‘It works’: Chris Paul accepting bench role is tone-setting decision for Warriors

HOUSTON — In the days leading up to training camp, Steve Kerr called his six best players into his office for a conversation that Steph Curry, a month later, specifically referenced late Sunday night in Houston. The attendees: Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Chris Paul.

“I remember on Steve’s whiteboard it said: ‘Dray don’t be late!’” Paul laughed. “Draymond noticed it during the meeting.”

This discussion was of high importance to Kerr. The previous Golden State Warriors season was derailed, in part, due to internal splintering. It began with the preseason punch but never subsided because of continued grumbling about playing time, uncertain roles and a shifting pecking order. Kerr and Curry were determined to avoid a repeat.

That meant facing the uncomfortable truth about a crowded six-man mix. Who starts? Who closes? It’d depend on the night. Everyone would presumably have a moment of sacrifice. But this was a message most directed at Paul. He was the newcomer with an extensive résumé that included one amazing statistic: 1,365 consecutive starts to begin his 19-year career.

That streak, longer than any other NBA player in the last 50 years, was snapped Sunday night in Houston. It was agreed upon during a morning conversation at the team’s Houston hotel 10 minutes out of downtown. Green was returning from a two-game absence. Kerr approached Paul and told him that Green’s return meant Paul was shifting to the bench.

“He just said, ‘Yep,’ nodded his head and said, ‘Let’s go get them,’” Kerr said. “No big deal.”

Paul then went out and served as a second-unit catalyst in the Warriors’ 106-95 road win. The starters struggled early. Curry left the game with the Warriors trailing 18-15, usually danger time. But he returned with the Warriors up 39-26, a plus-16 stint over more than eight-and-a-half minutes. In all, Paul was a plus-22.

“They were the much better unit this game,” Green said. “There’s no doubt about it. Chris is right at the forefront of that. When you’re talking about replacing Steph Curry with Chris Paul, it doesn’t get much better than that. You’re taking your starting point guard out and the next point guard is Chris Paul? That’s incredible. We will have that advantage all year.”

It’s become clear that the Warriors’ plan is to keep the Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green, Looney five-man grouping as their starting unit and Paul as a reserve. An injury or a bad stretch of games could alter plans, but Kerr said they’ll start that way in New Orleans on Monday and, from a basketball perspective, everybody understands that it makes the most sense to keep it stable.

“It works,” Paul said. “It gives us a bigger lineup. I’ve never been on a team probably with this type of depth. I’ve been on really good teams, don’t get it twisted. But not necessarily where you could say: ‘All these guys can start.’ And I think last year that was the best starting five in the league.”

An hour after the game, Paul spent several minutes discussing this drastic late-career rotational change with The Athletic. He agreed that the pre-camp meeting in Kerr’s office was crucial, generating the type of open dialogue Paul craves. If a decision is reasoned and shared and discussed, he is comfortable with the choice.

“Yes,” Paul said. “Because it’s talking. We’re communicating. We ain’t just coming up to somebody day of and saying: ‘Hey, this is happening.’”

It is clear that this Warriors team, laced with veterans, is communicating often and well early in the Paul era. That’s a leadership quality that has always been considered among Kerr and Curry’s best and it’s something that clearly vibes with Paul.

“I’m an over-communicator,” Paul said. “I say that all the time. Some people don’t like it. But that’s me. That way you don’t have to guess how I feel about you. A lot of time people are scared to have those conversations. But you got guys who’ve won, guys who want to win and everyone understands what they mean to the team. When you done played this long, you want to enjoy the people you’re around and you want to win.”

Some of the external concern and skepticism about Paul’s willingness to accept a bench role can be traced back to Las Vegas. In early July, after the Jordan Poole for Paul trade was finalized, he did an introductory press conference before a Warriors’ summer league game. During it, a reporter prefaced a question stating that he’d be coming off the bench. Paul shot back a “you coaching?” response that many perceived as a sign that he wouldn’t accept such a demotion, sparking a wave of conversation about whether this player, team pairing was already doomed.

“It was over-exaggerated because I’ll tell you this: It wasn’t a question,” Paul said. “She made a statement. I know what the media is like. I know what I said in there. I know what bullet points gonna be taken from that.”

