Rockets point guard Chris Paul doesn't take his role as a Jordan Brand endorser lightly.
"It's such an honor and a privilege," Paul said. "We all know what the brand stands for. It stands for excellence. For me, I love sneakers and the whole process of it."
The process of bringing his latest signature sneaker, the CP3.11, to life was significantly different for Paul, who was traded from the LA Clippers to the Rockets in the middle of the design timeline. Fortunately for both Paul and the company, Jordan Brand had decided on a retro-heavy launch calendar in the fall and holiday seasons, shifting Paul's new model to the spring. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the delay allowed the company to work even more detail into the shoe while adjusting the first colorway.
"Pushing the release date back on my shoe actually worked out perfect, in that me being traded, it would've sucked coming out with a shoe in Clippers colors," Paul said with a laugh.
The signature shoe process is nothing new for Paul, of course, as he has worked hands-on year-round with his designer, Justin Taylor, and his product manager, Jamaal Lucas, the past five seasons.
Between multiple visits to Paul's L.A. home last summer, constant texts and FaceTime calls, and meetings in Portland and Houston during the season, they've developed what CP calls a "real family" feel. Paul is even known to show up in the stands of Lucas' Portland city league games when his schedule allows, adding a little pressure for the former University of Cincinnati player turned Jordan product lead.
"We can always think about the process of it, and because we have that relationship, we can be honest about what we like or don't like," he said.
From the start, Paul was looking to add what became the defining trait of his 11th shoe -- a midfoot strap inspired in part by the sneaker he wore in high school: the early 2000s cult classic Nike Air Jet Flight.
"I remember going on Eastbay, and they were like $59.99 at one point," Paul said of the shoe that was frequently worn by Steve Nash. "I was trying to get every color. I loved that shoe."
Much like Nash, who relied on his understanding of angles and spacing, shiftiness along the perimeter and mental mastery of the game flow as his career aged, Paul is looking for his sneakers to allow him to feel that same sense of quickness and control as the Rockets plan to make their own deep postseason run.
"If you're fast, I'm not going to get as close to you because I know you'll just go faster than me. So instead of being fast, I try to use a change of pace," he said. "It's more important to me to be able to change pace than to just be one speed."
With the sizable strap veering around the foot for lockdown and a no-frills herringbone grip pattern along the bottom that wraps up toward the toes for even more coverage, Paul keeps things focused when establishing the key points for his shoe.
"Everything is about speed and traction," he said.
The CP line has always had a strong focus on performance, but Paul has developed a deeper appreciation for the backstories that can help inform a signature sneaker.
"The thing that I've enjoyed over the years learning and trying to get better at is telling stories," he said. "When you design anything, it's all about telling your story. That's why the brand is what it is. That's why MJ is who he is."
Whether it was the protruding tongue on the Air Jordan 15, meant to mimic Michael's iconic tongue-out drives to the rim, or the Ferrari-infused Air Jordan 14 that drafted off of Jordan's love for sports cars, Paul has had ample inspiration from the brand's storied history. One of his favorite details can be found on the Air Jordan 23, which features Michael Jordan's thumbprint on the underside of the tongue.
"Every time you pull the tongue up, you feel like you're MJ for a second," he said. "That's the stuff that I pay attention to."
The tongue of Paul's latest shoe features a Chevron-shaped accent, a staple of his sneakers that honors his late grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, the first African-American to own a gas station in the state of North Carolina. Beloved in their Winston-Salem community, the gas station became known as simply "Jones' Chevron."
As Paul has become more comfortable in his new surroundings this season, he has also gotten used to the fun sneaker competition with his new teammates. After playing alongside Jordan teammate Blake Griffin in L.A., he and Adidas headliner James Harden have loosely kept tabs on each other's pairs in the locker room.
"He'll come in with some pair of Adidas, and I might have some Js on, and he'll mess with me and say, 'Ughhh!'" Paul said.
While the jokes are all in good fun, the duo has lobbed out the idea of having their L.A.-based summer travel teams face off, a rarity for teams playing in competing brand leagues.
"The cool part too is we both got AAU programs, and, of course with grassroots basketball, there's different circuits," Paul said. "You've got the Nike/Jordan circuit, you've got the Adidas circuit, and you've got the Under Armour circuit. One thing we've talked about is getting our teams together to play against each other."
Harden and Paul have shared the backcourt on the floor with ease, but sharing space alongside PJ Tucker in the locker room hasn't been quite as easy for CP3. Each player is known to have more than a dozen pairs at any time overflowing from his stash of options. They also each have their own sneaker travel luggage for road games.
Tucker has been taking the league by storm this season with his unprecedented mix of high-value exclusives, early releases and vintage finds.
"It catches me by surprise with some of the shoes that he'll play in," he said. "He'll be in some shoes, and it's like, 'You done lost your mind. You know the sole is coming off those. Why are you even trying?'"
Paul is expected to wear the CP3.11 throughout the playoffs, and though he'll leave the ongoing on-court sneaker hunting to Tucker, he does have a favorite memory of finally tracking down a long-lost pair years ago.
"The Air Jordan 13 is one of my favorite shoes because of the story behind it," Paul said. "When I was in the sixth grade, I was playing after-school intramurals, and I came back to my locker, and my shoes were gone. That was the first day that I wore them to school, and I didn't get another pair of 13s until my fourth year in the NBA."
As he has found with his 11th model, it's those added details and personal connections that can help a sneaker hold added meaning to whoever is wearing it.
"I think the story is what makes the shoe," he said.