Playing in small market New Orleans, rarely on national TV, fighting and eventually losing an uphill battle in the MVP race with an established and prickly superstar, Chris Paul is an absolute darling of the NBA right now. And certainly with good reason. He's the most dominant small player certainly since Kevin Johnson, and you may have to go back further to the likes of Isiah Thomas and Tiny Archibald. It doesn't hurt that he's got a fair amount of star quality on camera, and that he's playing in a city that everyone is pulling for. The absence of sustained media coverage during the regular season has had the effect of highlighting a lot of positives (his stats, the New Orleans angle, the underdog) without the scrutiny that some over-exposed players get ('Kobe is selfish!', 'Duncan is boring!', 'Nash can't play defense!', 'LeBron is a crybaby!', 'Ginobili is a flopper!')
In fact, unless you developed a distaste for him in the ACC, perhaps owing to a loyalty to a rival Carolina basketball school, it's hard to imagine how anyone wouldn't love Chris Paul right now.
But I have a feeling that's gonna change.
My appreciation for Chris Paul the basketball player has increased significantly during the playoffs. But let's face it - eight games on national TV in three weeks is probably more than I've seen him in three years of regular season basketball. (The Hornets are often one of the teams the Clippers broadcasters don't happen to show, and this season there was a strange series of coincidences that had me out of town, unable to watch, for a couple of Clippers-Hornets games.) At any rate, the guy is amazing. He's obviously a gym rat who has developed every single junk shot around the basket - floaters, runners, scoops, pushes, spins, flips - and knows how to get them off around much bigger people. But what makes him different from a thousand other guys who do that sort of thing, is that his shots tend to go in. That, and the fact that he's the quickest player in the NBA, and no one can keep him out of the lane.
But for anyone whose been paying attention, we know that Chris Paul is no angel. Intentionally punching Julius Hodge below the belt during the ACC tournament three years ago was one of the uglier on court incidents involving a top player in awhile. And let's face it - that's the one the cameras caught. Based on the situation - dead ball, Hodge unsuspecting, Paul surreptitious - it's pretty clear that he had every intention of getting away with his low blow. He sucker punched little Julius, not because he was mad, not because he was in a fight, but because he thought he could. Which I find disquieting.
I included Manu Ginobili on the list of superstars who are scrutinized and in some circles disliked for a reason. Manu is a flopper, a grand tradition in soccer, the most popular sport in the world, and one elevated to an art form by his countrymen in Argentina. But I'm becoming convinced that Chris Paul is a practitioner of a much more insidious form of the flop - the dead-ball flop.
In each of the three Spurs games so far, Paul has tried a dead-ball flop. In the first two, he intentionally changed his route slightly to brush against Bruce Bowen, and then flew backwards, or crashed to the floor. The initial reaction of the announcers in each case was 'Oh, Bowen is getting physical with Paul' but the replays clearly showed that there was basically no contact, and that CP3 was just as responsible for the contact as Bowen. Last night, after the whistle blew on an illegal screen, Paul dribbled into the lane, brushed off of Fabricio Oberto, and went wildly spinning to the floor. Again, the replay showed that the contact was incredibly minor, and that Paul was clearly embellishing.
I despise the dead-ball flop, and here's why. A regular flop during the course of the game has an inherent risk - you're at a disadvantage if the referee doesn't make a call. If you're defending the post, and you fly backwards on a little bump when you could have chosen to remain upright, and there's no whistle, you're basically giving away an uncontested layup. I'm always intrigued by Jeff Van Gundy's tirades against flopping (good for him, incidentally) - he seems to imply that rule changes are necessary. Well, let's be clear - no one would flop if it didn't work. All that needs to happen to end flopping is for refs to stop rewarding it with calls. As a basketball player, I tended not to take risks. I didn't reach for steals, because even though sometimes it might have worked, it also leaves the defender at a disadvantage. That's not how I was taught to play. I feel the same way about flopping on defense. I never did it, because I was taught to play defense the right way. Other guys do it differently. (By the way, I led my high school team in drawn charges by a wide margin every year I played. I knew how to step in, and I knew how to let my body fly backwards on the contact - but there was always contact.
Tthe dead-ball flop is in no way a basketball play. The flopper is free to try it as many times as he likes, with no repercussions whatsoever (except perhaps the occasional scathing critique in obscure NBA blogs). Paul is VERY smart, and is looking for every advantage. He knows Bowen's reputation. If he can get a referee to buy his act, he can earn his team a technical free throw and perhaps even an ejection of an opponent. And if the referee isn't fooled, we go on to the next play, because as far as I know there has NEVER been a player punished in any way for this sort of chicanery.
These clever attempts by Paul to gain an advantage during a stoppage in play, when the referees focus is elsewhere, is of course perfectly consistent with the Julius Hodge situation as well. These are not isolated incidents. The guy is smart, he's devious, and he's trying to win the game however he can.
Of course, this is all in the grandest tradition of great point guards, perhaps as indicative of his pedigree as a perfectly executed pick and roll. John Stockton was arguably the dirtiest player in the NBA. Isiah Thomas was a complete asshole on the court. The same qualities that allow a comparative midget to fearlessly, sometimes ruthlessly, lead a team of giants (and to berate those much larger cohorts when they make a mistake) will lead them to bend the rules to create an advantage. These guys are tough. They're mean. And they are very, very smart. In fact, I'm sure if you asked Paul (or Stockton or Thomas), and if they were being honest in their answer, they'd say they're not breaking the rules at all. They would admit to trying to gain advantage using a means that contradicts the spirit of the game. But they also know that, for instance, it's not a foul if the refs not looking - and trust me, they know whether or not the ref is looking.
I'm not starting the "Chris Paul is a dirty player" club. I'm not calling for any rule changes. (Although the NBA does need to seriously consider fines for clear cut cases of dead-ball flops.) I'm just saying. The more exposure Chris Paul gets, the more people will really love his game. And there will also be a few who grow to dislike him - a lot - and for good reason.