Chris Paul left New Orleans to win a title in Los Angeles, and he left Los Angeles to win one in Houston. This was a halfway novel maneuver in 2011, the league one conniption fit of a season removed from The Decision, and just something stars habitually do by the time it happened again in the summer of 2017, at which point Paul was slightly past it anyway. You could have imagined, when Blake Griffin was elatedly miming windmill dunks outside the Clippers practice facility, that Paul might revolutionize L.A.’s B squad in the same way Steve Nash did the Suns. While he wasn’t quite a transformative figure on the Clips, he wasn’t expected to be anything like that with the Rockets, where James Harden had already established a template. Paul was brought aboard to be the Beard’s slightly overqualified sidekick. Like a planet suddenly shrunk down to the size of a moon, he would have to learn to play off the ball for the first time in his career.
Maybe it’s telling that Paul’s championship aspirations came closer to realization once he took on a secondary role. If he hadn’t pulled his hamstring in the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, there’s a good chance the Rockets qualify for the title series and defeat an eminently beatable Cavs squad. Reality is, the hamstring quit on him and Paul missed what ended up being the last two games of the Rockets’ season. In retrospect, that was their shot. The next year wasn’t nearly as promising. They went out meekly to Golden State in the Western Semis.
What’s the German for when something ends, or feels like it does, and then carries on in some not exactly hopeless but certainly less happy state? A violation of trust in a marriage that doesn’t kill the relationship. A home hit by a robbery, the family that lives there made to feel a little less safe, but they don’t sell it. Chris Paul would appreciate the precision of the term, if it indeed exists. It would describe him at the end of last season: 34 years old, looking not just gray at the temples but genuinely a whit wobbly and unsure of himself on the court. A commanding presence for literally his entire NBA career—he stepped into the league averaging 16 and 8—his grip on the game had measurably loosened.
Paul didn’t ask to go to Oklahoma City. He got shipped out, for Russell Westbrook on a max deal, and Daryl Morey had to throw in a bunch of first-rounders and pick swaps to push the transaction through. There were rumors all summer that the Thunder weren’t going to keep Paul, because what would an ostensibly rebuilding squad want with a past-his-prime floor general, but it seemed nobody else wanted him either. The Heat were floated as a destination, seemingly only because they value starpower highly and don’t look after their salary cap all that well. Pat Riley was like nah, we’re fine. Minnesota, maybe? If they were offering anything at all, it was only a passel of bad contracts and c-minus assets. As the season crept up and trade possibilities were either underwhelming or nonexistent, Paul and the Thunder resigned themselves to the fact that they were going to be stuck with each other for a while.
Sometimes you don’t know what’s good for you. A little bit past the halfway point of the season, this less-than-voluntary arrangement between a vet who would ostensibly rather be helping a contender and a franchise that’s ready for a teardown, is working out wonderfully. The Thunder are 29 and 20, sitting in seventh place in the West, and Paul looks, if certainly not as effective as he’s ever been, then exceedingly comfortable in his role. The OKC offense is close to an ideal fit for him, at this point in his career. He can’t direct the team for 34 minutes per night like he did in his prime, but he’s still an excellent passer, a sweet shooter, and willing to make himself available as a spot-up option while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Dennis Schroder take the wheel for a few possessions. Lineups featuring all three guards are currently shredding the rest of the league. Comparing Paul and Russell Westbrook directly is a foolish exercise, but it’s fair to claim that SGA and Schroder wouldn’t be thriving like this with Russ still on the roster. Paul burns just the right amount of oxygen.
GQ profiled songwriter and occasional actor Will Oldham a couple years ago, and he had some discouraged but instructive thoughts on success: “you don't see a lot of people defining ‘success’ for themselves. It would be nice to see more evidence of nuanced versions of success in music, as opposed to, y'know, [the idea that] success is a Tiny Desk Concert, or success is a show at the Apollo, or success is headlining Coachella. Headlining Coachella doesn't seem related to success, to me.” You can infer that Oldham doesn’t understand success as a GQ interview accompanied with art-directed-to-hell photos of him wearing five hundred dollar sweaters and five thousand dollar coats either, but it nonetheless does—we’re all culturally conditioned—look like success, and he’s participating in it. Traditional prestige has its allure, even to people who don’t aspire to some Reaganesque vision of doing well for yourself. Like everybody else, Oldham doesn’t live his values perfectly.
But he’s given it a fair shot. He occupies a very specific place in his field, something like what David Lynch is to film or Thomas McGuane—coincidentally name-checked in the GQ piece—is to American letters. Not mainstream, but far from obscure. It’s unusual for someone to maintain this cruising altitude for a long time, to not either break through or fall off. Oldham’s been at it for nearly three decades, releasing music at his own pace and according to his own interests. He doesn’t seem content, exactly, but artists are rarely contented. (If Oldham can be said to have a peer within his niche, it’s probably David Berman, who killed himself last summer.) Success is something he achieves continually, at a scale he’s comfortable with.
Chris Paul isn’t going to win a championship as his team’s Isiah Thomas, like he dreamed for himself when he was young. He’s not going to win one as somebody else’s Scottie Pippen either. It becomes increasingly likely, as his age ticks upward and his massive salary remains constant, that he’s not going to achieve even a compromised version of what he’s wanted for so long. This is undoubtedly aggravating for him, but it’s okay to the extent that Paul can make peace with it.
Perhaps he can’t. Some great artists don’t really care what their contemporaries are up to; all great athletes are strenuously competitive. And Chris Paul is as stressed out as it gets. He might have been happy for the opportunity to compete for titles in Los Angeles and Houston, but he was miserable throughout every game. He wore down teammates and deafened referees. That red-assedness has dissipated a smidge in Oklahoma City, and if Paul isn’t totally satisfied playing for a Thunder squad that’s merely pretty good, you hope he at least recognizes the quality of the situation he’s in, that he’s doing work that for the first time in forever is a pure pleasure to watch, precisely because the stakes are relatively low. By many measures, he’s having a highly successful season. He deserves to know that, whether he can internalize it or not.