While the front office looked ahead to free agency, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander spent his rookie season last year helping the scrappy and starless Clippers overachieve. Management’s plan work. Armed with significant cap space and a reputation bolstered by last year’s playoff berth, the Clippers struck gold in the offseason. They signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George… by sending Gilgeous-Alexander to the Thunder.
Gilgeous-Alexander was shocked. But as he wrapped his head around the deal, he became excited for the opportunity in Oklahoma City. With George gone, Russell Westbrook on his way out and a boatload of draft picks incoming from the George trade, the Thunder appeared ready for a new era. Gilgeous-Alexander could be their point guard of the future, the centerpiece of their rebuild.
And then Oklahoma City traded for Chris Paul.
“I knew it’d be a challenge,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Obviously, Chris being very, very ball-dominant and that’s what him doing best and being one of the best to ever play that position, that I would have to slide at times and play a little bit out of position.”
Paul didn’t seem thrilled with the arrangement, either. The veteran went from the championship-contending Rockets to a small-market team with much more modest expectations. It appeared he preferred to get re-routed elsewhere, and the Thunder looked ready to flip him.
But no other trade emerged. Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander stayed in Oklahoma City.
Paul’s championship aspirations might be on hold. Gilgeous-Alexander, as predicted, has been relegated to a secondary role. Yet, the guards – at near-opposite points in their careers – have played with pride and led the Thunder to a quite-satisfying season.
Oklahoma City still has all the draft picks acquired for George and Westbrook. The Thunder just haven’t had to suffer the losing that usually comes with rebuilding. Oklahoma City (40-24, fifth in West) extended their era of good feelings past Kevin Durant and Westbrook with their 11th straight winning season – the NBA’s longest-active streak.
Paul returned to the All-Star game after three seasons away. Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve. They play well together. They appear to enjoy playing together.
Neither ego nor a historically large age gap has derailed this feel-good partnership.
Paul (35) is more than 13 years older than Gilgeous-Alexander (22). That’s the ninth-largest age gap between a team’s top two players* since the NBA-ABA merger.
*As defined by Wins Above Replacement Player, a stat developed by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, who graciously provided the data.
Here are the teams with the largest age gap between their top two players since the NBA-ABA merger (age based on Feb. 1 of that season):
These pairings can be awkward – especially when both players are accustomed to having the ball. See Jordan and Stackhouse.
Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander have shown no such tension.
“I think it takes a unique and special guy to be able to handle that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “‘Hey listen, my identity and who I am as a player has been point guard my entire career. And now I’m moving off the ball. The ball is not in my hands as much as maybe it was in the past. And how do I now fit in? How do I become effective?’
“For those guys, it’s all been their approach. It’s been their mindset. And it’s the way they’ve sacrificed for one another.”
Remarkably, Oklahoma City has performed even better with a third point guard on the court – Dennis Schroder.
Paul has ceded more control than he usually does (i.e., some). Gilgeous-Alexander has embraced playing off the ball. Schroder has diversified his game and become better at picking his spots, emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Of course, bigger questions have come on defense. Schroder typically takes the easiest matchup, enabled by Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander stepping up. At 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander has the length to defend any perimeter player. Though smaller, Paul has the mettle and smarts to battle bigger forwards inside.
That effort earned Paul my All-Defensive second-team vote – and admiration. How many 6-foot-1 guards in their mid-30s want that challenge?
Despite being pressed into a situation he never sought, Paul has shown no signs of sulking. He plays hard and leads.
Just as Gilgeous-Alexander expected. Whatever trepidation he had about Paul joining Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander was also eager for the experience.
“I knew it would make me better, ultimately,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And it has. And he’s taught me so many things, and I’m grateful for it.”
Who knows how long the pairing will last, though?
Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari is headed toward unrestricted free agency this offseason, and if he leaves, that’d be a significant impediment to winning next season. Oklahoma City could trade expensive players like Paul and Steven Adams.
Paul might even welcome it. Just because he embraced his role this season, when there were no clear alternatives, doesn’t mean he wants to finish his prime with the Thunder. A star again and with one fewer season on his contract, Paul should be in higher demand this offseason.
Oklahoma City might also be ready to move on. Though they have a boatload of draft picks from other teams, the Thunder can somewhat control only their own picks (through tanking). Tearing down the roster would also get Gilgeous-Alexander into a primary role.
“Shai is, no question, more than capable of playing point guard and running a team,” Donovan said.
That’s evident to anyone who watches him play. Yet, Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t tried to hijack the offense. Paul hasn’t publicly grumbled about being stuck in a backcourt with a young player still learning how to win.
Everyone knows how uneasy this relationship could have been.
Which makes it special it’s working so well.