Chris Paul has been medically cleared and may return tonight at Oracle against the Warriors after missing a ton of time because of a torn ligament in his hand. As he ages in this era of skilled point guards who can dribble, penetrate, score and drain the three, Chris Paul’s relevancy is diminishing. He is the most important player on the Clippers. But he is no longer the most relevant point guard in the NBA.
Take your pick. Steph Curry. James Harden. Russell Westbrook. Need more proof? John Wall. Damian Lillard. Kemba Walker.
Steph Curry has had more impact in the last five years in changing how the game is played than Chris Paul has had in the five years before Curry revolutionized the league with his dribbling and shot making skill. Paul is a throwback, an old school point who controls everything in the offense which would be one of those NBA axis tilting things if Chris Paul could stay healthy and take his team through the playoffs.
Last year, a freak injury, his hand getting caught in a jersey, ended his season and the Clippers playoff run. It was particularly bitter because Paul was having a sensational MVP year, making up for the loss of Blake Griffin.
But all that sweat equity of Chris Paul, all those games when he pulled out a victory in the last two minutes, all those assists and lobs to DeAndre Jordan, all those glaring stare downs at the refs ended quickly. Once again, it was wait until next year while the Warriors went to the Finals.
After the Warriors game on Thursday, the Clippers play the Spurs at Staples, a back-to-back. Then Charlotte and the Rockets before a road trip to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and then the Bulls. A one day home stand with the Celtics is not much relief before a back-to-back in Minnesota and Memphis. In other words, Chris Paul is going to get thrown in the fire face first.
Chris Paul’s season has been incomplete. The injury removed him from the lineup, a devastating turn in the young season. There is no replacement on the Clippers, not one person or two persons who can do what Chris Paul does. The offense is constructed around Chris Paul as the conductor. With fluidity and grace, he gets everyone into their spots and organizes the action. He is the emotional leader, the coach, friend, bully, organizer, cheerleader. Without him, the Clippers are erratic. Sometimes they look like they can survive his absence, other times they are drowning.
A 6-7 record in his absence has dropped the Clippers into a fragile place, the coveted 4th seed of the playoffs, but barely. Utah and Memphis are breathing down their neck. It has proven what is the most obvious NBA truth. Without Chris, the Clippers are a team fighting for a 7th or 8th playoff seed, a .500 club at best. It shines a light on Doc Rivers the GM and perhaps the wrong GM was let go. Doc has done a poor job of building a team that could sustain an injury to Paul and it is just as much the style of play as it is the personnel. They are not many creators, rim attackers, multiple skilled players on the Clippers. When Chris Paul is out, the offense is dysfunctional. When he is injured, the Clippers are boring. And not good.
That said, he isn’t the golden ticket either. In 2015, Chris and his team were in a good groove, up 3-1 to the Houston Rockets. They had a 17 point lead in Game 6, an elimination game, and blew it by sleepwalking through the last 15 minutes. They lost Game 7 in Houston.
In 2014, in the second round, the Clippers lost to Oklahoma City because Chris Paul’s turnovers late in the game cost them the victory.
In 2013, they lost in the first round to Memphis in seven games. The year before that….You get the point.
It goes on and on for Chris Paul.
No one likes to talk about curses in sports. They think it is a stupid concept that some evil fugue hangs over a team because of some kind of karmic energy. But let’s look at this with a logical eye.
Chris Paul was taken from the Lakers in December of 2011 and given to the Clippers, a Robin Hood-esque move, take from the rich, give to the poor. As an organization, the Lakers soon fell on their sword. But as David Stern intended, the Clippers prospered. Sort of.
Enter Doc Rivers. In 2014, Donald Sterling went bat sh*t crazy with racist comments that his girlfriend leaked to the world. The Clippers were in the middle of a first round series with the Warriors. It knocked them flat for a little bit but they recovered and beat the Warriors in 7 games. Next up was the Thunder and that game 5 and Chris Paul’s two turnovers with 17 seconds left that cost them the game and eventually the series. Paul wasn’t healthy with hamstring issues but he took all the blame for his poor decision making. The playoff woes would continue.
If it’s not injuries, then it’s poor play, and if its not poor play, then it’s Donald Sterling wrecking havoc, and if it’s not a racist owner so out of his lane, then it’s collapsing with a 3-1 lead. Or it is Chris Paul getting maimed.
Something always goes wrong. Against Portland in the playoffs of 2016, Paul’s hand slipped inside a jersey in a freak set of circumstances. Chris pulled to free his hand and it bent. Then broke.
The Clippers aren’t built for depth. They are paying three max players. So the roster is filled with the average, who Chris can push with his leadership, over the finish line. Without him, the leader is who exactly? And does it even matter?
Once upon a time, the Clippers were the team on the rise. They had the glamour point guard. They were Lob City. They pushed Donald Sterling into retirement. They had Doc Rivers. They had the country pulling for them.They beat the Warriors in the playoffs of 2014, a thrilling, exciting seven game set that had many thinking the Clippers had finally dethroned the Lakers mystique; they had arrived. But they lost in the next series to OKC. The following season, after changing coaches, the Warriors came back and shocked everyone, winning the title.
And so here is where they are. Yes, the Clippers get Chris Paul back in the fold. Their balance is restored. Their hero will have his cape on. The oxygen is back. But they are playing in Oracle where they have not won a regular season game in five years, before Draymond Green, when Klay Thompson was a rookie, before Andre Iguodala signed a free agent deal, before the Warriors were the Warriors.
They are the Warriors now. The Clippers are facing the defending Western Conference Champions, a title Chris Paul can only dream about for himself, and plan for. He has never been there, never taken his team that far in May. He has never been Steph Curry.
photo via llananba