Chris Paul – the most underrated acquisition of the NBA off season

Chris Paul, one of the NBA’s most outstanding point guards, continues to defy and confound his critics at his new home, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Commentators like ESPN’s Jalen Rose saw the Thunder’s move as nonsensical, given Paul is 34 and has been injury prone, but in fact he has become the most underrated acquisition of the latest NBA off season.


After superstar forward Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma in July, it was clear the Thunder could no longer compete for a championship with their remaining roster. Beloved superstar guard and former MVP Russell Westbrook was traded less than a week later to the Houston Rockets in return for former all-star Chris Paul and two future first-round draft picks. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti was trading talented players essentially for draft picks, securing eight future first-round picks from opposition teams this off season. Their championship window was slammed shut.


Chris Paul is into the second year of his four-year $159.7m contract, a signing that many NBA analysts describe as one of the worst contracts in NBA history due to the long-term high expense for an injury-prone player past his prime years. ESPN’s Nick Friedell reacted to the Paul/Westbrook trade by stating, “I still can’t believe the Rockets gave Paul that max(imum) extension. Woof. The lesson here is: Never say any deal is completely untradeable.”


Shortly after the trade was finalised, sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Thunder were trying to trade Paul to another team “as soon as they can” with the hope he wouldn’t “play a game in a Thunder uniform.” There have been no trade suitors and Paul has played in all 29 games for the Thunder this season. Just days ago, Wojnarowski reported “there is no belief in Oklahoma City, or even in the [Paul] camp, that there’s going to be a trade for him. After the season? Another year off that giant contract? Maybe.”


After spending the last eight seasons in title contention playing for the LA Clippers and Houston Rockets, analysts like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, suspected “Paul is not going to want to be [in Oklahoma].” At 34, he’s entering the twilight of his career surrounded by youths on a team projected to miss the playoffs in a small-market city. But Paul has embraced his new situation with maturity and an open mind, talking of his excitement with a fresh start in OKC. “A lot of people try to tell your truth, try to tell your story – say what you want. I’m excited about the opportunity [and] excited about our team,” he said.


GM Presti said Paul “galvanised” the playing group this off season, noting that soon after he was traded, he asked for phone numbers of other Thunder players and “built really good relationships with the entire group”. Paul’s especially taken a liking to 21-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and 19-year-old rookie Darius Bazley, providing them invaluable mentorship to basketball and life in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander said Paul is constantly challenging him in practice to “shooting drills and to think the game differently”. “I get to pick his brain a little bit and learn things…I learn a lot from him…[he’s] a guy that I looked up to growing up, so I’ll continue to learn from him as long as I get to.”


Paul’s relationship with the youngsters extends beyond basketball. Paul took Gilgeous-Alexander and Bazley with him to Los Angeles to meet Paul’s parents. “Them two [are] like my little brothers, man,” Paul said. “What you learn is that some stuff is bigger than wins and losses, it’s about relationships.”


Head coach Billy Donovan is extremely impressed with Paul’s commitment to his newfound mentorship role. “I give him a lot of credit, because I think it’s very easy to be 34 years old and [play] 14-15 years in the league and just say ‘I don’t have time for this, I’ve got to get myself ready. I don’t have time to deal with these younger guys.’ He’s made an incredible investment into Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander], Bazley, Nader…I really appreciate him doing that because I think that can be really, really helpful for a lot of these guys.”


Paul’s leadership and exceptional play have seen the Thunder confound the critics, with a very serviceable 15-14 record, ranking them seventh in the Western Conference. Renowned as a perfectionist and for setting extremely high expectations for his teammates, Paul said he has slightly altered his leadership style but isn’t changing what’s brought him this far. “I’m ultra-competitive. I’m sure some of the guys are like, ‘Damn, he be trippin’, you know? But it is what it is…We’re here to win games.”


OKC continue to do so, winning nine of their last 12 games on the back of some vintage Paul performances. Last Tuesday the Thunder rallied back from a 26-point deficit against Chicago to win 109-106, led by Paul’s brilliant 19-point outburst in the fourth quarter. The Thunder have stormed back from 18+ point deficits three times in December, a franchise record. That’s something you just don’t normally see from young teams, a will to keep fighting until the end. That’s Paul’s influence.


Paul’s instilling a winning culture in Oklahoma, an awfully undervalued aspect in a rebuild. Former major league baseball executive Gabe Paul once said, “streaks may be self-perpetuating. You gain confidence when you win and keep winning. You lose confidence and keep losing games. It proves how much of the game is mental.” We continue to see talented young stars like Brandon Ingram and Karl-Anthony Towns struggle to make the playoffs having developed poor habits, becoming accustomed to losing year after year. With Paul’s influence, the Thunder look to avoid that kind of misery, maintaining a winning attitude with a young, developing core.


Though Paul’s contract is extravagant, he’s fitted in seamlessly with the young Thunder core. Averaging 16 points per game on elite shooting percentages, leading and mentoring the group both on and off the court, and sparking a “win-at-all-cost” mentality among the playing group, he’s been simply sensational. Despite his costly price-tag, and all the naysaying, Paul’s gone above and beyond what the Thunder could have asked for.



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