Chris Paul Has a Purpose in Oklahoma City

The Point God may no longer be playing for a consensus championship contender, but he’s still found happiness in OKC. Oh, and he’s playing at an All-Star level.
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It is a frigid, 25-degree mid-December Monday in Oklahoma City, the kind of day that would make a fool out of a traveling writer who didn’t pack a coat heavier than a denim shirt. The Thunder are about to open up a five-game homestand after an seven-day road trip that ended with back-to-back losses against the Kings and Nuggets. Chris Paul, OKC’s veteran point guard, made an extra stop after the team’s loss in Denver: Los Angeles, where Paul flew separately from his team to visit his seven-year-old daughter, who hadn’t been feeling well and was missing her dad. After spending fewer than 24 hours with his family, Paul left them on a late flight from sunny, warm L.A. to land in freezing OKC at 3:30 a.m., in time for the team’s shootaround later that morning. The Thunder’s game against the Bulls would tip off at 7 that night. This is the new normal for the Point God, whose basketball life has brought him back to where his professional career began.

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How Paul ended up in Oklahoma City—the place where he spent much of his rookie year as a member of the post-Katrina Hornets—is a bit of a saga. A quick recap: The Rockets, after an excruciating second-round loss to the Warriors in the spring, sent CP and a bushel of draft picks to the Thunder in exchange for franchise icon Russell Westbrook. During Houston’s elimination loss, there was palpable friction between Paul and James Harden. And then earlier this season, Paul revealed he was told by Houston GM Daryl Morey that he would not be traded when the player asked specifically about that possibility.

“After the season I reached out to the [Rockets] and said, ‘Hey, if you guys want to go in a different direction, let us know now. That way we can figure something out,’” Paul says. “They said we’re not trying to go in a different direction. [Morey] asked me if I wanted to go to Oklahoma City. I said no, and he said, ‘We won’t trade you there, because you chose to come to us from L.A.’ He doesn’t owe me anything, but that’s where the whole communication thing was.”

Paul was in North Augusta, South Carolina, for Peach Jam, an AAU tournament, watching Team CP3 compete when he found out he was being shipped out. Earlier in July, Paul had bumped into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at Summer League and wished him good luck after he had been sent to OKC in the trade that sent Paul George to the Clippers. Now Paul was about to become his teammate.

“He was kind of in shock. We all were in shock,” says Paul’s older brother, C.J., who was with him at the time of the trade. “That’s when you really figure out this is business, it happened, and now we have to move on.”

Paul remained at the tournament, watching his team and greeting passersby who were as stunned as he was. At 7 the next morning, Paul returned to focusing on what he could control—his game, training with former Team CP3 star Collin Sexton. As CP went to work, so did the rumor mill. He was immediately the subject of more trade talk. Would the Heat swoop in and try to bring him to Miami? Would a contender try to buy low on the superstar guard? Did the Thunder even want someone as talented as Paul on the roster?

After about a week of conversations and trade-machine fantasies, Paul decided to put things to rest. He asked his agent for Thunder GM Sam Presti’s phone number so he could begin getting to know his new team. He reached out to his teammates, organizing a late-summer workout. After four days of focusing on basketball with his latest cast, Paul says he felt he had set the tone for an organization that wasn’t sure how he would react to his new surroundings. With the people around him seemingly walking on eggshells, Paul had a message for everyone in Oklahoma City:

“I don’t know how to do half in, half out.”

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

A narrative quickly formed once Paul got to Oklahoma City. There was simply no way a competitor as fierce as he was could be satisfied playing for a team in the midst of an overhaul. Paul has been described by some national media members as “stuck in limbo,” or “happy … for now.” The implications were clear. Paul, a star, couldn’t be content playing for a team without championship aspirations for the first time in over a decade. He insists that’s not the case.

“People always try to tell your story,” says Paul, 34. “I’m just in the moment. If something happens and I get moved, I’ll make adjustments. For now, I get to hoop. I get to play. My body feels good. I’m excited.”

Frankly, those narratives made sense. Paul, without a ring, in the back half of his career, is happy? Really? But his sentiments about being excited in his current situation are echoed by everyone around him. For those still reluctant to believe him, Paul has backed up his talk. According to him, neither he nor his agents have requested a trade from Oklahoma City.

Paul is not going to make any grand sacrifices to place himself on another superteam. When asked whether he would waive the final year of his contract—a $44.2 million option for 2021–22 that’s seen as the biggest obstacle for teams interested in acquiring him—if it meant he could be traded to a championship contender, Paul answers swiftly: “No chance. That’s not happening. Nope.”

