Chris Paul becoming a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder was somewhat expected given the events which had transpired in a frantic week in the NBA. The George trade triggered the complete rebuild of the Thunder which included the trading of a franchise cornerstone. For eleven years, Russell Westbrook was the man who defined the Thunder, an enigmatic maverick who produced some of the most entertaining basketball in the league on a nightly basis. Westbrook being shipped out shook the roots of the Thunder's foundations, one of the original building blocks was gone and his replacement was an ageing superstar from Houston. Chris Paul's trade was made with the expectation that he would be immediately traded to another contending team who would require his services. The Thunder never managed to find a suitable for both the team and the individual which led to an acceptance by Paul and his agent, Leon Rose to stay for a season in Oklahoma City. Paul's motives for the decision is undeniable, he has a season where he can prove his value and make himself even more appealing to a potential contender who may consider losing assets to acquire a player who will be beneficial only in the short-term.
The oft-forgotten fact about the history of the NBA is that Chris Paul was the first superstar to play in Oklahoma City. The New Orleans spent a significant portion of two years in Oklahoma City due to the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. Paul came to Oklahoma City as the prodigious, young point guard who was equal parts cocky and equal parts genius. The first professional sports franchise that had ever come to Oklahoma was raucously supported and Chris Paul became the first love in the fans' hearts. CP3 loved his time in Oklahoma City, the team's support was completely different to anything else in the league. The fans backed the team massively and Paul felt the love from the community despite the fact that the team played in a completely new market and practiced in a gym that stank of dog food. The Hornets eventually moved back to New Orleans full-time which left Oklahoma City as a barren market until the 2008-09 season when the Sonics eventually re-located. Westbrook and Durant became the object of all of the fans' attentions and Paul became a forgotten part of history. The return of Chris Paul is in some way the closing of a circle, a player who saw the dawn of professional basketball in Oklahoma is now the makeweight in a trade which ended the first era of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Chris Paul is a totally different player to Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is a player who plays at a high pace with constant aggression and looks to isolate on offence pretty often. For Westbrook and the Thunder, the team ran off pick and rolls plays and isolation possessions constantly throughout all of Westbrook's tenure. Chris Paul's approach to the point guard position is totally different, Paul manages every single possession to consistently produce the best look possible. In a sense, Paul is closer to a traditional point guard in the way that he runs the offence compared to Westbrook. Westbrook does not necessarily look to involve the team on offence when he can get an easy look for himself. Chris Paul's style is different, he often uses ball screens and pistol sets to create looks instead of consistently isolating on possessions.
Both approaches are effective, Russell Westbrook's style can result on efficient looks due to his speed beating the defenders down the floor. The Thunder with Westbrook often played that way, the team attacked defences before they could fully set-up. The defences were attacked when they were vulnerable which often meant that the Thunder profited off each possession. Chris Paul prods the defence and finds seams within the other team that he can exploit. We have seen Paul used screens to drag defenders out of position and create space for other team-mates. A common aspect of the Rockets' offence was a drag screen involving Paul and Clint Capela. The screen is set early in the shot clock and draws a secondary defender onto Paul before a quick drop-off to a rolling big man. That particular set works so well because Paul has an innate feel for the game, he knows the right pass to throw and the timing on each pass to complete beat the defence.
Over the past few days, I have watched a lot of Chris Paul film and the one aspect which constantly sticks out is his passing ability. Paul's passing is not flashy and does not look physically impressive but it is incredibly efficient. Paul waits for the right moment to throw the pass and gets the ball into a position where his team-mates can succeed. A simple bounce pass to a rolling big man or cutting guard is made so much better by having perfect timing on each pass, the perfect pass beats the defence every single time and always finds a good option on offence. While Russell Westbrook is a superbly talented passer, he does not have the same sort of timing on his passes. Westbrook's strength comes from his ability to see the floor. It's a controversial opinion but I feel that Westbrook is a better passer in terms of finding the highlight pass which rescues an offence. Russell is capable of pulling off passes using his vision and ability that Paul cannot which often means that he can save a poor offensive possession and generate points off said possession. Westbrook having this ability to bail himself means that his timing can still be inconsistent.
There are points in certain actions like pick and roll opportunities where Westbrook waits a fraction of a second too long to dish the ball to Steven Adams which can give defenders enough time to recover from the defensive breakdown. In other examples, the defence collapsing on the paint means that the pass to Adams is off the table unless Westbrook makes an early dish over the top, a high-risk pass that is easy to intercept. Westbrook rarely attempts this early pass and often dishes the ball mid-drive at the top of the paint. While this is not a huge difference to passing earlier in the drive, there are small marginal effects to the particular possession which makes each possession harder. The defence can effectively sag off Adams as that pass becomes out of play and more defenders can be committed into crowding Russell into turnovers. It means that Westbrook has to twist his body into making a difficult pass to the corner where Ferguson or Grant are in plenty of space. Russell was adept at making these dimes last season but it is so much harder to run an offence with two options instead of three options.
