Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
While Chris Paul was out of the Clippers lineup we saw how valuable he is to his team. Does that make him the most valuable player in the league?
When Chris Paul first missed time with his bruised knee cap in mid January, the Clippers proceeded to win three straight games without him, posting impressive road wins in Memphis and Houston along the way. I joked at the time that it was the worst thing that could happen to Paul's MVP campaign -- he wasn't really that important to the Clippers after all, they could still win without him.
It turns out that the Clippers were in that adrenaline-filled phase directly after a star is injured where everyone else steps up and plays great to make up for the star's absence. It can work for a bit (and may be some sort of short term effect of the Ewing Theory to use Bill Simmons' term) but it's not sustainable. The Celtics have experienced a similar situation after losing Rajon Rondo, but they'll clearly miss him before too long.
Sure enough, after those first three wins (and including three games in which Paul played, but was clearly far from completely healthy) the Clippers proceeded to lose eight of their next 12. Since his return to full health, they've won three in a row by double digits and again look like one of the best teams in the league. In raw numbers (and ignoring the Golden State and Miami losses where Paul was clearly not himself to avoid accusations of manipulating the data), the Clippers are 6-6 in games without Chris Paul this season, 32-11 in games with him. That 32-11 equates to a winning percentage of .744, six one thousandths behind Oklahoma City, right on the heels of San Antonio. If we take only games where Paul was closer to full strength, the team is more like 31-9, a .775 winning percentage.
The bottom line is that with Chris Paul, the Clippers have battled for the best record in the NBA this season, while without him they are a .500 team -- probably worse if you eliminate the impact of that honeymoon period.
But unlike the other leading candidates for MVP, it's more difficult to comprehend Paul's impact. LeBron James is a dominant physical force who is unstoppable on the court, especially lately. Kevin Durant is an otherworldly scorer with a combination of length, skill and range that is frankly unfair. Chris Paul? He's a six foot guy whose really smart and a pretty good shooter. Obviously he's really, really good, but his impact seems to be disproportionate to what we can see with the naked eye.
I'm not here to explain that discrepancy. It's certainly there, but I'm not smart enough to quantify it. Paul is widely accepted as the best leader in the NBA, and his very presence on the court just makes the Clippers better. He's one of five players, but somehow the spacing is better when he plays, the ball movement is better when he plays. Heck, the second unit is better when he plays, and he's not even playing with them! Does he tell everyone where to go, tell them what do do? Do they all do their jobs better because they know he'll hold them accountable if they don't? I don't know. But everything about the team makes more sense with Chris Paul.
Does Paul have a realistic shot at the MVP trophy this season? He has a couple of things going for him. For one thing, the Clippers remain one of the best stories in the NBA right now, and MVP voters tend to pick a narrative as much as they pick a player (which is a big reason that Derrick Rose won two seasons ago). There's also the simple fact that MVP voters like to spread the love around. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each won MVP hardware while Michael Jordan was at the top of his game. I doubt that anyone believed that Barkley or Malone were actually better than Jordan, but sometimes you just want to vote for someone else.
Unfortunately for Paul, neither Barkley nor Malone won the award while Jordan was having his BEST season, which is what LeBron happens to be doing right now. Barring a massive drop off in his productivity (or possibly an injury), there's simply no way that LeBron James doesn't win another MVP this year. He's the best player, and he's in the midst of his best season. Voters will have no choice but to recognize those facts.
But value -- value to a team, value in winning games -- comes in many forms and is not always easy to define. LeBron James hasn't missed a game this season, nor has Kevin Durant. That fact alone will make them more attractive to MVP voters, as their durability is an asset as well. We know what happens to the Clippers when Paul goes out of the lineup. Would losing LeBron impact the Heat as much? What would Durant's absence do to the Thunder? That we don't know. But I suspect that we'd see out just how valuable Chris Paul is if we found out.