For the Thunder, Paul’s arrival has been far from a burden. He’s on the same page as Presti, and there’s value for the organization to put a competitive team on the floor as it transitions from an era of immense success to an unavoidable rebuild in the near future. For now, both sides seem content to make the most of the situation, evaluating their options only as necessary. OKC benefits the better CP plays, and the front office isn’t in a rush to dump him. If or when Paul is moved from the Thunder, he and the front office will work together on where he ends up—the same way it happened for Westbrook and George.

“Outside of the immediate aftermath of when we initially traded for Chris, we haven’t talked at all about the future or felt we needed to,” Presti says. “Given that the trade happened so quickly for him and took him off guard, we thought it was important to build some trust, some rapport, and approach things collaboratively with his representation to see where his head was with respect to the situation with us. He never flinched, and that gave us confidence.

“His professionalism, his outlook, and his maturity have been on another level. We are going through a transition ourselves, so it’s somewhat poetic, how he has returned at this point in the organizational timeline, and how he’s elevated our team. All I can say is that Chris has been all we could have hoped for and more.”

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Thunder coach Billy Donovan says Paul bought in from the moment they met. “When he first got traded and we spoke for the first time, I told him, ‘I don’t know about all the rumors,’” Donovan says. “And he said this: ‘I only know how to do it one way, Both my feet are in the circle here, and you’re going to get all I can give to this organization.’ And he’s totally lived up to that.”

Paul has found happiness everywhere in Oklahoma City. On the floor, he’s gone from playing in Houston’s isolation, three-point-heavy offense to actually playing point guard again. Not only does Paul get to direct traffic, but he’s relied on in a way that he wasn’t as part of James Harden’s supporting cast.

Paul’s return to Point God has also coincided with a resurgence in his health. Nagging injuries followed him throughout his tenure in Houston. Last summer Paul switched trainers, remodeled his workouts and switched to a plant-based diet—aside from a few nights when he sneaked a piece of fish.

All the changes have Paul thoroughly enjoying the process as opposed to being laser-focused on the result. He is finding joy in being able to move his body in ways he wasn’t the last two seasons and getting to spots on the floor that were previously a challenge.

“There are craftsmen, and there are technicians. CP is a technician,” Presti says. “He would be the rare race car driver that not only can drive the car at an elite level but can also take the engine apart and put it back together—blindfolded.”

The younger Thunder players have also reaped the rewards of having someone like Paul around the organization, both on and off the court. Rookie swingman Darius Bazley has gotten advice from Paul on everything from work habits to figuring out how to find a woman he should settle down with. Bazley’s mom was going to miss the first game of his NBA career—a road matchup against the Jazz—until Paul found out. Paul put Bazley in touch with his own family to rectify the situation. Sure enough, Bazley’s mother was in Utah to watch her son make his debut.

Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Paul is perhaps even closer with Gilgeous-Alexander, a budding star and the crown jewel of the Thunder’s offseason acquisitions.

“Chris used to be my favorite player,” Gilgeous-Alexander says with a straight face. “Then I saw it day-to-day. Now he’s not good enough to be my favorite player.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is even less flattering when describing what it was like to match up with Paul during his rookie season.

“I wouldn’t say it was one of my more challenging games in terms of his defensive tenacity,” he says, finally breaking into a chuckle. “Chris is a smaller guard, and I’m a bigger guard. Those type of games tend to be easy for me.”

That didn’t stop Paul from beating the 21-year-old in a post-practice free throw contest the day after the Bulls game. (The objective of the contest is to score 11 points from the free throw line, with swishes counting for two points—but you’re not allowed to exceed 11. Paul won twice in a row.)

CP and SGA are borderline inseparable. They’re either shooting or joking around after practices and games. They’re both hoop obsessives. On the road, they can often be found watching basketball together, one night at a Ruth’s Chris, or another in Paul’s hotel room, typically screening the action across multiple devices. They’ll even trade notes on what they see from opponents.

For a team mired in trade rumors, the Thunder seem close-knit. Or at least well-knit. Before a December game against the Grizzlies, the entire roster showed up in custom-made suits that were a gift from Paul. In an event perhaps more earth-shattering than the trade that sent Paul to Oklahoma City, center Steven Adams actually wore shoes to go with his new threads.

In the locker room postgame, Paul judged the suits one by one. SGA looked like an R&B star. Bazley and Terrance Ferguson both looked like preachers, and they leaned in to the comparison, with Bazley sliding across in the locker room in an animated sermon, while Ferguson quietly pretended to hand out Bibles tucked into his blazer.

