What rebuild? Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder are here now

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Chris Paul
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Before the season began the feeling was that Chris Paul was essentially left for dead in Oklahoma City.

At 34 years old, Paul came into his 15th year with one of the NBA’s most undesirable contracts and an inability to stay healthy enough to get over the hump in the playoffs. He and his camp hoped that the Thunder would be a short-term stop before figuring out a way to get the future Hall of Famer back onto a contender for the twilight of his career. It has not panned out that way, but Paul’s professionalism and competitiveness have turned what was projected to be a rebuild and mentorship role, into a 7th seed and two games over .500 after a big win against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night.

Paul is healthy and his numbers reflect that. He is shooting 46.8% from the field after shooting 41.9% last year while also slightly improving on his three-point percentage (37 percent on 4.3 attempts per game after shooting 35.8% last season).

Is it too early to say that the Oklahoma City Thunder actually won the Westbrook trade?

On July 11th, the Oklahoma City Thunder set Russell Westbrook free so he could pursue competitive basketball in Houston while they started over with their fresh young core. Chris Paul was the odd man out and was unceremoniously shipped away amidst rumors of a souring relationship with James Harden and another year hampered with injuries down the stretch in the playoffs. Russell Westbrook was projected to be an upgrade at point guard. Maybe he didn’t have the floor stretching ability of Paul but he is a bigger, more explosive physical force that is also one of the game’s best passers. The results have been mixed but Paul is undeniably having a better year and the Thunder are benefiting from it.

Last night’s win against the Toronto Raptors was a perfect display of what Paul has meant to this team thus far. 20 of his 25 points came in the second half and he certainly added to his league lead in total clutch points to seal the win. In addition to his scoring, he gave out eight assists and grabbed a season-high 11 rebounds. No one expected Paul to show up in Oklahoma City and pout, but he has been a boon to a team that is constantly improving as the season goes on. His leadership and control of the game have played a huge role in the development of the Thunder’s otherwise young core.

Trae Young and Luka Doncic get a well-deserved amount of attention as second-year studs leading their respective teams, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander deserves your attention as well. He was the centerpiece that sent Paul George to Los Angeles as the Clippers reluctantly let go of their future franchise point guard to pair George with Kawhi Leonard for a title run. He doesn’t have the sharpshooting of Young or the dynamic playmaking ability of Doncic, but he is a crafty slasher who is effective on and off the ball and may have benefited from Paul more than any other party involved.

Gilgeous-Alexander has looked great in an increased role for the Thunder averaging 19.8 points per game in his sophomore campaign. His last five games he’s been on fire going for 28.8 points per night on 55.6% shooting. As his confidence grows so does the outlook of a team that has seven first-round draft picks and multiple pick swaps to look forward to. If Paul can stay healthy, the Thunder will be in serious contention for the playoffs behind their high-IQ backcourt.

The question now is whether the Thunder should want to be competitive or not. A playoff appearance would be as a doormat to a higher seed. You could argue that this would benefit the young players they already have, but surely ownership wouldn’t mind bottoming out and securing the best draft picks available instead of a first-round playoff exit. With Chris Paul playing this well and a solid core with Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder, and Nerlens Noel Oklahoma City may have issues losing enough games down the stretch if they don’t dump some of these guys before February’s trade deadline.

No matter what happens next, no one could have predicted that Chris Paul’s stay in Oklahoma City would be this fun. His success there is a testament to his professionalism and should be the blueprint for aging superstars going forward.

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