If we make a direct comparison of a Paul pick and roll and Westbrook pick and roll, the differences are startling. Westbrook uses his pace and the threat of his acceleration to put defenders on their heels which inevitably creates space for the pass or mid-range shot. In recent times where Westbrook 16-24ft mid-range jumpers has fallen apart, passing has become so much tougher. Defenders do not respect the threat of a mid-ranger going in which means that more resources can be committed to Adams down low. It effectively means that the action called by Billy Donovan only has two options, possibly three if George comes curling off a screen on the weak-side.
Paul's pick and roll is a lot more layered. The screen with Capela starts above the arc which creates space for Paul to sink a pass or find the roll man. The two options created out of the offence are incredibly dangerous as both players involved in the pick and roll have plenty of space to create a good shot instead of being smothered by the defence. Moreover, the pick and roll with CP3 as a primary ball-handler has at least another two options if we consider his time with the Clippers and the Rockets. A wing is often used as a secondary ball-handler in the possession and then performs a hand-off with Paul once he has the first step on the defence. Paul then has an open driving lane to shoot a mid-ranger or drop in a floater over talented defenders like Rudy Gobert. Houston deconstructed Utah's defence by using the pick and roll to draw Gobert into space and then using the floater to score the ball. The last option is created out of the drive with Paul going downhill. Paul uses changes in pace to catch defences off guard and find the modicum of space necessary to find the cross-court pass to the corner for a three. The constant motion in the pick and roll means that defenders are dragged all over the place and eventually defensive rotations are dissected. An offensive possession which creates four options just based off the game intelligence of one player is incredible.
The effect on the Thunder is pretty clear, the offence will involve more than one player in one action and will hopefully mean that there is a lot more motion within the offensive scheme. It must be noted that Chris Paul has benefitted from having two visionary coaches in his stints with the Clippers and the Rockets. Doc Rivers is known for his ability to design offensive sets and schemes which generate the best possible looks for his team whereas Mike D'Antoni is the point guard whisperer. D'Antoni has consistently displayed the ability to make every single point guard he has worked with better by simplifying offence to just a few actions and relying on the point guard to run each action with superb precision. That type of knowledge and experience would be incredibly valuable for a Thunder side which will likely modernise their offence.
Over the entirety of the Thunder's tenure in Oklahoma City, the team has employed an isolation-based offence even as teams like the Warriors and Spurs have impressed with ball movement and cutting. The same style that was highly effective four or five years ago is not as effective today than it was a few years ago. The common style in the league today which often results in efficient offence is constant ball movement, cutting and a desire to use the deep ball effectively. The reason why Billy Donovan was employed by Oklahoma City was to modernise the offence and move towards an offence which involved multiple ball-handlers and off-ball movement by players. Donovan has not managed to achieve this goal as of yet but having a point guard like Paul who has an innate feel for constant motion is hugely valuable.
The common theme of all Paul offensive sets is involving more than one player, CP3 rarely runs an isolation-based offence even in Houston where he was the primary ball-handler. A common offensive set in Houston was a motion-based screen involving a hand-off with Chris Paul in a post-up situation. Paul would drift into a guard post-up after a hand-off with Eric Gordon. Gordon would then fire the pass towards the block, the offensive then had three options available for Paul. Paul could isolate and use his tidy fadeaway to knock down a shot or the other options in the offence could be pursued, providing that Paul did not take the post-up, a ball-screen would be used to separate the defence from Paul and create space for him to work. CP3 could drift into an open mid-ranger which can be considered an efficient shot for him or he could dump the ball down low to a rolling Capela down low. It is another example of Paul choosing not to isolate on offence and involving his team-mates within the scheme. I would say that is a key difference between Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Paul is much happier to reduce his own role within the offence so that his team-mates can be more involved in the offence. Westbrook's mentality is to purely generate quality looks whether that be for himself or his team-mates.
