As part of the ad campaign for Jordan Brand's new CP3 VI shoe I've been asked to write a series of posts on Chris Paul. This is an assignment I am happy to do.
The role of leading a basketball team invariably falls to the point guard. The point guard handles the ball, orchestrates the offense, directs his teammates, controls the tempo, so it's logical and beneficial that he be the team leader. This goes against conventional wisdom in the rest of society where the leadership role tends to go to the taller individuals. Think about -- in what other endeavor do we as a society self-organize by putting the smallest guy in charge?
An NBA point guard therefore finds himself in the seemingly difficult position of telling much bigger humans what to do. Chris Paul is barely six feet tall, but has to direct players like DeAndre Jordan, almost a foot taller and weighing at least 75 pounds more. Paul might need a step ladder to get in Jordan's face, but he's more than up to the task.
Paul relishes the leadership role. Any team he is on is undeniably his team. The Clippers are in an interesting position of having two players who can be considered the face of the franchise. Blake Griffin has been a Clipper longer, he's more exciting, he's more marketable. The Clippers continue to include Griffin and Paul equally in all of their promotional materials, and it is Griffin whose name is called last in pregame introductions. But make no mistake about who the leader of the team is. For one thing Griffin does not have an overly demonstrative personality, so it's not in his nature to be the vocal, visible leader. But it wouldn't much matter if he did; Paul is the team leader, and it wouldn't really work any other way.
Paul leads in many ways on and off the court. In Game 1 of the first round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies last season, the Clippers were behind by 23 with 10 minutes left in the game and Paul on the bench. Having just returned from a late season groin injury, everyone assumed that Paul was done for the evening. After all, the Clippers only needed to win one game in Memphis, and Game 1 certainly looked like a lost cause. But Paul wasn't having any of that -- he told coach Vinny Del Negro to put him back in the game, that he thought the Clippers could still win. Del Negro relented, Paul returned, and the Clippers completed perhaps the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history behind their determined leader.
Leadership is also about taking responsibility. In a February regular season game against San Antonio, the Clippers were inbounding up three with just 6 seconds left. As Paul broke open heading from the front court, Ryan Gomes threw the inbound pass too early, hitting Paul while he was still in the front court but with his momentum taking him into the backcourt. After catching the ball Paul threw it blindly before taking the backcourt violation, and the ball went straight to Gary Neal of the Spurs, who sank a three pointer to tie the game and force overtime, where the Clippers eventually lost.
After the game, Paul took full responsibility for the play.
Man, that was probably the worst play I've been a part of since I've been in the NBA. We were taking the ball out and we knew they had to foul. I was running to the backcourt when the ball came, and I didn't want to get a backcourt violation. So the dummy I am, I threw the ball and it went right to Gary Neal and he hit the 3.
Everyone who watched the game knew that Gomes had put Paul into an untenable position. And while it's also true that taking the violation, or throwing the ball out of bounds, or just about anything else would have been better than throwing it to Neal, most of that loss was on Gomes, not on Paul. But Paul never once mentioned Gomes in his public comments. He took responsibility for the mistake and he promised to do better the next time. Rest assured that in the privacy of the locker room Paul had some constructive criticism for Gomes as well, but in view of the public he took the loss on himself, because that's what a leader does.
It's commonly assumed in NBA circles that the Clippers can't really be a championship contender because Del Negro doesn't have enough experience and simply isn't a good enough coach to lead a championship caliber team. But what is overlooked in that assessment is Paul's impact as a "coach on the floor". Even the best coach can only do so much, preparing players and calling plays. At some point, it is up to the five players on the court to make plays with the coach reduced to the role of spectator. But if the Clippers' playbook is relatively simplistic, a team could do worse than running pick and roll with Paul on most possessions. Not to mention that crucial, late game possessions are going to benefit from Paul's skill and his leadership. The bottom line is that Paul's leadership makes Del Negro a better coach.
The Clippers finished with the best winning percentage in franchise history last season, and are in a position to be even better this year. Whether they can advance deep into the playoffs remains to be seen, but if they move into uncharted territory for the franchise we know who will be leading them there.