Now that the Los Angeles Clippers have been eliminated from the playoffs by the Utah Jazz (having lost in a tough Game 7 to once again fail to advance to, or beyond, the conference finals), there are questions of how they’ll be remembered, both as a group and individually. There’s certainly been a lot of bad luck there, with frequent post-season injuries derailing series, the most recent being Blake Griffin missing the majority of this year’s matchup against the Jazz. But there’s also something more — a perception that a team featuring three All-Stars and All-NBA guys in Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Chris Paul should have contended. They went through stretches during regular seasons where they looked like world beaters, like a group that should be a championship team. Given their successes, any failure to sustain those heights would have to be laid at the feet of that trio.
There is perhaps no player more controversial in basketball circles than Chris Paul. Simply asking the question about how great he is is to invite conflict and debate, and it’s hard to procure a single answer to the question of how will he be remembered as a player. Will we recall him leading an underdog Hornets team to surprising success without much help year after year, bringing respectability to the Los Angeles Clippers, or will we just remember a guy who couldn’t succeed in the playoffs? That last one is critical to his legacy, and it’s maybe the hardest part to piece together, because whether or not you believe he couldn’t get it done in the postseason—and there is a nugget of truth there; a simplicity that he didn’t win, at least not to this point.
Maybe it’s a matter of era with him; maybe it’s the nature of the game. We love the explosive thunder of Russell Westbrook’s game, we fall in love with guys who defy positions (and gravity) like Giannis Antetokounmpo. Paul suffers in the public perception by the fact that his game isn’t those things. It’s control in its simplest and most refined form. It’s the patience to find a right decision, the arrogance and intention to say that you can put your teammates in the best place to succeed every trip down the floor. Arrogance is the right word for his game too, because you see it in the way he tries to correct his teammates on every dead ball and disagrees with his coaches during timeouts. But this term is usually reserved for players we don’t like — we don’t hear people talk about the arrogance of Steph Curry’s shot selection. That’s more often saved for when we discuss Kobe Bryant. Arrogance in life is a bad thing, but with people at the top of any field in life, it can become something else, something required to find your way. Without thinking you are the best, it’s hard to become it.
There is, however, still an aura of failure that follows Paul throughout his career. The idea persists that, despite his numbers being in the tier of the All-Time greats (not just at his position of point guard, but among all players), that he is a tier below. After all, were he one of the best we’d ever seen, how could you explain never getting past the second round of the playoffs and frequently falling in the first round? This tends to spur the debate of statistics versus efficiency, and brings us back to whether or not being efficient and putting up solid numbers even matters if you just can’t win when it matters.
Coming into the draft after two years at Wake Forest, the draft profiles on Paul were glowing. They spoke of an explosive player who could get to the rim at will, knock down shots from range at a high rate, excelled in running an offense, and had the tools to be a solid defender despite his diminutive size for the NBA game. If there was any knock on him at all, it was that he could be too competitive; he’d blur the lines sometimes between dirty and hard-nosed in order to find an edge and win. He was expected to be a top selection in the draft, and with Atlanta holding the number 2 pick and badly needing a point guard, it seemed like a no-brainer that they would go with Paul. Instead, they drafted another rangy wing tweener in Marvin Williams, creating a logjam for themselves and leaving a hole at point guard that would remain for years. Paul would slide to the fourth pick, where he was grabbed by the New Orleans Hornets.
Right out of the gates in the NBA, it was clear how good he was going to be, as, despite struggling from three-point range, he ran away with the Rookie of the Year award. He grabbed all but one vote, and finished in the top 20 in the league in win shares and top 10 in VORP, but the Pelicans struggled to just a 38-44 record and missed the playoffs. That summer, the Hornets went out and got Tyson Chandler to be their rim protector, as well as Paul’s partner in the pick and roll. Chandler had, to that point, been a disappointment after being grabbed 2nd overall in the 2001 draft, but he and Paul helped build each other’s reputation over the next three seasons with one of the most potent pick and roll attacks in the NBA.
