There never was, nor should there have been, any internal debate about the best place for Chris Paul among the Warriors. They always knew.
Paul’s greatest value to this team is as the leader of the second unit, the role he moved into Sunday in Houston.
After publicly dodging the issue for more than three months, Warriors coach Steve Kerr finally made it official. And his logic was visible in Golden State’s 106-95 victory over the Rockets at Toyota Center.
“He’s so good making everybody else better,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Houston. “Whether he’s with the starters or with the bench, he’s going to impact the game.”
Paul anchored a second unit — with Gary Payton II, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and Dario Sarić — that gave the Warriors such a substantial lead with a 24-8 run in the second quarter that even when they fell behind briefly during a Houston surge in the in the fourth, Stephen Curry quickly took it back with four 3-pointers in less than two minutes.
Paul finished with eight points, seven assists and five rebounds. Moreover, he was a team-best plus-22 over his 27 minutes on the floor. Each of the other four members of the second unit also finished in the plus column.
“Did I like it? Who likes new things?” Paul said of the first reserve appearance of his 18-year NBA career. “It ain’t about liking or not. It’s new. I don’t hate it. It ain’t a matter of liking it. I like the fact that we won. That was the most important thing.”
Paul’s first half stewardship in some ways bailed out the starters. Curry had a quiet first half. Draymond Green, returning after missing training camp and the first two games, committed three turnovers and three fouls in nine minutes. Andrew Wiggins played 28 minutes — 15 in the first half — and did not snag a rebound. Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney were typically solid.
Curry was the last starter to sub out. When he headed to the bench with 4:15 remaining in the quarter, the Warriors scrambling for points and trailing 18-15. When he returned, with 7:42 left in the half, the second unit had given the Warriors a 39-26 lead.
“They were the much better unit in this game, make no mistake about it — in large part due to me killing our first unit,” Green said. “But they were the much better unit, and Chris is at the forefront of all of that. That will be an advantage we’ll have. When you’re talking about replacing Steph Curry with Chris Paul, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Often in recent seasons and certainly last season, Golden State’s second units tended to struggle on offense. It was not unusual for leads to evaporate when starters — most notably Curry — went to the bench. The search for a solution to the troublesome “non-Steph” minutes was a priority last summer.
Which led incoming general manager Mike Dunleavy to Paul. Yes, CP3 was a longtime enemy. Yes, he’s 38 years old. Yes, he’s paid $30 million this season. And, yes, he has been known to be rather prickly.
But there was no doubt he was the best available Curry substitute on earth.
Through three games, including two starts, Paul continues to search for his shot but has 28 assists and five turnovers. His 5.6-to-1 ratio is not sustainable, but the Warriors would be delighted with 4-to-1. He was 7-to-1 in the first game off the bench in a career that began in 2005, a total of 1,365 games ago.
“I’m figuring it out,” Paul said of his role. “It’s something that new. It’s whatever I’ve got to do to help our team win. If that means that, if that means not finishing some games or whatnot.”
CP3’s dual assignments were to reduce the team’s turnovers and solve the non-Steph minutes. Three games in, Paul is nailing both.
Until this season, Kerr has been content to play the Curry-Green-Thompson core 35-37 minutes per game. He hopes to have enough bench support to drop all three into the low 30s, ideally no more than 32.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Kerr said of his rotation. “Things could change.
“But I love the look of tonight. This starting group was the best five-man unit in the league last year. We have data to tell us and our own eyes to tell us that group knows how to play together.”
The second unit often sabotaged the starters last season. Having CP3 come off the bench should turn that around, even if it costs him the longest starting streak to begin an NBA career.
“I’ve always been the same way as far as competing and doing whatever I’ve got to do to help our team win,” Paul said. “In this role – if that means starting, if that means coming off the bench – I know who I am and what I’m able to do. And with our team, it works. It gives us a bigger lineup.
“I’ve never been on a team with this kind of depth. I’ve been on really good teams – don’t get it twisted – but not necessarily where all these guys can start.”
Eleven Warriors might be capable of starting, but the legal limit is five. This was Paul’s first experience outside the starting five, and it was a win for the Warriors in most every way.