On Thursday, Russell Westbrook is set to make his emotional return to Oklahoma City.
While all eyes will be Westbrook coming back to the place he called home for 11 seasons, it shouldn't take away from what the Thunder have been able to accomplish without him so far this season. Specifically, the combination of future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and sophomore stud Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has proven to be a dynamic one, with the two leading the way in the Thunder's recent surge up the Western Conference standings.
MORE: Is Houston's Westbrook gamble starting to pay off?
The marriage between SGA and CP3 has been a match made in heaven. For Gilgeous-Alexander, he's found the mentor that many in his position rarely get the opportunity to learn from. For Paul, he's found the perfect protege that may very well help him prolong his career.
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While everyone will look at the leap Gilgeous-Alexander has taken offensively, it's really the defensive side of the ball that has made this pairing special. Even at his advanced age, Paul is still a terrific defender, using his smarts to make up for his lack of size and declining athleticism. But as Paul has gotten older, the point guard position has invited bigger, stronger and faster guards into the fold for him to match up with.
The game has also changed where teams are shooting more 3s and punishing size mismatches with post play.
There are some signs that guarding the 3-point line has become increasingly difficult at times for Paul at this stage in his career. At 6-foot-1, reacting, recovering or closings even just a half-step lower while getting a hand up means he no longer deters most from shooting over the top of his outstretched arms.
This season, with Paul on the floor, opposing teams are shooting 38.4% from three. According to NBA Stats, that number drops to just 26.6% from long range when Paul sits. Is some if bad luck? Of course. There's only so much one can control and there's plenty of noisy factors that go into that particular trend.
But... and there is a but.
The longer and rangy Gilgeous-Alexander also has plenty to do with that. At 6-foot-5, SGA can counter any long-range attempt with his length and he's been on the floor for about 75% of the time that Paul has sat. As a result, teams are currently shooting just 34.0% from three with him on the floor overall.
"We all bring different abilities defensively," Paul recently told the Oklahoman. "Shai has his length. Dennis (Schroder) is a pest, you know what I mean? Me and Dennis usually argue a lot of times about who's going to guard who. Like, I had Luka for a second, and Dennis said he wanted him. So, we all bring something different."
They've also off-set each other on offence. For his entire career, Paul has been a cerebral assassin, methodically picking teams apart with the rock in his hand. It never feels forced with Paul, but there is a process, and you can see him computing where and when he wants to attack on offence. Gilgeous-Alexander, on the other hand, may be the smoothest player in the NBA since The Iceman, George Gervin. Everything he does looks effortless, like he's barely breaking a sweat.
The contrast in the two has allowed Paul to play off the ball, which in turn has reduced his time as the primary point guard on the floor. Paul has spent just 53% of his minutes as the Thunder's point guard this season according to Basketball Reference's play-by-play data, by far the lowest in his career. His 22.1% usage rate is the second-lowest of his career.
This is what Paul likely hoped his time with the Rockets looked like.
With less of a burden to control things throughout the entire game, it's allowed Paul to be fresh in the moments when his team needs him the most. Nobody has played more clutch games than the Thunder this season and CP3 has been terrific when OKC has needed him to step up.
Paul is averaging 3.7 points on 54.5% shooting from the field in the clutch this season. He's been as good as MVP candidates and feared closers James Harden and Jimmy Butler. He's been more effective in crunch time than Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard. With SGA and Schroder doing the heavy lifting for the most part of games, Paul has been able to focus on carrying the Thunder in the last five minutes.
A great stat by Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight: "[Paul's] clutch-time usage rate this season is almost 32 percent, while his usage rate in first quarters is just under 16 percent."
With Paul content to take a back seat and empowering Gilgeous-Alexander to be a better version of himself, SGA has turned his 24.8% usage into averages of 19.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in just his second year in the league.
We can't ignore that Schroder has also helped the Thunder backcourt immensely and has been an integral part of their surprising success.
But if Oklahoma City is to sustain its play this season, it will be in large part to what CP3 and SGA can do together as backcourt mates.
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