There is a new Chris Paul, but it’s not Alfonso Ribeiro.
It’s the old Chris Paul. The one who has rejuvenated his career while leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to an unexpectedly good season.
After a notable decline in his numbers last year (his final with the Houston Rockets), Paul has returned to form, somehow sculpting a once seemingly hodgepodge Thunder roster into a team that he’s more than comfortable operating.
It’s not that CP3 was “bad” in Houston, either. Or that Houston was “bad” with him, despite what the end-of-stint narrative became.
But he never seemed quite comfortable running an offense that was designed to work around James Harden above all else.
When Harden rested, Paul ran the offense and it was effective. But he wore it like clothes that tailored for someone else. When they were on the floor together, it was more “taking turns” than playing off one another.
And it was pretty clear that Harden, who won the MVP in 2018-19 and finished second in 2019-20, was primary beneficiary of the relationship. Paul sacrificed a bit of personal success for the betterment of the team, and the team did well, going to the Western Conference Finals getting up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors before Paul went down with a pulled hamstring.
That brings up another struggle he’s free from this year: Paul played only 58 games during each regular season with the Rockets, but he already has 56 this season with the Thunder, having missed just two.
Paul is the unquestioned veteran leader of this Oklahoma City team and their most effective player—though center Steven Adams remains the gritty soul of the roster, for sure.
Sure, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.4), Danilo Galinari (19.1) and Dennis Schroder (19.0) are all averaging more than Paul’s 17.5 points per game, but don’t let that fool you. Their offensive rating with him is 114.0. Without him, it’s 100.6. They’re the car, and he is the driver.
Paul has always been most comfortable running the pick-and-roll, and that’s primarily what he’s doing in Oklahoma. (It was something the Thunder loved to do with Adams and Paul’s predecessor and trade-mate, Russell Westbrook, as well.)
According to NBA.com, it accounts for 48.2 percent of Paul’s offensive plays, and he’s in the 94.2 percentile among players with at least 10 plays (1.10 points per play). Only Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard is scoring more points out of it with more efficiency.
Take that in contrast to last year in Houston when it accounted for just 36.4 percent of Paul’s plays: There he averaged .87 points per play and was in the 59.3 percentile.
Understandably, there was an adjustment period as CP3 and all the other new OKC teammates got to know one another.
Over the first 20 games, he averaged 15.1 points, 6.0 assists and the Thunder were only 8-12. Since then, they’re 27-10 and Paul’s numbers are 18.9 points and 7.0 dimes. Over the last 15 games, he’s averaging 7.2 assists and 18.8 points.
Assists can be a bit misleading too—and not just because sometimes assists get awarded when they shouldn’t. Sometimes the pass sets up a score that doesn’t count as an assist. According to the NBA’s tracking stats, Paul’s passes lead to 9.8 field goals over the last 15 games.
And that scoring is becoming increasingly efficient, what with the Thunder shooting 50.5 percent from two and 36.9 percent from three off of Paul’s passes over that span. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that Paul’s only teammate who is a particularly efficient scorer from outside is Gallinari.
Even more impressive is how the Thunder have the NBA’s second-best offensive rating during that time-frame.
It’s evident that Paul’s learning his teammates’ tendencies has been behind the Thunder’s rise. Just look at the offensive rating splits by month:
- October: 99.0
- November: 108.9
- December: 110.5
- January: 114.7
- February: 115.9
And that’s been accompanied with a rise in the standings, where the Thunder are now sixth in the West, just 1.5 games behind the Rockets and Utah Jazz.
Suddenly, this OKC roster that seemed thrown together from the post-Westbrook and Paul George trade rubble has a little bit of everything: Multiple, savvy ball-handlers who can also make plays for themselves (Paul, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander), plenty of athletic wings (Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, etc.), interior muscle (Adams), above-the-rim PNR finishing (Noel), and just enough frontcourt spacing (Gallinari, Mike Muscala).
They play hard on both ends and bring waves of energy. But all that really reaches a tenacious, cerebral level under Paul’s leadership and savvy quarterbacking.
For instance, Paul spies Luguentz Dort open for a three here but can’t get off a clean pass. Nerlens Noel sets a screen for him and then rolls hard to the basket. That’s enough for Paul to deliver the lob over the heads of the double team to give Dort the most open shot of his young life:
Here, Schroder brings up the ball and Paul, seeing the baseline open to the basket, raises his hand to signal him to go behind with the give-and-go for the easy two:
And check out the chemistry with Noel on this alley-oop:
It’s apparent again and again. Paul has been allowed to be himself and that’s made him comfortable again. And that’s making the rest of his team comfortable around him. And that’s making the Thunder better.
Are they a title contender? Probably not. But not everything needs to be about whether you win a championship.
The Thunder are a heck of a lot better than most people thought they’d be and are definitely capable of winning a playoff round or two under the right circumstances.
And you have to give CP3 a lot of the credit for that.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.