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, he’s playing for a team he said didn’t want to be traded to. But his teammates haven’t seen anything to indicate that Paul would rather be elsewhere. “It’s not even something to avoid, because there’s nothing there to avoid,” Bazley says of the trade speculation. “No one in the locker room, coaches, staff—and I’m confident I can speak for everyone—has a thought in their head. Chris has bought in, and there’s nothing lingering around, because there’s nothing that he gives off.”

For CP, the burgeoning bonds with his younger teammates have given him a new purpose after playing for teams that weren’t always well-connected.

“I’m grateful for them, too,” Paul says. “I am without my wife and my kids, and when I get to practice, I’m excited to be there. I know we’re going to compete. We have a fun team. That’s all you want. A chance and an opportunity to compete. I guess I’m just different. Analytics may say this, the odds may say this. When the ball goes up that night, I think we have a chance to win.”

A chance to win is important for Paul. He’s quick to remind that he’s not in Oklahoma City simply to play mentor.

“This ain’t no like, ‘You got it because I can’t.’ We gon’ do this together.”

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The night after his 3:30 a.m. arrival and the game against Chicago, Paul is speaking to a room full of kids at a local Target as part of an annual charity event run by his foundation. The kids pepper Paul with questions: Can I have some money? Are you the best player on the Thunder? Can you follow me on Instagram?

After the Q&A, Paul reveals each kid will receive a $100 gift card, with the caveat that they must buy at least one gift for someone else. As the kids shop, Paul mingles with them, inspecting carts to see what gifts the kids have bought for their loved ones, or helping them with math as they approach the $100 limit. The youngsters walk away from Paul with huge smiles on their face. One kid explains to Paul why he bought his mom a Galaga collectible: He knew it was her favorite game growing up. Suddenly the electronics section is a little dusty.

Presti showed up at the charity event unbeknownst to Paul. (“All the years we’ve been doing this,” C.J. says, “I don’t remember Chris’s GM showing up.”) Shoppers are almost as giddy to get pictures with Presti. And it’s not only the kids who are excited. One older fan shows up with an autographed schedule from the Hornets’ season in Oklahoma City, proudly displaying it to Presti. Another shows up with a bobblehead from Paul’s rookie season—a bobblehead with a surprisingly scant amount of hair. “My hairline didn’t look like this then,” Paul jokes. “This was foreshadowing.”

That night, Paul is surrounded by his family. Paul’s mom hands out some of the leftover gift cards to unsuspecting customers about to check out. His father leafs through car-enthusiast magazines he finds next to the candy bars. Chris and C.J. reminisce about their childhoods, with Chris finding out who he was named after, and recalling how in his senior year of high school, he didn’t use his assigned parking spot because of how embarrassed he was of his car. When the event ends, everyone heads back to Chris’s condo for an undoubtedly competitive night of card games.

If there’s one thing driving Paul at this moment in his life, it’s not an unchecked obsession with winning a ring, it’s spending more time with his family. Paul’s wife, Jada, and their two kids, Camryn Alexis and 11-year-old Chris Jr., moved back to Los Angeles after he was traded to Houston. CP has worked with the Thunder to spend as many moments with them as possible, paying his way to and from L.A. in between games when the schedule allows. It’s the first time he’s been away from his family, something he never could have imagined earlier in his career.

“I remember when Chauncey [Billups] came to the Clippers, his wife and kids were in Denver,” Paul says. “I’ll never forget, I was in L.A. with my family, my brother and his wife. I told my wife that ain’t never going to be my story. She said, ‘You know, that’s right, whatever team you go to, tell them you have a plus-three.’ Whatever team I go to, I can’t be myself without my wife and kids.”

In Houston, Paul had his wife, kids, chef, brother and sister-in-law, their kids, trainer, and more with him. In Oklahoma City, it’s only Paul and his bodyguard. C.J. tries to make it in for as many home games as possible. Paul knows his kids miss him, and they find it difficult to interact with him only on FaceTime. “It’s not ‘woe is me,’” Paul says. “The headline should say something about my wife. The peace of mind I have because I know my kids are being fed, are at school, and all that stuff is being taken care of. The real [story] is my wife.

“Obviously we’re talking about sports, but if you’re talking about a deeper meaning in life, would I rather play 24 or 25 years in the NBA and finally win that last year and be sitting over there as an old man rocking on the bench instead of spending valuable time with my kids? No,” Paul says. “Am I going to put the work in day in and day out to put myself in position to win a championship? Absolutely. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. If one day I can sit over here and say I got me a championship ring but I’ve been the worst parent, somebody got their priorities all messed up.”

