By: Logan Hill
On July 6, Chris Paul will play in his first ever NBA Finals’ game, as the Phoenix Suns face off against the Milwaukee Bucks. For Paul, this first appearance comes during his 16th season, which begs the question; how did he get here?
Born May 6, 1985 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Paul began playing basketball at a young age, first being taught the game alongside his older brother, by their father, Charles Paul. Once he reached high school, Paul spent his first two years on JV before joining the Varsity team as a Junior and never looked back.
His most famous moment from his time as a high schooler came during his senior year. Following the death of his Grandfather, whom he was close with, Paul scored 61 points in his honor — One for each year of his life. Sitting at 59 points with just over a minute remaining, Paul drove and was fouled on a layup that went in, giving him his goal of 61. On the ensuing free throw, he intentionally missed and checked out of the game, having made the statement he set out to.
After that game and the rest of his senior season, Paul received a handful of accolades, including being named a McDonald’s All-American and North Carolina’s Mr. Basketball for 2003. He went on to play at Wake Forest, less than 100 miles from his hometown. He chose the Demon Deacons over North Carolina, Stanford, Clemson and NC State among others and again, never looked back.
As a freshman at Wake Forest, Paul set the ACC on fire, averaging 14.8 points and 5.9 assists, along with 2.7 steals per game on the defensive end. Wake Forest advanced to the NCAA Tournament, falling to St. Joseph’s in the Sweet Sixteen. Paul was named ACC Rookie of the Year and also made the All-ACC third team, continuing to be one of the best young point guards in the nation.
He followed that season up with a better sophomore season, averaging 15.3 points per game along with 6.6 assists. Early on in the season, Paul led the Demon Deacons to the Number one spot in the polls for the first time in school history. He was named first team All-ACC and was also an All-American. Following the season, he decided to turn pro.
Paul entered the 2005 NBA Draft and was expected to go early. He was selected fourth overall by the New Orleans Hornets, who moved from Charlotte ahead of the 2002-2003 season. He was the second point guard drafted, behind Illinois’ Deron Williams, who went third overall to the Utah Jazz.
The Early Years
Despite being drafted by New Orleans, Paul would play his first two seasons in Oklahoma City. Well, actually all of the Hornets did. Following Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, the Hornets relocated to Oklahoma City for the time-being, where they played most of their home games. As a rookie, Paul led all first-year players in points, assists and steals, while also becoming the second rookie ever to lead the entire league in steals with 175. He went on to win the rookie of the year award, falling just one vote shy of a unanimous selection. Despite his success personally, the team went 38-44 and missed the playoffs.
Worth noting however, is the improvement since adding Chris Paul. In the season before drafting him, the Hornets went 18-64, so they were beginning to move in the right direction with the young point guard at the forefront.
Paul built on his rookie campaign in year two, but missed a handful of games due to injury and once again the Hornets struggled. They finished the season, 39-43, a one game improvement from the year before, but still not enough to make the postseason.
It was in Year 3 in which Paul fully took the reins and led the Hornets past the regular season. Earning his first all-star selection in 2007-08, Paul and the Hornets won 56 games — A franchise record — and secured the number two seed in the Western Conference. They went on to win their first round series against the Dallas Mavericks in five games, before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in round two.
After leading the Hornets to the postseason for the first time in his career, Paul would sign an extension with the team before the next season worth roughly $68 Million. However, while he continued to shine, the Hornets never again reached the second round of the postseason with Paul leading the way, being eliminated in the first round two of the next three seasons. Fearing that they may lose their young superstar to free agency, New Orleans looked to line up a trade.
Postseason Appearances: 3
Move to LA
Following the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, the NBA underwent the fourth ever lockout in league history, as the owners and players worked to establish a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockout lasted 161 days and was eventually lifted on December 8, 2011.
Also on this day, The Hornets had agreed to trade Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, pairing him with 5-time NBA Champion Kobe Bryant to form arguably the league’s most dynamic backcourt. The three team trade, which also included the Houston Rockets, wound up being vetoed by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern. At the time, The NBA had control over the Hornets’ franchise, as they owned a majority stake. Stern cited the return package for Paul — Consisting of Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic — as not enough for the face of the franchise, and the trade never happened.
