How Chris Paul accelerated the Thunder's rebuild

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Chris Paul has had the reputation of being tough on his teammates, and at times throughout his career, rubbing some players the wrong way.

Possessed with such a competitive fire, his demands were that you put in the work and be mentally prepared to compete at the highest level.

If for some reason a player wasn’t engaged as he should be or continually botched assignments, Paul had no reservations about getting on the player’s case.

His in-game critiques came from a good place. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s star guard sought to rectify the issues, but occasionally his instruction would be taken as being shown up in public.

Tough love is the way Paul led for most of his career, and the 15-year veteran has been successful with that approach, despite the Thunder’s season coming to an end Wednesday night.

But that approach called for modifications at his last two stops.

The 10-time All-Star is one of the last true point guards. He was often tasked with being the primary ball-handler and facilitator, not because he wanted to but because the makeup of the roster required it.

In his first year with the Thunder, Chris Paul helped them continue their streak of making the playoffs. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
In his first year with the Thunder, Chris Paul helped them continue their streak of making the playoffs. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

When the games mattered, teams would constantly trap him, forcing him to give up the ball to players not accustomed to setting up the table. Over time, this caused great frustration and he recognized that in order to make a deep title run, he needed to play with another ball-handling playmaker.

Paul wanted to play with Houston Rockets star James Harden to alleviate some of the ball-handling responsibilities, he told Yahoo Sports. He said in today’s game, the elite teams have multiple playmakers who can initiate the offense.

In their first year together during the 2017-18 season, the duo worked on the court to a degree, and they were one win away from eliminating the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. However, Paul suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the last two games of the series, and the Warriors would go on to win those two and advance to the Finals.

“That one was a tough period for me,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “I pulled my hamstring in the playoffs and next year’s playoffs. That sucked. We were playing so well and to have that happen at that time was definitely frustrating.”

Paul being traded to the Thunder in 2019 had more to do with a personality clash between himself and Harden than anything basketball-related. The relationship was strictly basketball. Harden had never played with a player as vocal and demanding as Paul, whose critiques could be interpreted the wrong way.

In Oklahoma City, Paul was surrounded by young, unproven talent, which isn’t an ideal situation for most 34-year-olds seeking to win their first championship.

“When I’m in, I’m in,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “Y’all thought I was going to ask out or something. No, I liked the direction of the organization and I believe I can play a part in elevating this team. When I step on the court, I feel like I can compete with anybody and I wanted them to feel that way too.”

With that mindset, Paul helped empower a franchise that wasn’t even expected to sniff the postseason, and it almost resulted in the Thunder upsetting his former team in the first round of the playoffs.

The Rockets defeated the Thunder 104-102 in Game 7 on Wednesday night. Houston will take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round starting Friday.

Paul finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists.

“We didn’t give a damn about anybody’s prediction going into any series. In any game, we expected to win,” Paul said in his postgame news conference. “That’s how we played all season long, every game. We fought hard all year.”

The Thunder had three starting-level point guards on the roster with Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. How could they all coexist on the court?

“Easy, I defer to them,” Paul told Yahoo Sports.

Whether Paul wants to admit it or not, his approach changed subtly too.

After turnovers, ill-advised shots and blown assignments from his young teammates, Paul would turn around and get right back on defense without even so much as a glance at the culprit. And if he did approach them, it was unrelated to the mishap.

Veteran center Steven Adams received most of Paul’s pep talks.

“It’s basketball,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “Mistakes happen. You have to allow guys, especially young guys, to play through that. I have to pick my spots on when to be vocal, but I want them to know that I believe in them and I expect them to make the next play.”

Paul’s leadership and tutelage accelerated what was deemed as a rebuilding period for the Thunder.

His insatiable desire to win never faded and because of that, this young squad is now competing earlier than anyone expected.

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