Usually it’s his colleagues, not his employers, who lament Chris Paul. Blake Griffin has publicly described Paul as tenacious and demanding, but we know that Griffin felt bullied by Paul behind the scenes in Los Angeles. James Harden hardly says anything to the press, but according to an anonymous source within the Rockets organization, Paul was traded away last week at least partially because Harden wanted him gone. The reporting fleshes out what we already know: Paul is a genius and an irritant, a perfectionist and a panic artist. He’s insistent that everybody else should play as an extension of his own thinking, and he never allows a mistake to pass unremarked upon. After a while, his teammates invariably get sick of his constant pestering and complaining. He’s right way more often than he’s wrong, but he doesn’t know how to deliver his messages constructively, or failing that, when to simply shut up.
Having burned through two franchises in three years, Oklahoma City has the whiff of exile for Paul. Daryl Morey tried to turn the Westbrook/Paul swap into a three-teamer in order to steer the 34-year-old to a contender, but that maneuver proved tricky and now Sam Presti, who doesn’t want Chris Paul on his team much more than Morey did, is learning that the rest of the league hardly values him anymore. At least not at his age, and certainly not at the humongous salary figure he more or less negotiated for himself as president of the Players Association.
The Thunder took him on because he came with two draft picks and two pick swaps attached. Teetering on the edge of a complete rebuild, they’re eager to move him. But who’s buying? The market is artificially constricted at the moment because many teams have recently signed or traded for guys they can’t send back out until the winter months. Even given that, the potential list of suitors is short. The Heat are always in the market for stars, but Paul stretches the definition of that term. Though the Timberwolves need a point guard, they need to consider that Karl-Anthony Towns already suffered beneath Jimmy Butler’s ire and he might have a hard time enduring the scrutiny of another cantankerous control freak. Would the Magic or Suns want him? He surely wouldn’t want them.
Paul’s legacy is immensely complicated. He is the best pure point guard of his generation, but that’s been said about him so many times that it has lost its flavor, and besides, the current version of the NBA doesn’t have many floor generals, dominated as it is by scoring guards, playmaking wings, and shooters of every size. Paul grew up following the leads of all-timers like John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. Nobody today is really trying to replicate Paul’s example and he himself no longer controls tempo or directs the offense the way he did a few seasons ago. His closest analogue is a contemporary, and eight inches taller: LeBron James. And Chris Paul isn’t LeBron.
He hasn’t had significant postseason success. The Lob City Clippers were always banged up, unlucky, or just a little bit short of greatness. The Rockets pushed the 2018 Warriors to the brink, but last season they went out rather meekly and embarrassingly after Kevin Durant got injured. There is a sense with Paul that he freaks out in the clutch, that his seething competitiveness spins out of control and he falters, as he infamously did against the Thunder in the 2014 playoffs. Looking at his postseason record, that’s more of an interpretation than a fact, but you can’t say he’s been impeccable in the big moments either. Perhaps the reality is that Paul’s control over the game has always been less complete than it looks. He’s an expert survivalist but he can’t change the weather like the very, very best players in the league can.
If this sounds like a eulogy, it’s not truly time for that, but we do know that Paul has been in decline for a while now and there’s a distinct possibility that he’s played the last high-stakes basketball of his career. Though anything can happen in the fluid-as-ever NBA, both Paul and the Thunder are making noises that suggest they might be stuck with each other for at least this season, and if that’s the case, he’ll serve as the old head on an interesting but not terribly competitive roster, mentoring (or at least chewing out) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and running pick and rolls with Steven Adams. Whether this purgatorial predicament mellows him at all remains to be seen. He might put a hit out on Dennis Schroeder if he’s forced to play with him for more than a few months.
This isn’t Chris Paul at the crossroads so much as Paul stuck in a cul-de-sac from which he might not be able to extricate himself. In a summer that featured a bunch of stars asserting their will and altering their situations, a deteriorating ex-star got dumped onto a franchise he didn’t choose. That’s either an ignominious end or a speed bump on the way to some fruitful late-career comeback. But right now the former looks way more likely than the latter. This must be excruciating for a guy who is obsessed with both his own autonomy and getting everybody else to do what he says. Whatever happens from here isn’t totally up to him. Now more than ever, Chris Paul is what other people make of him, and not the other way around, as he’s so strongly insisted over all these years.