Oklahoma City has been rolling across the open plains of the NBA like a runaway stagecoach. Fueled by the three horsemen of Cinderella City at the point, the Thunder play their way and are in full control of their own storm.
Three point guards walk into an arena. This sounds like the start of a very strange and unfunny joke. In reality, a lot of pundits probably thought that was going to be the fate of the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. Instead, a strong-willed vet with a good and bad reputation, a promising second-year star in the making and a rash and brash German floor general still looking for an NBA home, have given us writers a communication breakdown while forming the hardest driving trio since Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Although this may seem like the oddest couple plus one in the league, their newfound camaraderie on the court seems to be reason for a celebration day and are thrusting an afterthought team in the West forward because of it. I don’t think any of us knew what was going to happen to Chris Paul after he was traded to the Thunder other than a new set of State Farm commercials. Add the fire streaked fro and fiery attitude of Dennis Schroder to an unknown Paulokov cocktail and who knew what was going to happen?
I was expecting explosions, but instead, we’ve gotten fireworks, while a young and impressionable Canadian kid is getting to see all across the point guard spectrum. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is growing up fast, thriving under the tutelage of the mentor-like Paul while learning to let the good times roll from the free-wheelin’ Den Schroder. As a result, Oklahoma City have thundered (puns are too good) past their expected win total already and shown to be more than a castle made of sand.
Behind it all and looking like a dark horse candidate for Coach of the Year is Billy Donovan. Many of us took a wait until tomorrow approach after the trading away of his previous stars, thinking he may have a case of the come and go blues. Always in the background behind a Russell Westbrook-led team, Donovan went back where it all begins to his point guard roots and concocted a strategy that has showcased his three guards to great effect. After a slow start, the Thunder have been one of the best teams in the league since Thanksgiving. While most Midwestern eyes were looking toward a future Sam Presti has lined up for them to draft well and often, this team is focused on the now, riding no expectations as a group of wild horses and clutch players that no one wants to see in the Western Conference playoffs.
The long and strange trip that has Chris Paul as the starting point guard in OKC could have rivaled the heyday of the Grateful Dead…almost. After personally recruiting Paul to Houston, James Harden didn’t raise a fuss about the trade that swapped him out for Russell Westbrook Paul has embraced his role as veteran leader and saint of circumstance, while making as much of an impact to his new team as Jimmy Butler has to the Miami Heat. The unexpected positions of both teams have earned both men praise and their own dark horse runs in the MVP race.
Chris Paul seems to be at peace with the unfortunate stigma he carries of never getting to the Finals. With what looked like a rebuilding year staring back at him, his ultra-competitive nature wouldn’t let him bring any less effort than he possibly could. He is currently first in the NBA in clutch games, second in clutch minutes, sixth in clutch points at 3.4 and fourth in clutch FT% at almost 94 percent. Paul seems to have shed, at least temporarily, his reputation as confrontational and irritating.
What he has been is the unquestioned leader that a young and new group of Thunder players needed to steer their season in a winning direction. He is 11th in Real Plus-Minus,12th in assist to turnover ratio among players who have been in 50 games and 13th in steals. This year is not expected to be the greatest story ever told or reach the promised land, but Paul has played stout defense and efficient offense like he normally does, and brought an estimated-prophet-like imprint to another one of his teams by making it to the playoffs.
Fast, fiery and seemingly fractured with fault lines, Schroder has flashed skill and flair but also a tendency for turnovers and unpredictability at times. He pulses and pounds, pirouetting into and around the lane like the revelers at a Daft Punk dance party. But like the beat that seems to go on forever, so do some questions surrounding his unquestioned talent and whether he is ein punk.
After the Hawks drafted Trae Young and brought in Jeremy Lin (and his $13.8 million in salary per season making the gains on a few-week run of Linsanity LLC one of the best returns of all time), Schroder publicly asked to be traded and listed the Bucks and Pacers as preferred destinations. Although he did not get lucky and land with one of those teams, asking for a trade was understandable when he was able to read the writing on the wall. He has also been accused of being nonchalant on defense but with Chris Paul leading in the fourth quarter of clutch game after clutch game, Schroder’s defense and decision-making have vastly improved.
He is shooting multiple career-bests: 38.1 percent from 3 while hitting 46.8% overall. In fact, his 18.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game as the first man off the bench has Schroder in serious discussion for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. As he eurosteps past, the electric beat goes on to the last and youngest of the three amigos, the scrappy and surprising Ned Nederlander of the group:
One day after trading away Paul George, the Thunder said that’s it for the other one and sent Russell Westbrook off to Houston. The biggest name the brought back was Paul’s, but Gilgeous-Alexander is the first brick in Oklahoma City’s next foundation. Being that he is so young, a good musical comparison doesn’t feel ready quite yet. He could get a song or two but I’ll project a little and go with a genre. (I looked at Canadian artists, but pairing him with Neil Young just didn’t seem right despite a gimme in Broken Arrow)
He kind of personifies the spirit of a great jam band in that he can take you here, there and back again. He also covers a lot of ground to get there and leads the Thunder in minutes and points per game. On the season he has separate game-highs of 32 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks but 5 turnovers are the most he’s given the ball away in a game. He can come at you from the point, the 2 or the 3 while also being able to guard all three positions and even some small-ball 4s.
Like his two backcourt mates, Gilgeous-Alexander is among the leaders in clutch statistics and is gaining first-hand experience of how to win close games in the fourth quarter in a loaded Western Conference. He has largely played off the ball and with Paul who can be a great table-setter for the budding second-year star. In turn, Gilgeous-Alexander gets the best of both worlds, learning while winning, which can be rare for young talent to do.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have started off their new rebuild by setting everyone’s projections for their season just a blowin’ in the wind, down in the flood and deep into the crossfire. They have been in more clutch games than anyone while winning them at a rate of 2 to 1. They could provide some juicy playoff matchups with the Clippers and Rockets of whom they are a total of 3-3 against and if the games tighten up at the end, which many playoff games do, Thunder could make some postseason noise. Regardless, as the three horse stage continues roaring on through the Northwest Division, the storm clouds line up behind them, ready to close out another game on another day and that trio of point guards finally lets me in on the secret. There really was a joke in there and it turns out it was on us and our prognostications the whole time.