Sports | January 29, 2020 8:00 am

Chris Paul Isn't an All-Star and the Thunder Are Better Off Because of It

Paul's stats are down but Oklahoma City's win total is higher than expected

Chris Paul Isn't an All-Star and the Thunder Are Better Off Because of It
Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder in action against. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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On Martin Luther King Day, while the Oklahoma City Thunder were rallying against the Houston Rockets in the fourth quarter from a deficit that hit as much as 17 points, Chris Paul was on the bench watching.

And Paul, who had 28 points in the Thunder’s 112-107 comeback win over his former team, but only one in the second half, was fine with it, going so far as to shout down a heckler who was questioning OKC coach Billy Donovan’s decision to keep him out of the lineup.

If it seems hard to imagine the nine-time All-Star would be okay with riding the bench while watching the player he was dealt for, Russell Westbrook, go off for a triple-double, you’re right — it is.

But that’s where Paul, 34, is at in his career right now and the Thunder are better off for it.

Currently in seventh place in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City is just a few games back of the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks in playoff positioning and could easily move up in the standings during the second half of the season. Even if they don’t, OKC (28-20) is almost guaranteed to blow past their projected win total of 32.5 victories by at least double digits.

If they do, Paul will certainly be leading the way, but he won’t be doing it by scoring the basketball.

Though he’s averaging more than 17 points per game, Paul is actually fourth on the Thunder in scoring behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.7), Danilo Gallinari (19.1) and Dennis Schroder (18.8), all of whom are also attempting more shots per game than the veteran point guard.

Also, though he is leading the Thunder in dimes, Paul’s 6.4 assists per game are a career-low, as are his steals (1.6 per game). It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Chris used to be my favorite player,” Gilgeous-Alexander jokingly told Sports Illustrated earlier this month. “Then I saw it day-to-day. Now he’s not good enough to be my favorite player.”

Gilgeous-Alexander’s remark aside, none of that is meant to disparage Paul’s on-court production this season but, instead, put it in the proper context.

Though his 17.2 points per game average may be down compared to his career average of 18.5 points, Paul — who had yet to miss a start this season prior to sitting out Monday’s game to mourn the death of Kobe Bryant — is actually having one of the most efficient years of his career.

Chris Paul Shoots the Ball
Chris Paul shoots the ball over Ky Bowman and Alec Burks. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
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Shooting the ball at a .483 percent clip from the field this season, Paul is above his career average of .470 percent and well above his .419 mark from last season, the worst of his career.

The biggest reason for Paul’s pristine shooting percentage is how effective he’s been with his 2-point field goals as he’s making them at a career-best .549 percent. He’s also cut down on his 3-pointers by nearly two attempts per game without increasing his number of 2-point attempts to compensate.

The result from that minor adjustment is that Paul is missing fewer 3-pointers and making more mid-range shots than he did last year as well as getting to the line more – especially when it counts.

As of this writing, Paul is leading the NBA in clutch scoring this season, a category he hasn’t even finished in the top five in since 2011-12.

“If there’s a method to Paul’s madness, it’s that he’s literally twice as aggressive about finding his own shot when the game is on the line,” according to FiveThirtyEight. “His clutch-time usage rate this season is almost 32 percent, while his usage rate in first quarters is just under 16 percent.” 

And, as Paul’s percentages and his behavior during the fourth quarter on MLK Day against Houston illustrate, he’s doing it without taking bad shots or even demanding to play during crunch time.

“My two seasons in Houston were unbelievable,” Paul told SI earlier this month “But some of the most exciting times for me this season have been just being in the moment. Those close games, having that ball, not so much having to shoot the shot, but being depended on. Those are the moments I live for.”

He may not be getting All-Star votes or leading Oklahoma City in scoring, but Paul is getting it done in crunch time and leading the Thunder to wins no one thought they would get this season — sometimes from the bench.

UPDATE 1/31: For the first time since 2016, Paul was elected to the All-Star team as a reserve for the Western Conference. It’s a well-deserved honor.