The secret behind Chris Paul’s uncanny ability to see the entire floor, whip passes through improbable creases, find just enough wiggle room for a pull-up jumper in pick-and-rolls and toss the most delectable lobs is simpler than one might expect. Paul had no problem sharing what has helped him claim the unofficial title as NBA’s best point guard for the past few seasons.
“I tell people all the time. Fortunately, I’ve always been short, so I’ve only played one position, so I’ve been point guard since I was 5 years old, so I’ve had a lot of training,” Paul said.
Now 29 and leading a Los Angeles Clippers team that has yet to distinguish itself in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, Paul is the measuring point for all competitors at his position. Paul wrestled that title from Steve Nash after the two-time most valuable player was betrayed by his aging body, but Paul’s claim to it is under attack nearly every time he steps on the floor — from pit bulls looking to overwhelm him with speed and athleticism (Russell Westbrook and John Wall), sharpshooters looking to outscore him (Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving), steady playmakers and setup men (Rajon Rondo and Ty Lawson), tenacious defenders (Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry) and up-and-comers looking to embarrass him with wicked crossover dribbles (Kemba Walker).
Wall had his matchup with Paul targeted for weeks, knowing what a quality performance would mean for his burgeoning reputation around the league as an elite player at his position. After forcing Paul into an uncharacteristic six turnovers – including twice poking the ball off Paul’s leg – and making a vile remark to officials about the level of respect Paul receives from them, Wall won his first head-to-head matchup against the fellow North Carolina native.
“It’s like that every night,” said Paul, who ranks third behind Nash and Andre Miller in assists among active players with 6,345. “It’s the toughest position in the league. It’s year 10 for me, so I’m kind of used to it.”
Paul continues to find ways to separate himself from some worthy, hungry and younger competition. Already the only point guard in NBA history to average 18 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals in four different seasons – Isiah Thomas is the only other player to reach those numbers at least one time in a season — Paul is distributing and protecting the ball better than he has at any time in his career with a league-best and career-high assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.76-to-1.
Before an unusual two-game patch in which he had 12 combined turnovers against Washington and Milwaukee, Paul was on pace to become the first player since Muggsy Bogues – a fellow Wake Forest alum – to average at least nine assists and fewer than two turnovers per game.
“I pride myself on that, making the right decisions, passing the ball, ball-handling. I don’t let anybody steal it from me or nothing like that,” said Paul, who is the only player among the top five in assists with fewer than 50 turnovers this season.
The Clippers are not a great defensive team and need to be elite offensively if they are going to do anything in the playoffs. With Paul at the helm and limiting miscues, the Clippers currently rank fourth in offensive efficiency (106.7 points per 100 possessions) and second in field goal percentage (48.1).
“We’re good offensively, so I think a turnover for us hurts us more than other teams,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said.
Paul’s costly turnovers in the final minute of the Clippers’ loss in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Oklahoma City haunted the seven-time all-star all summer and kept alive a tiresome argument about his inability to win anything in the postseason. In his first nine seasons, Paul has never reached the conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals. It doesn’t matter that only Michael Jordan, George Mikan, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon have a higher career postseason player efficiency rating, Paul’s 22-31 postseason record diminishes his greatness in the eyes of those who value rings over everything else.
“That’s just the world we live in,” Paul said with a shrug. “It comes with it, but what can you do? Keep playing. I don’t know what else to say. We’re playing. I know I’m going to compete, day in and day out. Trying to get one.”
The problem with placing an NBA player’s worth in championships is that it turns a team game into an individual pursuit. And in recent years, the players tasked with taking the most selfless role on the floor – distributing point guards – have been the ones watching the confetti fall on others.
Since Magic Johnson won back-to-back championships in 1987-88 and finished first and second, respectively, in assists, no player has ranked in the top five in helpers and won a title. Johnson is also the last point guard from a championship team to average at least 10 assists per game in the regular season.
Thomas and Jason Kidd are the only championship point guards in the past 25 years to average at least eight assists. In that time, John Stockton, Gary Payton, and the prime Kidd held the subjective crown as the league’s best floor general, led their respective teams to the NBA Finals and failed to win it all. Nash reached the conference finals three times but never made it to the ultimate stage. Aside from Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo, most of the championship point guards have been the non-intrusive, move-the-ball-and-get-out-of-the-way variety, such as Avery Johnson, Brian Shaw, Derek Fisher and Mario Chalmers.
The Clippers needed a recent nine-game winning streak against some of the league’s lesser teams to regain their footing out West. Something still seems amiss with a squad that that has been buoyed by the arrival of new owner Steve Ballmer but Paul has been patient as the team comes together.
“It was tough,” Paul said of the slow start, “because we knew we were better than that and we expected to come in and everything would be rolling like the way it was toward the end of the season last year, but we had to fill it out and we’re still finding ourselves. Every team, no matter how many people you bring back, they still got to find their identity and we’re sort of doing that now.”
For Paul to finally acquire that elusive ring, the Clippers will need Blake Griffin to develop the capacity to dominate more frequently so that the team doesn’t become overly reliant on its shortest and grittiest competitor for bail outs. Paul was able to move beyond his most recent playoff misery last summer by taking a step back to assess his position.
“I’m just in such a better place right now with who I am, in my mind and stuff,” he said. “I did a lot of reading this summer on different things and I realized I am playing basketball, you know what I mean. This is the best job I feel that there is in the world. I have a beautiful family. My family is healthy and I get to hoop.”