For the Thunder, it is easy to see how Chris Paul shapes the Thunder's offensive scheme. Billy Donovan has displayed a hands-off approach towards offence, he has been happy to let the point guard decide what type of offence should be run. A player like CP3 who relishes the opportunity to manage every single possession to generate the best look possible would be a floor general that Donovan can rely on to make decisions quickly and rationally. It is fair to assume that Steven Adams will be a strong beneficiary of Paul's style of offence. Throughout Paul's career, he has always made big man look incredibly good in terms of efficiency and scoring. The best examples of this would be DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela. Both big men experienced career-highs in both efficiency and scoring with Paul feeding them the ball into places where they were most comfortable. A small wrinkle with Paul's game is the pass which he throws to a rolling big man. The pass is never down low where big man have to reach down and bring the ball up, Paul always puts the ball at chest height which makes it much harder for the defence to intercept the ball. I fully expect for Adams' numbers to go up as Paul is more of a pass-first point guard compared to Russell.
Moreover, Chris Paul also opens the options for different plays that could not be previously run with Russell Westbrook due to his streaky shooting. In the past, the Thunder would never call a curl off the screen three for Russell because he was not efficient at that particular type of look. Westbrook's three-point shooting has been consistently poor for a number of years due to his shooting mechanics producing an incredibly flat arc that requires a lot of lift for the shot to drop in. There were times last year when Russell was fatigued where jump shots became a no-go as the pull-up clanked over and over again. Paul's jumper has been fairly consistent throughout the years and even had a productive year in a down year for him. Paul's true shooting came in at 56% and knocked down 55% of 16-24ft mid-range shots, a shot which Russell struggled with hugely last year. Paul ranked 62nd in TS % out of a pool of 181 guards, in comparison Russell Westbrook ranked 127th by the same metric.
Paul's shooting ability will mean that the Thunder can run a lot more plays that result in open shots from various shooting locations instead of shots within 0-3ft. This may seem counter-intuitive as the most efficient looks are typically the corner three or close to the rim but forcing defenders to cover more ground and actually respect a shooter makes it more difficult for the defensive coverage to get a stop. Opposing teams cannot sag off Chris Paul like they did for Russell Westbrook. A good example of this was in the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
In the Portland series, the defensive coverage was designed to give Russell Westbrook open mid-range jumpers as they did not respect the threat of a pull-up jumper. This meant that the lane was crowded so drives to the rim became more difficult and passes to the big man down low were also much harder. It made offence a lot harder for the Thunder especially in the play-offs where wells of easy points dry up and a point guard has to consistently create good shots for himself and the rest of his team. Russell Westbrook could do that in the play-offs but Westbrook's style of play produced limited options, he did not necessarily have the variety in his scoring game where he could easily find a three-point shot that could spark a quick run. Against Portland, Russell's lack of variety was maddening for the Thunder as Russell was baited into inefficient looks due to the fact that the good looks were defended correctly by the Trailblazers.
Chris Paul does not have the same issues when it comes to play-off basketball, Paul's shooting makes the defensive coverage work a lot harder. A great example of this would be Paul's ability to score in the mid-range taking apart Utah's defence in the 2018 NBA play-offs. In prior years, Houston's offence sputtered when the desired layup or three-point looks could not be obtained. The roster did not necessarily have the options who were comfortable shooting from that specific area of the floor and Paul fixed that deficiency quickly. In the past, Rudy Gobert's heady rim protection would completely stop Houston inside, the addition of Paul meant that Gobert could not play within his comfort area, he had to come out and defend in space.
Paul's ability to play in this area of the floor flummoxed Gobert and led to Houston easily beating the Jazz for two consecutive years. The ability to use the mid-range and craftily using the floater to draw Gobert out worked to a hugely efficient level. Paul is an efficient three-level scorer which creates more offensive options for his team, he does not always need to isolate and drive to create a shot. Paul is more than adequate when it comes to decelerating quickly and popping a mid-range jumper.
The athletic comparison is no debate, Westbrook is more explosive and his first step is unparalleled. Westbrook's first step creates so much separation as defenders simply cannot keep up with Westbrook when he turns on the jets. It means that the Thunder often managed to get quality looks at the rim as Westbrook's acceleration caused defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown for a defence. Chris Paul's athleticism does not come from his first step which is largely unimpressive, Paul's athleticism is his ability to decelerate. As basketball fans, we are taught to believe that acceleration past a defender is the one of the most important physical tools in terms of creating space. However, the ability to decelerate effectively is also hugely important, it gives a player a few extra steps while a defender momentum still carries them forward. Paul's ability to stop on a dime means that he can easily get a shot which is fairly open.
Moreover, the ability to create separation is different for Paul than it was for Westbrook. Westbrook's ball-handling largely involved rhythm dribbles which would catch a defender off for just a split-second, the small window which Westbrook needs to get to the rim. Paul does not have that first step or the explosive driving power that Westbrook has so his ball-handling is a lot more layered. A favourite ball-handling move of Chris Paul would be his crossover in which he send defenders to the floor and creates a superb amount of space for himself. The crossover is short, sharp but devastatingly effective due to the way that Paul sells his dribble moves. The moves are never half-hearted, Paul uses his eyes and body position to sell each move to a defender and beat the defence.