In his third season, Paul found new heights in the regular season, as he led the Hornets to a jump from 23rd in the league in offense the year before to 5th, and he was rewarded with a 2nd place finish in MVP voting, falling short of Kobe Bryant in that race, although an argument can be made that it was given to Bryant on legacy — awarded to a player who had never won one despite sustained greatness for years, rather than the younger player who was in the race for the first time. CP3 made it to the postseason for the first time, with New Orleans winning 56 games and capturing the second seed in the Western Conference, and he immediately established himself as a force to be reckoned with, as they won their first two games by a total margin of 36 points, and Paul put up lines of 35/3/10 and 32/5/17 in those matches. They would go on to win the series in 6 games before meeting the San Antonio Spurs in the next round. Despite Paul averaging 24.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 11.3 assists, 2.3 steals and just 1.8 turnovers in the playoffs, the Hornets would fall in 6 games to the powerhouse Spurs. Still, notice had been served that he had arrived as a threat to be reckoned with, a player who ranked among the best in the game and was a leader in this league.
Over the course of the next three seasons, the Hornets never again reached those heights, with two seventh place finishes and one year missing the playoffs in which Paul only played 45 games due to a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee which required surgery. Paul’s own numbers continued to rank him as one of the best in the game, with him picking up additional MVP votes in each of his healthy seasons, where he’d finish 5th in 2008-09 and 13th in 2010-11. Chandler would depart New Orleans after the 2008-09 season and a first round defeat to the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, traded to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor, the former 2nd overall pick. Okafor was solid for the team, but never quite developed the same chemistry that Paul had with Chandler during the three years they were teammates.
In the last of the three seasons, the Hornets would enter the playoffs as the 7th seed, facing the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, a team lead by Bryant and boasting the massive frontline of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The series was a mismatch on paper, especially with All-Star power forward David West unavailable due to a season-ending knee injury. Not only that, but the future of the franchise was in question, with the league having assumed ownership in December and no clear future ahead for the organization. If ever there was an understandable series to lose to that point of Paul’s career, it was this one. Instead, facing a dominant opponent with a limited team and off-court turmoil, Paul would deliver a series to be remembered, averaging 22/6.7/11.5 and shooting splits of 54/48/79 while delivering the Hornets two wins in the series including a game 4 performance in which he had a 27 point triple double with 15 assists and 13 rebounds. But the numbers don’t do the performance justice, as he simply seemed to be everywhere on the court.
It was simply a remarkable watching experience, and one that is hard to translate. While watching, I constantly felt like the Hornets shouldn’t have a chance in that series, not against those Lakers, not without their second best player. Yet Paul kept coming at them, kept delivering, and sure, he fell short, but that shouldn’t diminish the performance. It shouldn’t keep us from admiring his effort.
That summer, the NBA and the players association, however, failed to come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, with a lockout that obliterated the first half of the season. Paul, seemingly tired of both the inability to build a competitive roster around him in New Orleans as well as the off-court ownership issues with the organization, requested a trade, stating he preferred to land in either New York or Los Angeles. The team made every attempt to accommodate their franchise player, eventually agreeing to a three-team trade sending CP3 to the Los Angeles Lakers and also involving the Houston Rockets, with Pau Gasol going to Houston, and the Hornets getting a package of Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a 2012 first-round New York Knicks draft pick. However, with the league having assumed ownership of the Hornets, the other owners vociferously objected to that deal, leading to commissioner David Stern vetoing the trade in the role of the team’s owner, sending the Hornets back to the drawing board, needing to find a deal for Paul before the beginning of the season.
Just a few days later, a deal was struck moving him to the Lakers’ cross-town rival Clippers, for a three-player package and an unprotected Minnesota Timberwolves pick. The Clippers weren’t an unattractive landing spot, with Blake Griffin having won Rookie of the Year a year previous and DeAndre Jordan giving Paul the great pick-and-roll center he’d been missing since Chandler was traded from the Hornets. The team was dubbed “Lob City” by Griffin when he heard the news of the Paul acquisition, with their athletic frontcourt having found a point guard who could get them the ball at the rim and run their high-octane offense.
