Welcome to SLAM’s player appreciation series. This weekly column will single out a new player each week that deserves to be recognized for their accomplishments. From role players to superstars, there is plenty of respect to be doled out, and everyone is fair game. This week’s player? Chris Paul.
The Point God, Chris Paul.
At first glance, everyone knows CP3 is a great point guard, but his legacy has been clouded about the usual claims of being a bad teammate and having only made the Conference Finals once. Now, he’s playing perhaps the best basketball of his career at age 34 in one of the smallest markets in the league.
There is too much focus on what Paul has not accomplished as opposed to what he has. He couldn’t win with the Hornets (now Pelicans), so he forced his way out. He never was able to help channel the tremendous collective talent of the Lob City Clippers into a truly formidable playoff force, and eventually forced himself out again. It’s quite a shame that the Clippers team never made real noise when it mattered, and it’s the main reason why Paul’s legacy is tainted.
Then there was the trade to the Rockets, a two-year tenure for Paul that serves as its own Rorschach Test. Glass half-full truthers probably view the Rockets pitstop as a massive success. Houston averaged 59 wins per season, and pushed the mighty Golden State Warriors farther than any team had ever done. Paul and Harden were an uber efficient on-court pairing that was ultimately snakebitten by Paul’s untimely hamstring injury during the 2018 playoffs. The pessimist will probably point out that the Rockets still failed to make the Finals, couldn’t stop bickering with officials, and Paul experienced another untimely injury. By the end of his Rockets tenure, his relationship with Harden was deemed “unsalvageable”, according to Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill.
Once he was traded to Oklahoma City this summer along with two first-round picks for Russell Westbrook, many pundits reasonably wondered if Paul would even accept playing for the Thunder. Another trade to reroute him to a contender was floated around as a legitimate possibility before nothing materialized and ace Thunder general manager Sam Presti agreed with Paul that he would play for the Thunder.
And he has been fantastic.
It’s pretty incredible that Paul is playing prime basketball at an age where most guards have either taken a dramatic step back or washed out of the league entirely. The Thunder are almost 12 points better per 100 possessions when Paul is on the court compared to when he is off, according to NBA.com/Stats. He will slice opponents up in a multitude of ways. It’s been a pick your poison type proposition for teams this season.
He’s once again a technician dissecting opponents through the pick and roll, as the Thunder score 1.09 points per possession as a result of a Paul pick and roll. That puts CP3 in the 94th percentile league wide. And when teams overload on Paul when he has the ball, he has the luxury of handing it off to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, two explosive young guards having excellent seasons.
Paul is thriving in any role on the court. He sports an impressive 63% effective field goal percentage as a spot up shooter, good for the 90th percentile in the league. He’ll scrap for rebounds, tackle the most menacing perimeter defensive assignment when the Thunder resort to their trusty three-guard lineup, and has displayed nearly impeccable durability, playing in 62 of the team’s 63 games thus far.
Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment this season has been his performance in the clutch, which is one of the few gripes critics have harped on over his career. This season, he is eviscerating everyone in his path when the game gets down to the wire. He’s shooting 55% from the field in the clutch (defined as the last five minutes of a close game), 93% from the line and sports a league-best +27 net rating. All of those numbers are better than his averages throughout the course of the season. It’s like going from being Batman during most of the game, then acquiring superpowers when things heat up.
He’s also been a model teammate and mentor to Gilgeous-Alexander and the rest of the youthful Thunder players, a role he has not had as much as you think (the Rockets and Clippers were both veteran-laden teams).
Paul’s impact has been infectious. Just ask Gregg Popovich.
“Chris is an alpha. He’s a natural leader. He takes no prisoners. He suffers no fools. He’s there to win. When you have somebody like that it really influences the entire crowd for sure,” Popovich said, according to The Athletic’s Erik Horne.
OKC is currently in the thick of the playoff seeding race, and it’s going to be special to see Paul hopefully make magic happen this postseason, one graceful fadeaway midrange jumper and scowl at a time.
Isaiah Freedman is a social editor at SLAM. He also works with the NBA Summer League, Syracuse Men’s Basketball team, and as an assistant player trainer for Chris Johnson Hoops.