The foot positioning of each athlete is an interesting comparison to note. In a lot of film, Westbrook's feet are split with his dominant foot placed forward. It means that Russell has a half-step before he always explodes off the drive and the separation becomes much easier for Russell to obtain. Paul's positioning is more traditional, CP3 places his feet a lot closer to each other which allows lift on a jump shot to be generated a lot more cleanly. It can also mean that Paul has more options in terms of selling moves which could sell defenders one way or another. The overall effect of this is amazing. Paul's dribble package means that defenders are constantly kept guessing by the changes of direction and pace. The defensive coverage cannot settle for one second for the fear that Paul beats his man off a loss of concentration for the defence and the offence gets an efficient look.
Chris Paul on the Thunder will be an adequate replacement for Westbrook. It is entirely possible that providing Paul stays healthy that the Thunder could be in the race for the final play-off spot. The best case scenario would be that Chris Paul embraces his role as the unquestioned leader for the Thunder and makes it a point to lead the team effectively. It is fair to assume that players like Adams and Gallinari will become easy targets for Paul's passes and their numbers will increase. I feel that Paul's ability to put a pass on a plate for his team-mates will likely lead to an increase in efficiency when it is considered that team-mates such as DeAndre Jordan and Trevor Ariza have benefitted from CP3 leading them to a spot. The Thunder offence will become more balanced as a result, Chris Paul does not take as many shots as Russell Westbrook and therefore shots will flow to other players. Chris Paul took 12.4 shots per game last season whereas Russell Westbrook took 20.2 shots per game. I do not think for a minute that Paul will have an instant increase in shots per game and it feels likely that the other Thunder players will get more of the ball.
Moreover, Chris Paul in the most optimistic outlook for the Thunder would be a mentor for the Thunder's young, prodigious point guard. Shai Gilgeous Alexander was the prized haul from the Paul George trade and there is a lot to be excited about for Thunder fans. Alexander displayed a smoothness when handling the ball for the Clippers last season and he did not play like most expect an NBA rookie to play. There was very few rash and awful mistakes when making plays for his team-mates, SGA was content to play within himself and let the game flow out of him. He did make a few mistakes in the play-offs, SGA was occasionally too passive which forced his team-mates to take on more of the scoring load. It also meant that the Warriors could sag off Alexander safe in the knowledge that he would not shoot the ball.
As is the case with all young point guards, he needs time to grow as a player and eventually become comfortable running an NBA offence. The Clippers masked some of Alexander's youthful nature by having him operate as a secondary ball-handler in the offence. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams were often relied upon to be the primary initiator for the Clippers which meant that the pressure of running the show was relieved from the Canadian's shoulders. It also meant that Alexander excelled as a secondary playmaker who received the ball after the defence was broken down by the primary handler. SGA probed defences and then found the seams in which he could attack the defence, the style of basketball has shades of Shaun Livingston during his Clipper days. The same self-assuredness when it comes to calling numbers for his team and then subsequently executing the play.
On the other hand, Paul could be an absolute head-case for the Thunder. Paul is a noted perfectionist who has a short temper when it comes to players who do not share the same fire. That crankiness could destabilise the Thunder's team chemistry and lead to infighting within the team. Blake Griffin did not enjoy Paul's leadership during his time with the Clippers for the fact that Paul never stopped criticising his own team-mates. That constant rah-rah can irritate his team-mates and lead players to resent him. DeAndre Jordan was dead-set on joining the Mavericks as he craved a bigger role and did not like playing with Paul as he felt stifled offensively. It is entirely possible that this could occur with the Thunder especially with a guy like Steven Adams who requires the ball to be productive with the ball.
Overall, Paul will bring a bunch of different options for the Thunder and will likely lead to a more balanced offence. The most positive outcomes for Paul's stint with the Thunder would be a solid season as a mentor for SGA while also being a leader for the Thunder who imbues a professional culture onto a young team. This would hopefully increase Paul's trade value in the eyes of the league and lead a contending team to trade for the ageing star. The benefits of this result are two-fold, Paul gets his ability to finish the twilight of his career playing meaningful basketball while the Thunder gets assets for a contract that seemed impossible to move on acquisition. The worst-case scenario would be that Paul's worst tendencies come to the fore, team morale is destroyed and the Thunder drift aimlessly to the bottom of the standings. Paul's value is in tatters and no suitable trades can be orchestrated to get him out of the Oklahoma.