But before we talk too much about the Clippers and what they were with Paul, we have to look back again at the trade that wasn’t, the move to the Lakers vetoed by the league. Not to talk about whether the haul for the Hornets was really so bad, because it probably wasn’t compared to the eventual deal they got from the Clippers, but to talk about the effect it could’ve had on Paul’s career and legacy. With the Lakers, even with Gasol and Odom gone in the trade, Paul would’ve had not only another athletic center in Andrew Bynum to use as a pick-and-roll mate, but also the backcourt mate he’s never in his career had in Kobe Bryant, the man he’d lost the MVP to in his best season to date. At the time, Bryant was 33 years old, and despite still putting up impressive numbers, was starting to slow down and enter the twilight of his career. Partnering up made sense for both players, because it would’ve taken pressure off each to constantly dominate offensively, with a teammate who could carry the load when they were having an off night. There is certainly no guarantee of a championship for the Lakers, even with Paul and Bryant on board, but it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have competed for one, and the Lakers management under Mitch Kupchak had a way of building rosters around their stars that helped them find success.
Instead of the purple and gold’s illustrious legacy and the Buss family’s ownership, however, Paul landed with the Clippers and Donald Sterling, the scandal-ridden owner who would be just two years away from a lifetime NBA ban for racist comments he would make to his mistress. The Clippers were the cursed little brother, the team that always seemed to either find or create their own bad luck, through either missed draft picks, injuries, or mismanagement. Paul’s acquisition, combined with the emergence of Griffin, brought a luster to the franchise that it hadn’t seen in years, immediately marking them as a potential contender in the Western Conference.
That first year, the Clippers would beat the “Grit-n-Grind” Memphis Grizzlies in a tough, drawn-out seven-game first-round series, but with Paul having the worst playoffs of his career and running into a juggernaut San Antonio Spurs team in the second round, they would go down in a four-game sweep.
I won’t go into the full history of the Lob City Clippers here – it’s well known and frustrating for the fan base. It’s more interesting to talk about the perception surrounding it, the idea that Paul didn’t get it done in those years. After all, with an All-Star frontcourt in Griffin and Jordan and a coach in Doc Rivers, brought in for the third season of that core, who’d been a champion with the Boston Celtics, all the ingredients for bringing the Clippers a ring had to be in place, right? How could you say that Paul was the player he’d shown himself to be with the Hornets, one of the best in the league who just needed a team around him, and yet also not see him find that success in Los Angeles?
You can’t ignore that there’s an element of luck to this story, with Griffin getting injured during three of the six playoff runs—2012/13, 2015/16 and this season—and his absence leaving a large hole in the team’s rotations that was never really filled. Paul himself also got hurt during the playoff runs in 2014/15 and 2015/16, with him returning for the last games of their second round series versus the Houston Rockets but the team still falling short in seven games. There’s also the one impossible-to-ignore, legitimate Chris Paul choke. In 2013/14, he committed several late unforced turnovers in Game 7 that allowed the Thunder to storm back and win the series, preventing the Clippers from reaching the Conference Finals.
But that’s simply the ‘what’ of the story, and not necessarily the how. When Paul is compared to recent contemporaries, it’s often Jason Kidd’s name that comes up. After all, he’s seen as another recent all-time great point guard who managed to bring his team to two NBA Finals as the leader and eventually win a ring as a member of the Dallas Mavericks in his career’s twilight. If Kidd managed to reach two NBA Finals and Paul never even reached a Conference Finals, how could they be considered the same tier of floor general? Did that indicate that there was an element of Kidd’s game that Paul simply lacked? I hate this argument, because it assumes that each Conference Finals is an equal degree of difficulty to the next in terms of the path there, and that just isn’t how the league works. When Kidd first went to the Conference Finals with the New Jersey Nets in 2001-02, they faced a 44-win Charlotte team led by Baron Davis, who still hadn’t reached his prime, in the second round. In Paul’s four trips to the second round, he’s faced up against a 56-win Houston team featuring James Harden and Dwight Howard, a 56-win San Antonio team led by Tim Duncan, a 59-win Thunder team with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant running the show, and a 50-win San Antonio squad in the lockout-shortened season. This doesn’t excuse Paul, but it does demonstrate that not all paths are created equal.
The nature of the game is that it isn’t fair, and neither are legacies — among his modern contemporaries, it’s certainly easier to be Kyrie Irving, who struggled through his first seasons until LeBron James arrived back in Cleveland and immediately delivered the team to the promised land, gifting Irving a legacy free of postseason scorn because he’s seen as a winner before he ever had to be a leader. Paul never had that going for him, first in Charlotte where he had to lead an organization in constant chaos through a tough conference full of battle-hardened contenders, and then with the Clippers where he found himself again embroiled in off-court drama with Sterling’s ban and the surrounding media circus. He’s never had the luxury of a stable organization, and never had a roster with a lot of depth.
