All eyes are on Chris Paul as he's stationed at the top of the key. He's in the triple-threat position, ball slightly dangling at his right hip. The size-up is usually strategic, but not this time. Paul already knows what he wants to do.
Quick jab with his right foot. That momentum carries him into a righty drive. Now comes the right-to-left behind-the-back dribble. He then gathers the ball with his left. In one fluid motion, he spins back to the right into a pull-up jumper.
His defender, Bradley Beal, tries to contest the jumper, but it's late and irrelevant. Beal was caught so off guard by the move that he couldn't recover in time. Not that it would've mattered anyway: Paul is one of the greatest mid-range shooters the sport has ever seen.
It's unwise to put a ton of stock into near-empty gym escapades; surely we've learned our lesson from Hoodie Melo. But that Paul clip hits differently. It's a snapshot of him at his best: in full control, and decisive. It's less about the ridiculous move and more about how quickly he went into it. He's most dangerous with a defender in retreat.
It's easy to forget that based on his tenure with the Houston Rockets. Their walk-it-up-and-isolate style, led by James Harden, was incredibly efficient. It's hard to argue against a top-two offense for two straight years. It also wasn't the best utilization of Paul. The clash in ideals reportedly played a part in Paul's eventual trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer.
Paul is back to square one, which doesn't seem good on the surface. Most veterans at his age want to be on a surefire title contender. The Thunder are a fringe playoff team by most optimistic standards.
But in a way, this is a step up for the 34-year-old Paul. He'll be back to dictating an offense on his terms, the trait that made him the NBA's Point Gawd. He may not be the MVP-caliber (robbed in 2007-08) version of himself, but there's evidence to suggest a major bounce-back season could be on the way.
Season in Review
Paul was a shell of himself last season. He averaged career lows in points per game (15.6), field-goal percentage (41.9), and PER (19.7). His true shooting percentage (56.0) was 4.4 percentage points lower than his mark during 2017-18. More concerning, Paul missed 24 games for the second consecutive season.
There was a noticeable slip in quickness on both ends of the court. There's an aging aspect at play there, but the isolation burden surely didn't help. Via Synergy, Paul logged 350 isolation possessions (passing included) last season—the fifth-highest total in the league—despite playing significantly fewer games than the names above him on the list. Harden (1,543 possessions), Russell Westbrook (467), DeMar DeRozan (466) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (403) all appeared in at least 72 contests.
Even in a down year, Paul found himself in a select group. He was one of five players to average at least 15 points and eight assists (8.2, third in the NBA), joining LeBron James, Westbrook, Trae Young and John Wall. Paul was the most efficient three-point shooter on the list (35.8 percent) and the only one to average 2.0 steals. He didn't track guards at an All-Defensive-team level but was still a plus-defender overall.
Running the Show
Paul is one of the best floor generals the NBA has ever seen. He anticipates plays two, sometimes three frames ahead of the opponent. That allows him to manipulate help defenders to create open looks for others or himself—in that order. Here's a brief example:
This seems like a routine pick-and-roll, but every part of his possession is calculated. Paul and Clint Capela begin their two-man dance on the left wing. The Sacramento Kings are in "drop" coverage, which is right in Paul's wheelhouse. Kings big man Willie Cauley-Stein casually walks to his right to cut off a potential roll from Capela. Paul waits until Cauley-Stein is both out of position and standing upright to begin his drive to the right.
Paul curls tight off the screen to suck Cauley-Stein into the action. He knows that one of the corner defenders will drop down to help contain the rim-roll from Capela. Midway through his second dribble, Paul sees the culprit: Corey Brewer in the weak-side corner. Paul keeps his gaze to the left as he drives to freeze Brewer in his tracks. Two dribbles later, Paul gathers in the paint and fires a bullet to PJ Tucker in the corner. Brewer can't recover, and Tucker hits the open shot.
Not many playmakers in NBA history have been able to stress out help defenders like Paul. One false step from any opponent is enough to create a passing window. It's why Paul remains one of the league's best pick-and-roll guards.
Via Synergy, a Paul-run pick-and-roll was worth 1.016 points per possession, placing him in the 83rd percentile. He generated nearly 1.14 points per possession on kick-out passes to spot-up shooters, and 1.069 points per possession on passes to the roll man. If nobody tags the roller, Paul will find his big man for the score.
There just isn't much of an answer for Paul if you give him two-on-two looks. He can turn them into advantages in his sleep.
That's just a taste of what Paul can do when he's searching for others. He can still generate good looks for himself when needed. If no weak-side tag comes in pick-and-roll and the defensive big gives too much of a cushion, Paul is comfortable with snaking around the screen and drilling pull-up jumpers. He ranked in the 88th percentile on off-the-dribble jumpers last season.
Paul struggled to create against the Golden State Warriors' collection of lengthy defenders during last year's second round series. He shot just 42.4 percent from the field and 27.6 percent from deep. Don't let that series skew his perception too heavily.
Even with some slippage, Paul won against switches more than he lost. Via Synergy, he generated over 1.10 points per possession in those situations, placing him in the 82nd percentile. Poor Kelly Olynyk had no answer for this.
How He Fits With OKC
This is not to say he's better than Westbrook, but Paul will give the Thunder a level of court vision, pull-up shooting and decision-making (on both ends) that they haven't had.
Head coach Billy Donovan likes to mix in step-up screens as part of their early offense. It allowed Westbrook to put strain on defenses early, force rotations and open passing windows. Paul isn't that kind of wrecking ball, but he's at his best when the defense is out of sorts early.
Capela is a good screener and nimble finisher in his own right, but Steven Adams is arguably the NBA's best screener and a fantastic roll man. Having him crunch opponents with lead blocks will allow Paul to get downhill early, which could lead to those pull-up opportunities or kick-out passes. Rockets players shot 37.5 percent from three off passes from Paul last season. That bodes well for Danilo Gallinari (43.3 percent from three last season) and Terrance Ferguson (36.6 percent).
That also can work in reverse. Via Synergy, Paul has ranked in the 80th percentile or better as a spot-up shooter in five of the past seven seasons. Teams will have to account for him off the ball in a way they never did for Westbrook.
On top of being a superior shooter, Paul reads the floor better and is willing to relocate when creases open.
That will open up the floor for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He's a pretty "meh" shooter at this stage, but he's already a tremendous finisher. Paul should have no issue with spacing while Gilgeous-Alexander does work in pick-and-roll scenarios.
On the other end of the floor, Paul will help the Thunder at the point of attack. The 6'0", 175-pound lead guard isn't as physically imposing as the 6'3", 200-pound Westbrook, but he still does a great job of staying connected over screens and picking pockets when the opportunity arises.
This should also be a more comfortable schematic fit. The Rockets went to more "drop" coverage last season but still led the NBA with 28.0 pick switches per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum tracking data. The Thunder averaged 14.0 switches per 100 possessions last season. They obviously won't switch as much with Paul in the fold, though he can hold his own against bigger players in spurts.
The biggest question surrounding Paul will be his health. He provides real value as a passer, shooter and defender, but that won't matter if he isn't on the court. Paul hasn't played 70 or more games since the 2015-16 season.
If he can hit that benchmark or slightly lower (let's say 67 games), the Thunder have the type of talent to fight for the eighth seed.