handler||Passes per game|
His time with the Rockets must have been frustrating. Paul could still be the Point God when called upon. The team had a net rating of plus-10.4 in 727 minutes when he played without Harden last season. He just wasn’t asked to do it very often. His usage rate plummeted from 27.4 percent without Harden to 18.5 with him, turning Paul from a star floor general into a glorified 3-and-D guard.
The 10-time All-Star had to swallow his pride. Harden, one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history, doesn’t need his teammates to do much beyond stay out of his way and play defense. The things that made Paul special in Los Angeles and New Orleans had become irrelevant. His job was to stand in the corner and wait for the ball on offense, then sacrifice his body on defense so Harden could rest.
It would have been one thing if that sacrifice had resulted in a title. But Paul was wasting away on a team that may have already wasted its best shot. Houston flamed out in the second round of last season’s playoffs, losing to Golden State in six games even though Kevin Durant missed the final game with a strained calf. It was hard to have much confidence in the Harden-Paul pairing after an undermanned Warriors team ran them off their home floor in Game 6. The Beard himself said changes needed to be made in his postgame press conference.
That brings us to an impossible question to answer from the outside: Who actually broke up the Rockets? The first reports had Paul as the one making the initial trade demand, long before Westbrook was ever on the trading block. Harden had good reason to want a younger sidekick and to reunite with his former teammate, but Paul had reasons to leave, too.
Why should he play a style of basketball that made him miserable if the team wasn’t going anywhere? If he wasn’t winning a title either way, why not play for a team on which he can be himself?
Letting Paul run the show is a winning formula. He’s an advanced statistical machine who doesn’t put up empty numbers. His presence alone drives success. Paul has missed the playoffs three times in 15 seasons—his first two in the NBA and in 2009-10 when he missed half the season with a knee injury.
There may not be a player who has done more with less. Paul has the ninth-highest PER (25.1) of all time. The eight players ahead of him are Michael Jordan and seven players 6-foot-9 and taller. Paul, at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, doesn’t have the same physical advantages as the players ahead of him. He makes up the difference by never cutting corners or making mental mistakes. He’s always in the right place at the right time on both ends of the floor. That’s why he can still be dominant at 35. Paul makes the most of even the tiniest advantages.
But the downside of a team built around a maximizer is that there’s nowhere to go once it hits its ceiling. That has been the story of Paul’s career. In 11 trips to the playoffs, he’s lost five times in the first round, five times in the second, and once in the conference finals. There would always come a point in the postseason when he ran into a team built around a bigger and more athletic star who was just as skilled as he was. Maybe it was just a matter of bad luck in the biggest moments. Or maybe there was a reason his luck always ran out.
The same thing will probably happen in Orlando. The Thunder’s three-point-guard lineups might beat a team like the Jazz or Nuggets with similarly undersized guards. But they will be at a huge disadvantage against the size and power of Harden and Westbrook, as well as against Kawhi or LeBron. Oklahoma City either has to hope Andre Roberson makes a miraculous comeback after being out for more than two seasons or put untested youngsters like Terrance Ferguson and rookie Luguentz Dort on supersized wings. Those guys can guard Paul. But he can’t guard them.
Judging a 6-foot-1 guard like Paul by the same standard as someone like LeBron never made much sense. The last time that someone Paul’s size was the best player on a title team was the 1989-90 Pistons with Isiah Thomas.
It’s hard for players his size to even be the second-best player on a championship team. A great second option should dominate without holding the ball, which typically means having the length and athleticism to defend multiple positions, like Klay Thompson or Scottie Pippen.
There’s a reason Paul had to team up with Harden to make a run at a championship in the first place. The best players in the NBA don’t need someone like him. LeBron didn’t try to play with Paul despite being on the Banana Boat together. He targeted Anthony Davis instead. Kawhi wanted Paul George. To be sure, CP3 could be a great third (or even fourth) option on the Lakers or Clippers. But there’s no reason to pay someone $40 million-plus per season in that role, which Paul is due to earn the next two seasons.
Paul needs offensive freedom to earn that salary. He was overpaid in Houston, but is worth every penny in Oklahoma City. The franchise has missed the playoffs just once in the past decade. Empowering Paul has kept them relevant. There are franchises in the West who would do almost anything for just one playoff appearance.
There’s more to life in the NBA than winning a title. This isn’t Talladega Nights. Just because you ain’t first doesn’t mean you’re last. Paul doesn’t need a ring to be great. That was never in the cards for him. He was always meant to have a Banana Boat of his own.