This current version of the Clippers is a great example, with a top-loaded roster but little behind it. The team has frequently dumped their first round draft picks to pick up veterans past their prime rather than using them, leading to a severe lack of useful rookie contracts, the most cost-effective deals in the association and the groundwork of a deep team. Faced up against a deep Jazz team that’s stocked with two-plus solid rotation players at each position, Paul frequently found himself sharing the court with past-their-prime players like Paul Pierce and Raymond Felton, guys who struggled to give any positive contributions during the series.
For his own right, there’s a juxtaposition of the arguments that, regardless of where you stand on the argument of Paul being a choker or simply never having the team around him, it’s hard to ignore either side. He hasn’t got it done and hasn’t found that success that brings him to the next level. At the same time, during the regular seasons of his 12 seasons, Paul has placed himself firmly and inexorably within NBA history, placing 10th in career assists and 16th in steals, with the 6th highest career PER, 17th-highest VORP and 2nd-best win shares per 48 minutes, and having the single highest offensive rating in the history of the league. As well, his pick-and-roll partners in his career, Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan, find themselves first and third respectively in career field goal percentage, and while they both are efficient scorers in their own right, it’s hard to ignore his contribution to their standings.
During the playoffs, his individual numbers are equally impressive. During the three-point era of the NBA, just five players have averaged 30+ minutes per game while averaging over .200 win shares per 48 minutes. That elusive and elite club is made up of LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kawhi Leonard and Paul. The first four on the list each possess championships and Finals MVPs, firmly placing them among the playoff greats and helping their legacy along the way. Each of them also had well-coached teams, stocked with solid role players as well as accompanying Hall of Famers to help them along the road.
Maybe Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan will be a Hall of Famer — it’s early to say for either player, but there is the foundation of a case for each of them. But even if so, Griffin has been injured as many times as healthy during their run together, and the Clippers have never had that base of role players behind the main trio to help keep them afloat during a tough run through the postseason, while Doc Rivers’ coaching has often left something to be desired.
This summer brings a choice for Paul. He’s a free agent, and there will definitely be a temptation to stay put in Los Angeles. After all, if you believe that this Clippers team has the foundation of a champion and simply got unlucky, that’s a reasonable case — and they can offer the most money. Why uproot your family if you can win where you are? At the same time, these questions will dog him long after he retires if he doesn’t find a way to win past the regular season, and he may deem that too great a risk to stay. The list of suitors is long if he does look elsewhere, but with him on the wrong side of 30 years old now, his window is short to find that ring as not just a member of the team, but a star and leader of the group. There is one clear leader of the pack in terms of a team that has both the organizational pedigree he’s never had behind him as well as a roster built to contend and a coach who can be relied on, and that’s for Paul to head to San Antonio and join the Spurs.
Maybe this becomes a Kevin Durant narrative if he does, a story of a player who went to a super-team rather than remaining loyal, but that never made sense to me. If Durant watched a decade of Paul’s career, a player frequently derided despite greatness for not being able to get it done in the postseason, and pondered his own legacy and how it would play out with where he went in free agency, didn’t the Warriors make the most sense? Didn’t finding a home where he could come as close as possible to guaranteeing that Championship Ring seem like the best choice, to make sure he wasn’t the next guy talked about as ‘not being able to get it done’? And if it’s that clear cut for Durant, then it should be the same for Paul this summer. He should make the easy choice to join Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard to form the next great contender in this league.
He deserves it, deserves to be recognized not for what his team hasn’t done, but for what he has done. Some people see him as an overly competitive, hard-nosed ass who derides his teammates to make himself feel better about his failures. But maybe that’s just who he’s felt he had to be. Maybe he felt like if he was always the underdog, he couldn’t afford to not demand his teammates be better constantly. Wherever he ends up this summer, whatever choice he makes, I hope he finds that success he’s been seeking. Maybe then basketball fans can stop debating how he lost and start appreciating what he’s been. It’d be an awful shame if people waited until he was gone to finally recognize that they got to watch one of the best players ever to play the game of basketball; it would be a huge loss if they didn’t appreciate that Chris Paul was in front of them.