When the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets owner (Tilman Fertitta) called it the “worst contract in sports”. At the time there were a lot of people that might have agreed with him and in fairness to Paul, this had a lot to do with injury concerns but his play did seem to be declining in general.
As we sit here today and as I write this, Paul is currently up two games in his first NBA finals appearance and there’s a serious conversation going on around NBA fans alike as to whether Paul is the most impactful player in the NBA right now. He’s accompanied by a pair of young stars in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton who have been fulfilling their potential in their own ways.
With that being said, this season has truly been the definition of “The Chris Paul effect”, which in essence is the effect every true point guard should have, simply make everyone around them better. Paul joined a team with a decade-long playoff drought and helped lift them to a finals appearance. So this raises the question, is Paul the most impactful player currently in the NBA right now? When you consider leadership ability and improving everyone around them, Paul has made his case against the best in the league. This even earned him true MVP consideration this year and many people late in the playoffs hailing him as the real MPV.
To really get an understanding of his impact on teams through his volatile career and how we got to this point with Paul, I wanted to briefly revisit and appreciate the teams he’s been a part of along the way and how The Chris Paul Effect evolved. That is with the exception of New Orleans as he was very young and this narrative wasn’t that evident at the time and well….because it’s New Orleans.
Los Angeles Clippers
Who doesn’t remember Lob City? Or at the very least seen the hundreds of highlights on social media of that Clippers team. The early to mid-2000’s Clippers were the birthplace of what we have come to know as the point god. When Paul was on the clippers, he showcased the ability to truly make the players around him better. Bringing out the most of the two high-flying bigs in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Throwing them lobs left and right, putting them in positions they seemingly have not been put in since they stopped playing with Paul. The careers of Jordan and Griffin after playing alongside Paul have truly been representative of the trend that was to come down the stretch of Pauls’s career on the various teams he found himself on. While it is important to keep in mind their age and where they played, Paul clearly had. an impact on their career.
While Paul never did crack the Clipper’s curse of never making a conference finals, he definalty made his mark on the NBA and set the tone for what was to come. While he developed a reputation for intensity and high demand from his teammates, everyone understood how important he was. He was the captain of the high-flying ship that was the Lob City Clippers.
For one reason or another, Pauls’s time there ended with disagreements about rotations and coaching decisions. This muddied his reputation between an intense leader and a rude malcontent.
When Paul was traded to the Rockets, it an absolute blockbuster of a trade that included Rockets veterans Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and a plethora of draft picks. It also included an under-the-table agreement for the aforementioned contract (the worst in sports, per Tilman Fertitta) that would be signed the following season.
The first season that Paul was in Houston quite very well could have been the best season he ever played and the Chris Paul effect was in full swing this season. Without any previous playing time together, Paul acquiesced (and correctly so) to the perennial MVP candidate James Harden. Paul beautifully adjusting to Harden within a season should really be appreciated more now as we are in a day and age that chemistry is so difficult to come by and capture.
Houston was rolling with Paul and Harden, they won the West with a sixty-five-win season and it looked like they were perfectly executing the arms race Darly Morey talked about. What stood in their way though was the greatest team ever assembled, the Kevin Durant lead Warriors team. To this day, Houston put up the greatest playoff series ever played against that team. This series went to seven and unfortunately, Paul was unable to be a part of that game.
Paul had suffered a hamstring injury that would not allow him to go for the most important game in his career at that point. A Paul-less Houston missed twenty-three straight threes in that game seven (worst in a game in NBA history) and still only lost by single digits. Houston was absolutely demoralized, and the next season felt it. It seemed that Paul could never get right injury-wise and his big new contract had just started.
This season went poorly, to say the least, Harden and Paul’s tensions noticeably rose, and the season ended with losing to KD-less warriors in game six at home. With his injuries mounting and tensions mounting on a team for a second time, the negative parts of Paul’s reputation were coming up. At this time, many fans and analysts were at the point we started at in this article, considering Paul the worst contract in the NBA.
That offseason Houston would make another blockbuster trade for Russell Westbrook that included picks from Houston. For many people (including myself to be honest), Paul’s career was now sent to die with the now rebuilding, and for the first time in a while, the superstar-less Oklahoma City Thunder.
Oklahoma City Thunder
When Paul arrived in OKC, the opening odds for that team to make the playoffs were -900. Nobody whos watched more than five games of NBA basketball thought that team would be remotely competitive. I guess everyone with the exception of Paul.
Paul was poised with an absolutely polar opposite challenge than the one he had been faced with the previous two seasons in Houston. Instead of having to learn how to play around a superstar, Paul needed to learn how to galvanize a group of players with little experience who were on a bottom third team In the league on paper.
Similar to his start with Houston, Paul wasted no time optimizing the players around him. His attitude and knowledge that would at times offend veteran players in the past, was infectious among young players such as
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort.
Down the stretch of the season, this team was a fan favorite to watch, with the underdog and Cinderella story combining into one of the most unique teams fans have seen in the NBA. The 2020-2021 OKC finished fifth in the West and was set to face Pauls’s former team the Houston Rockets in the first round.
That series truly confirmed what we were starting to already know, Paul was far from being the washed and disgruntled player with a bad contract he was perceived a season before. Now Paul was slated for a revenge series against the team that attempted to send him to a career-ending location just a year prior (Houston Rockets)
Paul came exceptionally close, bringing the series to seven games, and is taking a heroic last-second defensive play by James Harden to seal the series for Houston. While Paul and OKC did not win the series, they definalty won their season. Now the question was what was next for Paul, was he to continue with helping the rebuilding project in OKC, or would a contender trade for the now sought-after veteran even given the behemoth of a contract.
The answer to the question posed at the end of the last paragraph was quickly answered in the offseason by the Phoneix Suns. I’d just like to point out that the Suns had to give up a first-round pick to get Paul, whereas the Rockets gave up first-round picks to entice OKC for Paul. This contrast is really the tangible representation of the true turn our Paul made within that time
Arriving in Phoneix, Paul appeared to be in the absolutely perfect position. Seemingly Paul had landed in the perfect mix of his previous two destinations (Houston & OKC), there was a plethora of young talent, but this young talent was much closer to the superstar level expectation that had been placed on them. Paul had been brought in to elevate them to that and as the Paul effect goes, make everyone better, as he did on a smaller scale with OKC and on a large scale with Houston.
In parallel with his initial season with his two previous teams, Paul did not disappoint his expectations. He has brought the play of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton to a new level and as a consequence, the team has surpassed the tempered playoff expectations of this team at the start of the season.
Even when the Suns finished with the best record in the Western Conference, the doubt of a deep playoff push was present from many. With two LA teams and a deep western conference in their way, a finals appearance seemed unlikely at best. As the playoffs went on past the first round, the NBA community realized how wrong they truly were. The Suns took down both LA teams and ran through the Denver Nuggets (albeit with Jamal Murray out).
Now with the Suns and Paul the clear favorites to win the Larry O’Brien trophy, being up 2-0 in the finals, will the story of Chris Paul’s remarkable career turn around to have the perfect ending? And what does that do for his legacy as an all-time great? Regardless of the outcome, nobody is in doubt of the effect Paul has on a team, on and off the floor. Going into next season he will likely decline his player option and test the market, to nobody’s credit but his own, there will be no shortage of teams looking for his services.