The Oklahoma City Thunder have emerged from the depths of preseason lottery expectations, largely due to the exploits of Chris Paul.
There weren’t many that could have predicted that the Oklahoma City Thunder would be firmly in the seventh seed — or anywhere near the playoffs, for that matter — this late into the season back in July. There are several reasons explaining how the Thunder have overachieved, but let’s look at one in particular: The reemergence of the often-criticized but rarely-exalted star that is Chris Paul.
When Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN shook the NBA Twittersphere to its very core with the announcement of Paul George‘s trade to the LA Clippers last summer, it altered the league’s hierarchy. For fans of the franchise, it meant a new era of Thunder basketball was set to take form.
In the span of a week, everything changed for the Thunder. They lost two franchise cornerstones, but due to the return hauls, the future was bright.
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They had no shortage of draft capital; they had a rising star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the George trade, but they also had a 34-year-old point guard whose contract was comical — in a bad sense.
The immediate future appeared bleak. If anything, a date in the draft lottery was all but set in stone. ESPN’s training camp power rankings had the Thunder 22nd in the league; Sports Illustrated had them 17th; Bleacher Report ranked them 24th…you get the picture.
But again, here we are, in the first week of February and the Thunder are 10 games above .500 sporting a 30-20 record. Chris Paul was named an NBA All-Star for the 10th time, and the team is on pace for 49 wins—the same amount they had a season ago.
It’s really been the best possible outcome.
In 49 games this year, Paul is averaging 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.6 assists in 31.6 minutes a night on 47.7/35.6/89.7 splits. Numbers we’ve grown accustomed to when it comes to the “point god,” but they don’t fully encompass his worth to this roster.
No one in the league has been better in clutch time this season. With five minutes left in regulation or OT, with a five-point differential in the scoreboard, Paul has been at his best. He’s scored 118 points in ‘clutch’ time (most in the NBA) on an efficient 54.2 percent shooting.
Fun fact: The end-game three-headed monster that is Dennis Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Chris Paul are all shooting above 50 percent in clutch scenarios. Likewise, that three-man combination has a net rating of +32.2 in the 324 minutes of court time they have shared. Yeah, that’s not bad.
He’s been fantastic in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 93rd percentile with 1.08 points per possession in 7.7 possessions per game. He’s also been great in isolation, ranking in the 70th percentile with 0.99 points per possession in 3.0 possessions per game. Essentially, he’s been the multi-faceted, dynamic offensive threat that we’ve come to know him as.
And he’s done that without hindering the growth of Gilgeous-Alexander, the sophomore who came over in the George trade. In fact, the backcourt pairing of SGA and CP3 has benefitted both parties…tremendously. With SGA as his partner, the pressure is alleviated from the shoulders of Paul — who is playing a career-low 51 percent of his minutes at the PG position. Paul is sporting a usage rate of 22.8, while Gilgeous-Alexander’s usage rate is at 24.8.
They feed off each other; Paul, the savvy veteran, and SGA, the promising 21-year-old with seemingly endless upside. They’re in two completely different segments in their respective careers, but the timing could not have been better for their paths to intersect.
This was expected to be a season where the Oklahoma City Thunder tries desperately to shed Paul’s lucrative contract to further the rebuild or move veteran pieces like Danillo Gallinari and Steven Adams for assets, but they now enter this trade deadline with the luxury of leverage.
They don’t necessarily have to do anything drastic, they can make moves around the edges and acquire young talent to retool instead of rebuild. And they have Chris Paul — the forgotten star — to thank for that.
For now, the revenge tour still has 32 more stops until the NBA season concludes. If Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder maintain their play, they’ll be playing additional basketball well into April.