CLEVELAND — Trading Paul George in July meant the Oklahoma City Thunder were in danger of missing the playoffs in 2019-20. Trading Russell Westbrook a few days later meant losing the heart and soul of the franchise.
Now, Chris Paul is bringing both back.
Paul, 34, is the leader of a surprisingly good 21-16 Thunder team, one that's just four-and-a-half games back of the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
On a team that averages 25.4 years in age, Paul's veteran presence has been needed.
"They just always talk about how old I am," Paul told Bleacher Report. "I tell them I feel damn good, so I'm cool with it."
Paul was cast out as James Harden's running mate with the Houston Rockets in favor of Westbrook. While both players carry hefty contracts, Houston had to include first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, along with the right to swap firsts in 2021 and 2025, for Oklahoma City to take Paul.
While the success of the trade for Houston can't be determined before the postseason, the deal already looks like a win for the Thunder, who are on pace to finish with just three fewer wins (46) than they recorded last season.
When asked for the main reason behind the team's on-the-fly rebuild success, head coach Billy Donovan brought up Paul's name first.
"He's been great on and off the floor. Obviously, he's a Hall of Fame point guard, high IQ, really understands the game and studies the game," Donovan told B/R. "I think he's been a great role model for a lot of our younger players, just because at 34 years old to see the investment he's made into the game and into his body, how he gets himself prepared and ready to play."
Now in his 15th season, Paul is averaging 16.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.5 steals while splitting at .470/.373/.905 in his 31.9 minutes per game. His 4.4 win shares lead the team.
Despite his strong numbers, Paul has had to adjust his playing style with two other ball-dominant guards on the roster, including by playing shooting guard more often than he ever has in his career.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became an immediate building block for OKC's rebuild coming over from the Los Angeles Clippers in the George trade, and there were concerns over how Paul and the 21-year-old would share a backcourt.
To his credit, Paul has been perfectly willing to take a step back offensively, and it's Gilgeous-Alexander who leads the Thunder with 19.8 points per game in only his second season.
For the first time in his career, Paul is nearly splitting his time between guard positions in half, with 47 percent of his minutes coming at shooting guard. And it's this unique three point guard rotation, along with sixth man Dennis Schroder, that has become a strength.
"It's hard and challenging, and I say this in a good way, when you have three elite point guards," Donovan said. "Dennis Schroder could be a starting point guard in this league in a lot of places. Chris Paul is obviously a Hall of Fame point guard, and Shai is having a great year, but they've all had to give up something. They've had to give up the ball in their hands."
While this isn't an easy process for veterans in Paul or Schroder, it's done with the intention of molding Gilgeous-Alexander into an even better floor general in time.
"Shai has got to understand at 6'5", 6'6", this is great for his growth that he's playing off the ball, because when he is the point, he has a better understanding of what someone else is experiencing off the ball because he has to go through it right now," Donovan said.
While his on-court presence has aided Gilgeous-Alexander's breakout, Paul makes sure to take care of all of his Thunder teammates.
These actions often take place off the court, like when Paul gifted all the players tailored suits that they were able to design and customize themselves. Or securing a luxury suite to the Seattle Seahawks-Philadelphia Eagles playoff game on an off day in Philly for players and members of the coaching and public relations staff.
"He's definitely a leader. He takes us to dinner, just team bonding things. We're actually going to the football game tomorrow," Thunder small forward Terrance Ferguson told B/R. "Just those team-bonding things, making us connect off the floor, which makes things easier on the court when we're playing."
Building off-court chemistry is important to Paul, especially after spending 15 years on four different franchises and two Olympic teams.
"I think the off-court stuff is, honestly, something I've always done. Just because we're together more than we're actually with our families, you know what I mean? So why not if you've got a day off? When you enjoy being around guys, it really makes a difference when you play. It makes it feel like you're playing for one another and you're not just co-workers," Paul said.
A decade-and-a-half ago, it was a wide-eyed Paul who would follow around Speedy Claxton, spending "all day, every day" with the then-27-year-old veteran. After Claxton, it became Bobby Jackson and Jannero Pargo as models for how to set the tone with a team.
"We've obviously got an entirely different team than we had a year ago, and [Paul's] one piece to that, but I think when you bring a bunch of new players in together—we had nine new roster spots—you don't know how guys are going to jell and mesh," Donovan said. "You need somebody who's going to bring the group together, and he's done that since training camp, and I think that's been really impactful to our team."
Chemistry oozes throughout the Thunder locker room, a team playing with house money based on preseason expectations. Paul is the unquestioned leader, one who seems destined to stay with OKC now based on his strong play and substantial remaining contract.
While Paul has been forced to share the ball more than ever, make no mistake where it goes when the game is on the line.
Clutch time in the NBA is classified as during the fourth quarter or overtime with fewer than five minutes remaining and the score within five points. In that scenario, no player has scored more than Paul.
His 103 clutch points lead the league, far outpacing Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine's 83. Paul is shooting 54.5 percent from the field and has sunk 24 of 25 free throws while putting the Thunder up by 57 points in 114 total clutch minutes.
While Paul is still more than happy to take over a game when he needs to, cheering on the young guys has become rewarding as well.
"I think one of the most important things at this level to success is you've got to have guys on the team that enjoy each other's success," Donovan said.
"Like, Chris Paul is excited that Shai's doing well, you know? When you have guys wanting to see other guys do well and not looking at it like something's being taken from them but actually rooting on a teammate, that's where you can build that kind of chemistry."
While it looked certain the Thunder would continue to sell off veterans before the trade deadline following the George and Westbrook deals, players such as Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams may actually stay put as OKC looks to move up the standings.
The Thunder are in position to become extreme buyers if they want after collecting eight first-round picks this summer from the George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant trades.
While it seemed like an awkward partnership at first, Paul is the new heartbeat of Oklahoma City, one of the biggest surprises of the season.