The Highs and Lows of Chris Paul’s Gamble

Four years ago when Chris Paul was in a playoff game against the Houston Rockets, there was the expectation that Paul had finally turned a corner and gotten the monkey off his back. Known as the best player never to make a conference final, Paul was at the threshold of his own history. That it was with the Clippers, (a franchise seemingly doomed by their own tortured saga), didn’t matter to Paul. In fact, Donald Sterling’s exit seemed to open the door for a spectacular season of scoring, defense, dunks and excellence.

It had been a long wait for the team that left San Diego and landed in tinsel town as an afterthought. But 30 years later, the 2014-15 Clippers were about to make history and Chris Paul was the face of the franchise. The team was up 3-2 and were at home to clinch a spot in the conference final, their first in franchise history.

What the Clippers were about to accomplish was even more dynamic because in a Lakers vacuum they were the toast of the city. They had all the attention and focus while the Lakers were in lottery hell. It was a stunning turn of events for the Los Angeles Clippers. Finally, they were being noticed. Finally, the boos from bitter Lakers fans didn’t matter. Finally, they met the moment.

For 24 minutes, at least.

In the second half of Game 6, with Paul on the bench, and Harden on the bench, the Rockets began launching threes to cut into the huge deficit. A 19 point lead. Then a 10 point lead. Josh Smith hit a three and the lead was 5. A layup for Josh Smith and the Clippers led by 3 with five minutes left. All those old Clippers ghosts returned. As if to mock the team the city loves second, Dwight Howard made a free throw to make it a two point game. Corey Brewer put the Rockets up by 3. By the time James Harden entered the game it was over. The Rockets had a 9 point lead.  They scored 40 points in the 4th quarter while the Clippers only scored 15. Chris Paul’s great moment dissolved in an instant.

Game 7 was in Houston. Chris Paul had 26 points and 10 assists. Blake Griffin had 27 points and 11 rebounds. But, it was a wrap. The Clippers lost by 13. Afterwards, the mood was funereal. How would they ever overcome this?

Two years later, Paul had enough and engineered his way out. Matched with James Harden, Paul’s toughness blended with Harden’s scoring talent would create a dynamic backcourt. Where Harden was weak, defense and postseason mediocrity, Paul thrived.

At least on paper.

Harden’s scoring talent mixed with Dwight Howard’s front court dominance was also supposed to do special things. That didn’t work out either.

2.

Houston was a Chris Paul gamble. James Harden was a gamble. But Chris Paul measures himself against his own toughness. He’s a leader that brings everyone else along, sometimes dragging and kicking. Stylistically, he creates tension. Everyone doesn’t care about winning the way Chris does. He’s a perfectionist and is talented at energy consumption. He despises laziness. His experience gives him a perspective that can be inflexible. It’s his way.

Months after his Houston failure sent him to Oklahoma City, Paul admits he and James Harden don’t talk. Over the summer, a report that Harden and Paul had blowups in the postseason was squashed as untrue, a reporter making up something for clickbait. It was used to characterize how reporters hate James Harden and the Rockets. But Paul admitted it was true when interviewed by ESPN for The Undefeated though he downplayed its impact. “It’s life. It happens. It is what it is.”

The truth is the Rockets chose Harden over Paul the way the Lakers chose Kobe over Shaq. The optics are the same. The younger talent was the one who was coveted.

There are a lot of what ifs in this new Chris Paul geography that has him in Oklahoma City. If he had a contract that wasn’t so enormous would he still be in Houston? If he had some kind of middle ground with Harden, could the relationship be saved? If Houston’s coach was someone other than Mike D’Antoni, would Chris not have been the fall guy?

But Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City. It seems likely that he will be traded but his contract is enough to make franchises pause. Paul will be 35 years old next season and making $41 million, averaging 15 -17 points.  It’s the kind of salary that ruins the cap. Developmental teams aren’t interested in veterans like Paul, hard ass perfectionists that ruin the confidence of fragile young players. And most playoff teams don’t have the cap space to make it possible. The ones that do are cautious. Is Chris Paul worth it? Is his output worth sucking the cap dry?

Unlike many of his peers, All-Stars who were traded to a lottery team, Paul is playing hard in OKC. He’s a competitor. But he’s not the best point guard in the NBA. He’s not in the top-5 anymore. His Point God compliment has been retired.

In OKC, he’s averaging a career low 6 assists. 1.8 assists less than his rookie year. His offensive rating and PER are still Chris Paul worthy and he still defends. He’s going to give everything once he’s on the court. As he puts it, he likes to hoop too much to sulk.

While difficulties arise being away from his family, Chris Pauli s enjoying the OKC experience. After Los Angeles and Houston, it gives Paul perspective. Young talents like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander need veteran mentors. Chris Paul doesn’t need OKC but OKC needs Chris Paul.

And that’s been the Chris Paul paradox. Needing one thing and getting something else. Lob City seemed the perfect spot until it wasn’t. Houston was a chance to shape a team in his image but the team was already in Harden’s image.

OKC loves Chris Paul because he competes every night. He doesn’t complain nor is he fixated about being traded. He wants to win but the Thunder are too young and don’t have enough proven veterans. They’ll be competitive because of Paul but they’ll lose close games on the road.

Nevertheless, the Chris Paul lesson remains. Be hard. Play hard. Compete.