But Paul has not lost his competitive drive. “If I played you in Connect Four right now, I would treat it like the championship.“

Paul’s legacy will be about more than what he accomplished on the court. Even if you’re not watching a Thunder game, CP will probably pop up on the screen during a commercial break. His name will forever be etched in Young Thug’s verse on “Mixtape.” And he’s friends with Illuminati-level power brokers like Bob Iger and Barack Obama. (He talks to Iger at least once a week, particularly about how the Disney president can fly to China at a moment’s notice but still make time for his kids.)

Meanwhile, the next generation of NBA players has many links to Paul because of his AAU team. Guys like Bulls guard Coby White, Minnesota’s Josh Okogie and Nets guard Theo Pinson, all of whom met Paul as teenagers, are now his peers. As union president, Paul has been anonymously criticized by some NBA players for a perceived favoritism for max-level players. The younger players Paul has made himself available to paint a different picture.

“CP does everything in his power to win, cards, dominoes, whatever he’s playing. It doesn’t matter if it’s rock, paper, scissors. He’s going to try to outsmart you, but he’s a cool dude,” Okogie says. “I could call him today and ask him for advice and he’s there. If I ever need anything at any point in time, he’s there.”

“When I was in high school, my dad died when I was 17,” White says. “Chris took the time out, talked to me, kept up with me, made sure I was O.K. He was always there for me. His phone was always open no matter the time. He supported me through everything.”

“Having a top-tier guy always checking in, it was huge,” Pinson says. “Especially in college, he always tried to make sure everything was all right. He pushed me to be the player I was capable of being. He’s an All-Star who doesn’t have to do that.”

And make no mistake, Paul is still an All-Star-caliber player, whose impact can be felt in both Houston and OKC. For example, the Harden-Westbrook duo is less efficient offensively than the Harden-Paul pairing was. Last year, the Rockets outscored opponents with Paul on the floor and Harden on the bench. This year, not only is the team is getting outscored in Westbrook’s solo minutes, but Houston’s net efficiency improves when Harden plays without Russ. (OKC is also 2–1 against Paul’s old team this season, and the Thunder’s win against the Rockets on MLK Day brought them within two games of Houston in the West standings.)

On the flip side, only one player so far this season has averaged as many points, assists and rebounds per game as Paul while posting a true shooting percentage of at least 60%—Harden. “My two seasons in Houston were unbelievable,” Paul says. “But some of the most exciting times for me this season have been just being in the moment. Those close games, having that ball, not so much having to shoot the shot, but being depended on. Those are the moments I live for.”

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder look sleepy during the first half of that December game against the Bulls. Their shots have gone as ice cold as the temps in Bricktown, and OKC falls behind by as many as 26 in the first half.

About midway through the third quarter, the Thunder are still losing to a sub-.500 squad by 18 points. Paul is dribbling the ball up the floor and attempts to make a pass to the right wing. Immediately, he knows he’s flubbed. As soon as the ball leaves his fingertips, Paul lets out an exasperated “S---!” His split-second look of despair instantly turns back into determination as Tomas Satoranksy darts with the ball to the opposite end of the floor. Paul quickly switches directions and hustles back on defense. He breaks up an emerging two-on-one fast break, meeting Satoransky, 28, at the rim, causing the Bulls guard to miss a layup.

Roughly 15 minutes of game time later, the Thunder are in the midst of a furious comeback and have taken a 101–100 lead. Paul has made five threes since the start of the third quarter, including four in the fourth alone. With just under three minutes to go, Paul is on the left wing when he calls for a pick to force Lauri Markkanen into a switch. CP had already hit one three over Markkanen earlier in the quarter. Soon after forcing the big man to guard him on the perimeter, Paul is barking out orders for a play.

Or is he?

“Sometimes when I get guys switched on to me—it’s playing the game, so my teammates, they know—it’s just like the rip through, people see me do it every night, and they still fall for it. I’m acting like I’m calling for a ball screen, and all I need you to do is look for a quick second, now I shoot it.”

At the top of the key, Paul begins to move downhill toward the rim. Markannen backs up too far, and CP rises up for his fifth three-pointer of the quarter to give OKC a four-point lead. Paul would go on to ice the game himself, hitting four free throws in the final 90 seconds while also collecting a key offensive rebound. The Thunder win 109–106, and Paul finishes with 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

When the game is over and the arena is all but empty, Paul greets Gilgeous-Alexander and a friend in the hallway outside the locker room. Paul‘s right hand is a little tender thanks to a jammed middle finger, but he’ll still beat SGA in the next day’s free throw contest and shake hands with throngs of fans at his charity event. He’ll even lead another big comeback two nights later against the Grizzlies.

The city, the weather, the stakes and the jersey may be radically different from a year ago. But Chris Paul is still excited to work.