If Chris Paul’s current trajectory started anywhere, the launch point emerged from some time alone during the summer of 2019.
Paul and company were at a resort-style hotel the day the point guard learned of the trade, sending him from the Houston Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Mike Russell, a longtime friend of Paul’s family, said Paul didn’t speak. Paul walked down the stairs to his room and spent a while to himself. Russell worried. Everyone there did. What in the world could Paul be feeling?
Eventually, he reappeared.
“When he came up from those two hours,” Russell said, “just kind of getting missing to get his mind together, he had a different focus, man.
“And his focus was to kill everything moving.”
That resolve plotted the course for the next two years, bucking the notion that the trade – swapping him and multiple draft picks for a younger and more explosive former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook – ended his chance to contend.
A motivated Paul sprinted from that moment. He helped a Thunder team that looked destined for a lottery pick to a playoff berth in 2020. And this season, his value for the Phoenix Suns proved immense. His steady handle combined with one of the hottest young players in the league to create a bona fide contender.
Now Paul is as close to that elusive championship as he’s ever been. The Suns’ victory on Wednesday night sent the 36-year-old to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career. He scored 41 points, 31 in the second half, against the Los Angeles Clippers to send the Suns to their first championship series since 1993.
“That’s why you saw the player that you saw during that season, and that’s a big reason why you’re seeing this player now,” said Russell, the head of development at the CP3 Basketball Academy in Winston-Salem.
This city’s brightest figure — an 11-time all star, a 10-time all-NBA selection — went from West Forsyth to Wake Forest, from 2006 NBA Rookie of the Year to one of the best point guards in league history.
Paul’s career dealt with plenty of challenges, too — the playoff exits that came early or heartbreakingly during the apex of his stardom, or the consistent injuries that bogged him down year after year. His renaissance the last two seasons has been a joy for those in his circle, a feeling that’s peaking with Paul approaching a title.
“Every time he wins, I feel like I win,” said Paul’s former Wake Forest teammate Justin Gray, now the head coach at Western Carolina. “Everything that he achieves, he always made me feel like I’m a part of it as well. That’s just who he is as a person so I’m happy for him.”
Some of this recent success comes down to the way Paul prepped his body. Russell, who sometimes travels to work out Paul during off seasons, said the point guard transitioned to a plant-based diet in 2018. He noticed Paul facing less fatigue and inflammation after training sessions. That, paired with a focus on flexibility and a strength program to target his core and lower body, helped Paul find durability.
He played 70 games in each of the last two seasons, which were abbreviated by COVID-19. He hadn’t appeared in that many games since 2015-16.
Josh Howard, a fellow Winston-Salem native and Wake Forest alumnus turned NBA starter, said he mentioned the health factor to Paul frequently as soon as the playoffs started.
“I had a chance to talk to him throughout the past two series, and the two things I keep telling him is get some rest and get ready,” said Howard, for whom a court was named Wednesday at the William R. Anderson Jr. Community Center. “... It’s the most grueling part of the year because you have basically back-to-back games for basically three weeks straight.
“And outside of your physical body, your mentality, the way you approach the game, the way you feel like you want to win the game, you have to be solid with that.”
On top of his physical improvement, he has also provided exactly what the Suns needed. Phoenix became one of the hottest teams out of the NBA bubble, going 8-0 in its final regular-season games to just miss the play-in round of the 2020 playoffs. Paul gave them a steady hand and, more than anything, a commander this season. The Suns registered the second-best record in the league at 51-21.
Gray called Paul the smartest player he’s ever been around and, in his opinion, the greatest leader of all-time. Howard, an 11-year NBA veteran, explained why Paul works so well with this roster: The players met the high expectations the point guard brought with him.
Deandre Ayton, the Suns’ starting center, affirmed Howard’s point after Phoenix’s Game 4 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“That’s really the only teammate that really pushed me,” Ayton said of Paul. “Like big bro-type push, knowing what I got that I never thought that I had. He was the best thing that happened to my career.”
Paul’s past NBA postseasons featured difficulties. The Thunder broke away from a Clippers team led by Paul in the second round of the 2014 playoffs. Then the Clippers lost in the second round again the following playoffs, a series where Paul missed the first two games with a hamstring injury and L.A. let a 3-1 series lead slip away to Houston.
In 2018, Paul lost in the Western Conference Finals with the Rockets, a hamstring again forcing him out of the sixth and seventh games. The next year, Golden State eliminated Houston from the second round. Houston decided to part with him after that.
Now, this playoff promises to smooth over most of those blemishes. Paul ousted friend LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, combatting and moving past a shoulder injury. He torched the Denver Nuggets for a clean sweep of the league MVP, Nikola Jokic (Paul finished fifth in league voting, by the way). Against the Clippers, he sat the first two games because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols before getting over the franchise that saw some of his best years.
The run helped Paul acquaint himself with a younger generation of basketball players, according to Gray. The first-year head coach texts in a group chat with his WCU players, and to no surprise, they chat basketball often. Gray said he talks up his college teammate anytime he gets an opening.
“‘Coach, you see your boy?’” Gray said, mimicking one of the messages. “They’re excited to see him.
“I told them all along, and a lot of them are like, ‘You were right, Coach, you were right. He is the MVP.’ That’s what you want people to follow. It’s someone who does it the right way all the time.”
Chris Paul, after years of battling, is four wins away from a championship. Finally, he’s getting his shot. Russell, Howard and the eyes of Winston-Salem will be watching, just like Gray and the players he converted into Paul fans.
While he tunes in, Russell will still see the same purpose that Paul found during that time alone in 2019. And he hopes Paul will get the well-deserved chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
“That chip, man, that’s kind of why we’re seeing a different Chris Paul,” Russell said. “It’s something that’s been great to watch, it’s been inspiring and again, as an overall city, we’re just super proud of him.”