OKLAHOMA CITY — Chris Paul played in his 10th All-Star Game Sunday and it’s hard to know the exact reason the league’s Western Conference coaches voted him in as one of two backcourt reserves.
Was it his 17.4 points and 6.7 assists per game? They’re fine numbers and better than a year ago, yet not better than two years ago when, even in the shadow of James Harden, Paul put together averages of 18.6 and 7.9 as a Houston Rocket.
Perhaps the coaches gave him his first All-Star nod since 2016 because they had to reward Oklahoma City for its season to date and Paul’s an easy and sentimental choice.
After two years at Wake Forest, he’s been in the league since the New Orleans Hornets drafted him fourth overall in 2005.
Maybe the coaches follow advanced statistics, the ones that proclaim the Thunder the league’s most clutch team — outscoring opponents by 27.1 points per 100 possessions when games reach the final five minutes and separated by five points or less — and Paul the league’s leading clutch scorer (128 points), guiding the Thunder to a 24-13 record, 19-5 since Thanksgiving, in such games.
Perhaps, though not able to see it up close, having observed Paul operate over six seasons as a Hornet, six as a Clipper, two as a Rocket and most of one in Oklahoma City, they can guess the rest.
They can guess that not only is Paul having a fine season, but he’s making everything and everybody around him so much better, pushing the Thunder to 11 games over .500 and sixth in the conference standings, better than anybody predicted them to be.
Whatever their reasons, Paul showed the coaches they made the right decision by scoring 23 points in 25 minutes in Team LeBron's 157-155 victory in Chicago on Sunday.
'Changed the culture here'
“It’s so cool to be here, because the guys have confidence in me,” Paul said on his way off the court on New Year’s Eve.
He’d just scored 13 fourth-quarter points to push OKC past Dallas. It was one sentence, but covered a lot of ground.
The Thunder have confidence in him not only with the ball in his hands with the game on the line, but as a mentor, teacher and coach on the floor.
Maybe Paul’s downfall in other locales has been his want to influence everything, from the way the game should be played to living the professional life. Perhaps, but with the Thunder, he’s found a franchise and teammates are not only fine with it, but thankful for it.
“He’s changed the culture here … how we’re playing together as a team,” said sixth-man-of-the-year candidate Dennis Schroder. “He’s talking to every one of us during games, practices, even when we’re off the court.”
One of the best times to watch Paul isn’t when he’s in the game, but waiting to enter, because the last thing he’s doing is waiting.
He’s barking orders, working officials, calling out defenses, frequently coaching with a louder voice than Thunder coach Billy Donovan.
Really, why wouldn’t he? When else will he be allowed to stand at half court and do it.
During his two Houston seasons the Rocket offense revolved around Harden, particularly late. Paul may have been playing under a max contract, but he wasn’t allowed to play to maximum affect.
He appreciates the opportunity to do it again.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things I missed, being depended on in those [clutch] situations,” he said. “I’ve been in those situations my entire career. That’s why you play these games.”
On the court, still a terrific and classic point guard, he gets everybody involved. Off it, he’s team-building, from offering guidance, to setting each of his teammates up in a new tailored suit, one everybody wore coming and going on Dec. 19, the night Oklahoma City beat Memphis 126-122, or talking up teammates anytime he gets near a microphone.
'A natural leader'
At least one Western Conference coach understands how beneficial Paul’s guidance can be for younger teammates.
“It can be huge, assuming that younger guy has the character to accept mentorship,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Some guys can’t, because they think they know everything. But if the young player can understand what a Chris Paul can give him, then it’s a huge boon to his career.
“Chris is an alpha, he’s a natural leader. He takes no prisoners, he suffers no fools. He’s there to win.”
The Thunder have so many young players who can benefit. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort is only a partial list.
Donovan believes now and later they'll know how fortunate they've been to intersect with Paul.
“Those guys, probably as they get older in their career and they’re asked a question, who’s somebody who impacted you when you were younger?” Donovan said, “I think Chris Paul’s name would probably be the first that would come out of all those guys’ mouths.”
It can’t be taken for granted. The roles he plays are not common.
“There’s not more than one or two on every NBA team,” Popovich said. “Some NBA teams don’t have any.”
The Thunder have one.