Column: Chris Paul is all in with the Thunder, but for how long?
Collateral damage doesn’t usually look this happy.
Chris Paul — the one lead actor in a summer-long drama of player movement who didn’t choose his role — began last week inside a practice gym on UCLA’s campus as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, his chase for his first NBA title detoured to an organization in transition.
The former Clipper, who is now a former Rocket, was laughing with Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger after the Thunder finished practice. Paul called over 19-year-old teammate Darius Bazley and introduced him to one of the most powerful people in Los Angeles. The three shared a long laugh, with Paul running point on the conversation.
As the players walked out of the building, lunch was waiting for them. Paul had arranged for Beyond Meat, the El Segundo plant-based protein company he’s an ambassador for and investor in, to park a food truck not far from the stretch of Sunset Boulevard that borders the north campus on their way to the bus.
Days before all of this, he chartered a flight that brought 21-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Bazley with him to Los Angeles a day ahead of the rest of the team.
The introductions to CEOs, the private planes, the diet tips — it’s all a part of what Paul is bringing to the Thunder.
“He’s been as available as you can get,” Bazley told The Times. “He’s like a 24-hour convenience store — anything you want to know, anything you want to ask, anything you might need help with, he’s there for you to try to help you.”
Paul’s presence around Gilgeous-Alexander, whom the Clippers traded to Oklahoma City in the deal that netted them Paul George, seems particularly valuable considering the shared hopes in the Thunder and Clippers organizations about Gilgeous-Alexander’s star potential.
As much of this story is about Paul doing right by Oklahoma City and its young players, it’s also about one of the more awkward relationships in the NBA.
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Paul is as obsessed with winning as any player in the league. He is still the same person who would run and hit the reset button on the video game machine just as his older brother was about to win. Being on a team closer to contending would certainly be a preference, although Paul hasn’t yet said so.
And, the Thunder, they’re stuck with one of the NBA’s most expensive and ultimately toughest-to-trade contracts. They owe Paul more than $85 million over the next two seasons after they hand over $38.5 million this season. It’s a ton of cash and the main reason why the Rockets had to include two first-round picks and two pick swaps to acquire Westbrook.
That Paul has been a consummate professional in his first 15 games with the Thunder hasn’t been a surprise to anyone who has worked with him. He’s got a genuine passion from helping young players, whether it’s with the AAU team or skills camps he runs. He says Gilgeous-Alexander and Bazley, in particular, have a lot of his attention.
“They’re men, but they’re also like my little brothers,” Paul told The Times.
It’s come at the perfect time for everyone involved. For the first time as a professional basketball player, Paul is living without family close by. They returned to Los Angeles after Paul was blindsided by the trade. Only his longtime security guard, Gene Escamilla, is a full-time presence with him in Oklahoma City.
That means Paul has time to be a basketball 7-Eleven for the Thunder’s youngest players.
“I’m always ears when Chris is around,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
That means a trip to Paul’s home to watch the late West Coast games or a trip to his hotel room for some extra film.
“We watch games, constantly talking basketball,” Paul said. “I try not to be too much of a burden on them. Some of this stuff, you’re just going to learn on your own.”
Paul learned he enjoys playing basketball his way more than he enjoys playing basketball after his two-year partnership in Houston with James Harden, which dissolved during their second season together. Paul equates “point guard” with an orchestra conductor, so watching Harden continuously dribble and meticulously pick apart defenses wasn’t easy.
It’s impossible to not think about that when he talks about the reasons why he’s happy with Oklahoma City, reasons that extend beyond being a big brother to the Thunder’s young players.
“I don’t look at myself as just a mentor to the guys. I hoop, you know what I mean? I think that’s the biggest thing too. I’m playing at the same time,” Paul said. “I’m not at that point of my career. I’m going to hoop always, but it’s also understanding the privilege of getting to play. That’s the thing. I love to hoop.”
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This week at Staples Center, even though Paul didn’t shoot the ball well in losses to the Clippers and the Lakers, you could still see the mastery that has his name among the best to run a team. He navigates the pick-and-roll like someone moves through a lifelong home.
Paul is averaging 15.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds a game while making better than 40% of his three-point shots. The Thunder are 5-10, but an NBA-high seven of those losses have been by five points or less, including the losses to the Clippers and Lakers at Staples Center earlier this week and again to the Lakers on Friday in Oklahoma City.
The questions about where Paul will hoop are going to follow him through this season’s trade deadline. And if he’s not moved, then they’ll track him through the summer. Rival executives don’t see a robust market for Paul, particularly when you view him as a 34-year-old with more than $80 million and two more years left on his contract.
The Miami Heat seemed like the most logical landing spot, though their early-season start with young guards like Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro might give them pause. The Milwaukee Bucks might want more talent. The Orlando Magic could use a star in their backcourt. The New Orleans Pelicans could try to accelerate their rebuild and the San Antonio Spurs could try to slow down their looming one.
Until something materializes, Paul seems like he’ll be out of the championship picture for the first time since he was traded from the New Orleans Hornets to the Clippers almost a decade ago.
“It’s a tough one, but I think he’s handling it like a pro. That’s what I’m hearing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s been great. Shai told me that. He’s been very positive. He didn’t come in the door mad. He said, ‘Hey, let’s see what we can be.’ It probably is still hard on him, but he’s such a pro that he’s going to do the right things.”
That’s the vibe the Thunder and Paul are both projecting — that he’s truly enjoying the challenge of helping the Thunder figure out what kind of team they have, that he’s not stressed out about getting out of town to chase that elusive championship.
“When I first spoke to him, he told me, ‘I don’t know any other way but playing totally invested and all in,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I’ve never `played a game or season in my life with one foot in, one foot out. So, I’m all in on this.’ He’s stayed true to that. And that conversation happened all the way back in July. There’ll be speculation on a lot of different stuff, but I’m treating this like this is where he’s going to be for the entire year.
“I know things can change for all of us. But he’s always had, since he got here, both feet in.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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