Chris Paul embracing mentor role in OKC, but he's not changing his leadership style: 'I've got to be who I am'

SAN FRANCISCO -- Chris Paul confidently walked off the Golden State Warriors' home court with a late-October win, but this was a 180-degree turn from the battles he'd endured against Golden State over the past two seasons with the Houston Rockets. Just minutes earlier, he had knocked down a signature pull-up jumper with the shot clock expiring to give the Oklahoma City Thunder the lead for good, but there was no celebration when the final whistle blew. He calmly extended his palms for high-fives from his teammates before they walked to the locker room.

In prior years, Paul has sparred with the Warriors in some of the most intense games NBA fans have had the luxury of witnessing -- in both the regular season and postseason. A Paul injury may have prevented him from making his first NBA Finals appearance in 2018, when the Rockets famously went ice-cold in Game 7 as Paul watched from the bench in a designer suit. This past spring, he was on the court as Stephen Curry exploded for 33 second-half points in Houston to send him home in disappointment once again.

It's fitting that Paul's first game in the Bay Area with his new team was also in a new building and a new city -- the Chase Center in San Francisco -- because this night was entirely different. The only constant was Paul consistently being booed by the Warriors faithful, a tradition no jersey change could derail.

Paul is a member of the Thunder, once a Golden State rival in their own right, but now a middling team attempting to perform the high-wire act of re-tooling without completely rebuilding. On the other side, injuries have turned the once-mighty Warriors into the worst team in the NBA. Paul finds himself in unfamiliar territory, having to shepherd a group of young players -- 11 under the age of 27 -- and teach them his winning ways. Paul has become a mentor namely to emerging star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, as he plays for a team well outside championship contention for the first time in many years.

After being traded for Russell Westbrook this summer by the Rockets, a perennial title contender, it would have been easy for Paul, who admitted to being "shocked" after being dealt, to carry his frustration with his new situation into the season. That's something Thunder coach Billy Donovan understands, and he appreciates Paul choosing to work with the team's younger guys.

"I give him a lot of credit, because I think it's very easy to be 34 years old and 14-15 years in the league and just say 'I don't have time for this, I've got to get myself ready. I don't have time to deal with these younger guys,'" Donovan said of Paul. "He's made an incredible investment into Shai. He's made an incredible investment into [Darius] Bazley, [Abdel] Nader. All those guys, he's constantly, I think, giving them his wisdom, his experiences. And I really appreciate him doing that because I think that can be really, really helpful for a lot of these guys. To have a combination of so many young players, and then to have a veteran like him, he's done a really, really great job with that."

Going from a team full of veterans like James Harden, PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon to a roster with only two players over the age of 28 (Paul and Danilo Gallinari) would be a shock for any veteran, and Paul is already known for being ... how should we say ... direct with his teammates. There were rumors of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan growing weary of Paul's constant chatter with the Clippers. Then this summer, a fractured relationship with Harden reportedly led to the league's leading scorer demanding Paul be sent packing. So you'd think that Paul's unique personality being thrust upon a bunch of Gen Z snowflakes might lead to disaster.

In that regard, Paul said he has "somewhat" altered his leadership style, but isn't changing what's gotten him this far.

"At the end of the day I've got to be who I am. Like, I'm ultra-competitive," Paul said of leading his younger teammates. "I'm sure some of the guys are like, 'Damn, he be trippin',' you know? But it is what it is. I've got a ton of friends, a lot of teammates that, at the end of the day, we're here to win games, you know what I mean? So that's what it is."

The most obvious recipient of Paul's endless universe of basketball knowledge is Gilgeous-Alexander, a key asset in the trade that sent Paul George to the Clippers. Just 21 years old, the combo guard has led the team in scoring for most of the season while learning plenty from his elder backcourt mate. Donovan said that Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul have a "great relationship."

"He helps me through every day, whether it be manipulating a play or a pick-and-roll in the game or showing me things outside of the game that help you in life," Gilgeous-Alexander said of Paul. "He's been great so far."

Paul is known for his caginess and savviness on the court, but Gilgeous-Alexander couldn't (or wouldn't) mention any specific veteran tricks his new mentor has taught him thus far. However, when you see the young Thunder guard snake through a pick-and-roll and pull up for a silky mid-range jumper or step-back, it's hard not to think of CP3.

Bazley, a 19-year-old rookie who chose to forgo college and instead prepared for last June's draft through a $1 million "internship" with New Balance, said Paul has already talked him through some early mistakes.

"He's helped me by just like, his words, pulling me to the side, giving me knowledge on some of his past experiences and kind of what to expect," Bazley told CBS Sports. "And, you know, if I mess up, just being able to guide me and help me."

And "mess up" they have.

The Thunder entered Wednesday's game against the Pacers with an 8-11 record, tied for ninth in the Western Conference. Paul hasn't finished under .500 in almost a decade (the 2009-10 Hornets, when Paul only played 45 games), and his teams have a .673 winning percentage since he joined the Clippers before the 2011-12 season. If the Thunder finish above .500 and/or make the playoffs this season, they'll defy most odds. That has to eat at a competitor like Paul from the inside.

"He's one of the best players in the league. He's a brilliant point guard -- one of the best the game's ever seen," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who's watched enough film of Paul to last a lifetime. "I have a ton of respect for Chris, just the way he competes every night, his intelligence, his awareness on the floor. He seems like he's a step ahead of everybody on the court, and has always been a big-time competitor."

Paul would surely rather be traded to a team that could give him a realistic chance at the elusive NBA title that has evaded him for his entire career, and the Thunder are likely willing to oblige -- but that's easier said than done. The future Hall of Famer is set to make $41.4 million next season, and $44.2 million as a 36-year-old in 2021-22. It took a trade request from Westbrook to move Paul's contract the first time -- finding another suitor could be impossible.

So instead we'll watch Paul deal with mediocrity this season in a new role as he leads the Thunder's youth movement. The fire is clearly still there, but whether we'll ever again get to see it in the familiar postseason setting remains to be seen.

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