Four days later, the Hornets were able to agree to a deal to send their franchise point guard to Los Angeles. However, Paul wound up being dealt to the Clippers, rather than the Lakers.
Upon joining the Clippers and teaming up with young standout Blake Griffin, Paul became the orchestrator of “Lob City,” a nickname given to the team due to their fast-paced offense and multitude of spectacular alley-oop dunks. Griffin, alongside frontcourt running mate Deandre Jordan, found themselves on the receiving end of countless dunks as the Clippers began a streak of six straight trips to the postseason.
During this time, Paul played some of the best basketball of his entire career. He was named first-team All-NBA four times, first-team All-Defense six times, made five all-star games, including taking home the MVP in 2013, and was routinely among the top of the league in assists and steals.
Despite this success, the Clippers — Who twice set their franchise record for wins in a season during this span — never made it farther than the Conference Semifinals, and just couldn’t seem to break through despite a talented roster. With Paul set to hit free agency in the summer of 2017, he opted into the final year of his contract in order to facilitate a trade to Houston, where he would team up with James Harden, who had blossomed into a bonafide superstar.
Postseason Appearances: 9
Stint with the Rockets
Paired with Harden, Paul finally found himself with an elite partner in the backcourt, and it worked. Harden had an MVP season, the Rockets won a franchise-best 65 games, and claimed the first seed in the Western Conference for the first time ever. In the postseason, Houston defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz in the first and second rounds, giving them a matchup against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. This series represented the first ever appearance in the Conference Finals for Paul.
Facing off against arguably one of the greatest rosters ever assembled, the Rockets held their own through the first four games, before taking a 3-2 series lead in a Game 5 victory. Despite the victory, Paul suffered a hamstring injury in the late stages and would miss the final two games of the series. The Warriors went on to win the series in 7, before winning their second-consecutive NBA title and third in four years.
The next season, Paul signed a four-year extension and the Rockets again qualified for the postseason, this time as the fourth seed, and once again fell to the Warriors, who made another trip to the NBA Finals.
In the ensuing off-season, the Rockets were looking to make a change, and with a massive contract, Paul found himself on the chopping block.
Postseason Appearances: 11
The Rebuild Year
On July 11, 2019, the Rockets agreed to send Paul and a pair of first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for former league-MVP Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City had begun to work towards a rebuild following a couple of underwhelming postseasons, and Paul was now along for the ride.
Facing questions on how much he had left and how much longer he would play, Paul was able to re-establish himself among the league’s best point guards. Despite lacking another true superstar, the Thunder earned the fourth seed in the Western Conference during a Covid-19 interrupted season. In OKC, Paul made another All-star game and was selected to the All-NBA Second team.
In their first round matchup, the Thunder faced off against the Houston Rockets, pitting Paul against his most recent team and the player he was traded for, Russell Westbrook. Even after trailing the series at 2-0 and 3-2, Oklahoma City forced a Game 7, where Harden sealed the win for the Rockets with a late block. It was yet another early exit for Paul, even though he once again exceeded expectations with a new team.
With Oklahoma City ready to launch a full-scale rebuild, GM Sam Presti decided to make a move while Paul was at his maximum value.
Postseason Appearances: 12
After a relatively successful season in Oklahoma City, Paul was traded to the Phoenix Suns on November 16, 2020, in exchange for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and a first round pick. Paul joined a Suns team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2010. He became the veteran leader on a talented-young team, and once again, it worked.
The Suns went on to win 51 games, and secured the second seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. In the Postseason, they defeated the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Denver Nuggets led by league MVP Nikola Jokic, and Paul’s former team in the Los Angeles Clippers, setting up an NBA Finals matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Postseason Appearances: 13
It took 16 seasons and 13 postseason trips, but Paul has finally broken through to the biggest series in basketball, sitting just four wins away from his first NBA Championship. It has been quite the journey for one of the game’s greatest point guards.