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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.

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.