Paul then wanted to give a little history lesson, beginning back in the summer of 2019 when the Houston Rockets flipped him for Russell Westbrook and the entire world assumed he was going to force a buyout and muscle his way to Los Angeles.

“When I went to OKC, what’d everyone say? ‘He wants to be traded. He wants out of there,’” Paul said. “People always speaking for me. The very first meeting I had in OKC, did I tell you what happened? I stood up in front of my teammates and said, ‘Don’t pay attention to what the media says about me trying to get moved out of here. I don’t know how to be half in and half out. I’m here.’”

Paul led a resurgent Oklahoma City Thunder team to the bubble playoffs and stretched the Rockets to seven games in the first round, generating a mentorship with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander along the way. Thunder people still glow about his professionalism there.

“When I came to Houston, what’d they say?” Paul asked.

You and (James) Harden won’t work.

“Ain’t gonna work,” Paul smiled. “In Phoenix? We too young. But what I’ve had to do my whole career is I’ve had to stand on who I am. I’m not saying this (Warriors team is) the best team ever, but as soon as the trade happened, what did everyone say? This ain’t gonna work.”

It’s only been three games. The Warriors are 2-1. It’s too early to declare what type of high-level success this older group can still produce, but it’s already clear that Paul’s fit — as a steadying point guard with the starters, a driving force with the second unit and an immediate leader behind the scenes — is humming smoothly.

They don’t win a game like this last season. The Warriors were minus-2 in the Curry minutes and still cruised by double digits. Paul’s plus-22 was a game-high. He has 28 assists and five turnovers through three games. But, most notably, he accepted the immediate bench role without a peep.

“Massive,” Kerr said. “It’s massive the way Chris has embraced everything here in the first month. … It’s similar to Andre (Iguodala) all those years ago, I guess 2014. When a vet, a great player, an All-Star shows that kind of sacrifice, it just sets the tone for the whole team.”

Kerr doesn’t throw around Iguodala comparisons lightly.

“It sends a message,” Green said. “When you got a first-ballot Hall of Famer that’ll go to the bench with no complaints, that means a lot. Everyone else has to fall in line. That’s important. With us coming off the year we had last year, you understand the things it takes to win. One very important one is the camaraderie and togetherness of the group. It’s things like that that build that.”

“He’s about winning,” Curry told The Athletic. “It’s easy to talk about it, but when you have to go prove it, it’s in the essence of what Andre did. (Chris) talked that game this summer and he’s obviously showing it. It kind of cuts through the notion of typical bench versus starter. There is a lot of value on that bench, connecting lineups. He showed it tonight.”

The trickle-down impact has already been felt. Because of his early struggles, Wiggins hasn’t closed two of the three games. He played a quiet 28 minutes against the Rockets and didn’t puncture the stat sheet much, finishing with zero rebounds. He only has six in three games.

“Loon was playing good,” Wiggins said. “Draymond was playing good. Klay was playing good. Everyone was playing good. Stuff happens. The coaches make a decision that’s best. We won the game. As long as we keep winning, I’m fine. I gotta give them a reason not to take me out. Rebound more. I can do more.”

Wiggins was in that pre-camp meeting in Kerr’s office: “It just let everyone know that we’re here for one reason — to win.”

So was Looney, who will assuredly be benched several times as the season progresses: “Having that line of communication is always key when your role is different than you’re used to. We all gotta sacrifice. It was good to hear. Just so you ain’t hearing it through the media, hearing it through different sources. Uncertainty can cause confusion and separation.”

Thompson was also in the room. Does he remember it? “Barely, honestly. Just a bunch of guys talking hoops.”

Paul admitted it’ll take some adjustment. He needs to time his warmup differently and create a routine to get his body ready to enter in the middle of the first quarter. But the clearest read of his mindset about the bench role came when he was asked whether he liked it.

“Did I like it?” Paul said. “Who likes new things? It ain’t a matter of liking it. It’s new. I don’t hate it. It ain’t a matter of liking it. I like the fact that we won. That’s the most important thing.”

(Photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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