When I think back on Chris Paul’s career thus far, there are few single plays that stand out. I can recall his game-winning fadeaway from the free throw line over Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers and his buzzer-beating three-pointer in the 2011 Playoffs against the Lakers, which I remember due more to Kevin Harlan’s horrifying “right between the eyes!” call than the play itself. Instead of great individual plays, which any viewer will see many of from Paul in any single game, it is repeated moves that manifest themselves in my mind. Two in particular never cease to astound me even though no single manifestation of them is lodged in my memory. Both of these plays begin with Paul using a pick to penetrate. In one, he is immediately encountered by an opposing defender on a switch. Paul feigns further penetration into the paint, but instead hesitates, dribbling the ball between his legs before quickly pulling back and shooting a mid-range jumper from the elbow. His other go to move is going around a pick, but this time, there is no defender to immediately impede his progress so he simply goes into the paint for a lay-up, but very rarely does he not toss in some fancy, although necessary, ball-handling in order to evade an inevitable help defender. Neither of these moves are meant to amaze – they are not ostentatious for their own sake, but necessary to achieve the hoped for result. They’re nothing that any other point guard would be unable to do, but Paul elevates these simple moves that have been in the toolkit of basketball players for decades into things of beauty.
While Blake Griffin is generally considered to be the most exciting player on the Clippers, or even in the NBA, I personally find Paul to be much more thrilling to watch. Dunks are great, but rarely the work of a refined craftsman. As much as I love rewatching Kevin Durant’s dunk on Brendan Haywood, it seems like a more shallow thrill. Blake Griffin’s athleticism simply seems like good genetic luck while Paul’s court vision and ball handling, while being so natural as to seem innate, is really the work of several years in the NBA brought to full fruition.
Chris Paul has nevertheless accumulated a truly stunning body of work and unquestionably established himself as the best point guard in the NBA, perhaps the best since Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson retired and despite his more relatively traditional style of play compared to the league’s other great point guards – Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving – he is still as exciting and idiosyncratic as any of them. If the NBA’s point guards were jazz musicians, Chris Paul would be Duke Ellington, an artist loyal to more traditional swing and big-band styles, but always remaining inventive, pushing those forms forward.Ellington would compose songs that highlighted the specific talents of his bandmembers and Paul does the same. It’s hard to imagine Tyson Chandler leading the Association in Offensive Rating for multiple seasons without Paul showcasing how he could be most effectively utilized.
Additionally, Paul’s basketball IQ is unparalleled. Last season, there were many jokes made about who really coaches the Clippers - Vinny Del Negro or Chris Paul - but watching a Clippers game made it clear why such jokes could be made semi-seriously. While Vinny Del Negro meandered up and down the sideline with his mysterious sheet of paper rolled up in his fist, Paul barked at his teammates setting the tone for the rest of his team. While a term like “feel for the game” is so ambiguous to be almost meaningless, it is clear merely by watching a Clippers game that Paul knows what is needed and when. He knows when to assert himself as a scorer or to distribute, when to be more passive or more aggressive. There have been several games where Paul simply manages to keep the Clippers close before finally taking the mantle upon himself in order to take the lead or further it. Even a brief glimpse at his bio page on NBA.com reveals a number of stats showing how drastically different his numbers in the fourth quarter are. In the 2011 season, despite being only thirteenth in points per game overall, he was second in points scored in the 4th quarter. Paul was also second in the NBA in points scored with his team ahead or behind by five points or less with less than five minutes in the game, more simply known as “crunch time.” I don’t mean to start arguments about clutchness that tend to rely on gut feelings and conventional wisdom more than what actually happens on the court, but in my mind, there is no player I would rather have on my team with the game on the line than Chris Paul.
When writing or talking about sports, we often try to find historical analogues for current players. Kevin Durant is our generation’s George Gervin, LeBron James is an evolutionary Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan, etc. etc.. Chris Paul is different. Paul is no single player reincarnated or developed upon, but instead a summation of all the great point guards who have come before. In many ways, he is the final remnant of great, ‘traditional’ point guards as the league trends more and more towards quick, electrifying score-first point guards a la Rose, Westbrook, and Irving. I do not mean to sound like an old-timer bemoaning the days that point guards looked for the open man before their own shot - I love watching Russell Westbrook just as much as I do Paul - but there is something lovely about seeing an archetype of greatness fulfilled. While other players show the evolution of basketball and the game’s constantly changing contours and style, Paul offers not a way forward, but the perfecting of an ideal.
-Micah Wimmer (stationtostation and @micahwimmer)
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