Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander transcend positional overlap, age gap to lead Thunder

Thunder guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul
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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):

Thunder guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul

Team Older Younger Age gap
2003 UTA John Stockton (40) Andrei Kirilenko (21) 18.9
2012 CLE Antawn Jamison (35) Kyrie Irving (19) 15.8
1993 BOS Robert Parish (39) Dee Brown (24) 15.2
2015 SAS Tim Duncan (38) Kawhi Leonard (23) 15.2
2014 SAS Tim Duncan (37) Kawhi Leonard (22) 15.2
2012 SAS Tim Duncan (35) Kawhi Leonard (20) 15.2
2001 HOU Hakeem Olajuwon (38) Steve Francis (23) 15.1
1986 SAS Artis Gilmore (36) Alvin Robertson (23) 13.8
2020 OKC Chris Paul (34) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (21) 13.2
2001 IND Reggie Miller (35) Jermaine O’Neal (22) 13.1
2018 DAL Dirk Nowitzki (39) Dwight Powell (26) 13.1
2005 IND Reggie Miller (39) Jamaal Tinsley (26) 12.5
1986 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38) Magic Johnson (26) 12.3
1985 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (37) Magic Johnson (25) 12.3
1984 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (36) Magic Johnson (24) 12.3
1983 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (35) Magic Johnson (23) 12.3
1982 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (34) Magic Johnson (22) 12.3
1981 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) Magic Johnson (21) 12.3
1980 LAL Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (32) Magic Johnson (20) 12.3
2003 WAS Michael Jordan (39) Jerry Stackhouse (28) 11.7

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.

Miami, Milwaukee have their eyes on Jae Crowder

NBA 2022 Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks
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The Heat and Bucks don’t just have interest in the same player. They’re looking to replace the same player.

Two years ago, P.J. Tucker helped Milwaukee win their first championship in a half-century. Last season, he helped Miami lock up the top seed in the East and make the Conference Finals.

With Tucker in Philadelphia, both the Heat and Bucks are looking to fill the void with a different lockdown enforcer that can stretch the floor.

Jae Crowder and the Suns agreed that he won’t participate in practice as the team looks to accommodate his trade request. In a recent ESPN+ article, Zach Lowe made it clear that both Miami and Milwaukee are interested in pursuing a trade for Crowder.

“The Bucks have internal interest in Crowder as that Tucker replacement after getting into the recent Jerami Grant and Bojan Bogdanovic discussions, sources say. They will search all season for one more piece.

“The Heat have interest in Crowder too, sources say, but finding matching salary is tough until Dewayne Dedmon, Caleb Martin and Victor Oladipo become trade-eligible in the winter. Martin might start, and the Heat are optimistic Oladipo can play a huge role.”

Grant and Bogdanovic were traded to Portland and Detroit, respectively. The Heat may struggle to find a trade that works since Phoenix probably won’t want to take on Duncan Robinson’s contract. Dedmon, Martin and Oladipo will become trade eligible on January 15th.

Crowder has a history with the Heat, as he helped them make the NBA Finals in the bubble. He helped Phoenix make the NBA Finals two seasons ago and then helped them finish with the best record in the NBA last season.

LeBron says Wembanyama is an ‘alien’ and a ‘generational talent’

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There was a time when LeBron James was the “it” kid coming for the NBA — a freakish athlete like nobody in the league had seen. A player the size of Karl Malone with the quickness and skills of an elite point guard.

Now the “it” guy is Victor Wembanyama, the 7’4″ mold-breaking big out of France — and LeBron is impressed.

“Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, well he’s more like an alien,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Suns in Las Vegas. “I’ve never seen, no one’s ever seen anyone as tall as he is, but it’s fluid and as graceful as on the floor…

“His ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers on the post, step-back 3s, catch-and-shoot 3s, block shots. He’s for sure a generational talent. And hopefully he continues to stay healthy, that’s the most important for him personally, and as you could tell he loves the game. He was smiling a lot while playing the game last night. I think it was the two best players in the draft on the floor last night and they both did their thing.”

Wembanyama is projected to be the No.1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, just ahead of point guard Scoot Henerson, who scored 28 points with nine assists of his own leading his G-League Ignite to a win over Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92. Wembanyama scored 37 points in the game, hit 7-of-11 shots from 3, had five blocks and a few other shots changed because of his length (7’11” wingspan) and the threat of his block.

Wembanyama and Henderson face off again tonight in a second game between the Ignite and Metropolitans 92 just outside Las Vegas in Henderson (9:30 p.m. ET on NBATV).

Wembanyama will play, with his agent telling ESPN there are no plans to shut the No.1 pick down to avoid injury and protect his draft status. “He’ll never agree to that. He wants to compete and get better,” Bouna Ndiaye said.

LeBron looked back on his time as the “it” player and said simply, “thank got there wasn’t social media” at the time. It’s a different world now, but game still recognizes game.

And LeBron recognizes it in Wembanyama.

LeBron tells Adam Silver he wants to own expansion team in Vegas

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
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The odds are good that Las Vegas will get an NBA expansion team. Eventually.

But when it happens, LeBron James wants to be in the Vegas ownership group — and he made that pitch directly to Adam Silver after the Lakers exhibition game in Sin City against the Suns on Wednesday.

“I know Adam is in Abu Dhabi right now, I believe. But he probably sees every single interview and transcript that comes through from NBA players,” James said, via the Associated Press. “So, I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”

Silver is in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting an exhibition game between the Bucks and Hawks this week. But LeBron doesn’t need to worry about Silver seeing this request. He probably already has.

The widely held belief around the league is that the NBA owners will not entertain expansion until a new CBA and a new television/streaming rights deal are locked in (driving up the franchise prices), things that will take a couple of years. Expansion talk may come after that, and maybe there will be two new NBA teams by the end of the decade.

“We are not discussing that at this time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of expansion last June. “As I said before, at some point, this league invariably will expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it.”

If and when expansion happens, Las Vegas, along with Seattle, are the clear frontrunners to land teams. Most importantly, both cities have NBA-ready stadiums and fan bases to support the franchises, and their mayors are on board.

LeBron would be the face of an ownership group. While LeBron himself is a billionaire, Silver had called reports of a $2.5 billion expansion fee per team “low.” And that’s not including all the other start-up costs that come with a team.

But if the NBA is coming to Las Vegas, don’t be shocked if LeBron is involved.

Zion and more: Five must-watch intriguing NBA players this season

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At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.

The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.

Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.

Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?

The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.

If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.

We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.

Ben Simmons, Nets

Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.

What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way  — and will Steve Nash ask him to?

No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.

Precious Achiuwa, Raptors

Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).

Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.

After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.

Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks

Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?

Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.

Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.

De'Aaron Fox, Kings

If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.

How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?

“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.

Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.

The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.