Name: Chris Paul
2012-2013 Key Stats: 16.9 ppg, 9.7 apg, 3.7 rpg, 2.4 spg
Years in NBA: 8
Years With Clippers: 2
2012-2013 Salary: $16,359,805
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
In A Nutshell:
In a nutshell? Chris Paul is the best point guard, and the third best player, in the NBA. He was named first team All-NBA for the second straight season and was a starter in the All Star Game. He was fourth in MVP voting behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony (I have no argument with the first two). He's been with the Los Angeles Clippers for two seasons, and in each of them the Clippers have had their highest regular season winning percentage in franchise history -- and they'll probably set the record again next season.
But for all of his accomplishments, Paul has never had much post-season success, and this year was particularly painful. After taking a two games to none lead in their first round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers proceeded to lose four in a row, bombing out of the playoffs in the first round, a bitter disappointment after advancing to the conference semis last year. Paul was incredible in the playoffs -- you certainly couldn't hang the first round loss on him -- but his teammates let him down. The timing of the flameout could not have been worse for the Clippers, as Paul will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Might he look elsewhere to pursue an NBA championship?
Paul is so good on the basketball court that it is almost futile to try to single out his specific strengths. He does everything well. Still, there are a few things that he does super-exceptionally well.
He is commonly considered the best leader in the game. His basketball IQ is off he charts as is his competitive drive. He is constantly in command of every aspect of the game, encouraging or scolding teammates as needed. Paul is so smart that he makes plays that no other NBA player would ever think to make. On one end of quarter possession this season, Paul was trying to engineer a two-for-one by shooting with about 30 seconds remaining on the game clock (something at which he is a master). When the missed shot was slapped into the backcourt on the rebound, Paul gave chase, saw that he wasn't under pressure, and allowed the ball to roll until there were only 24 seconds left on the game clock -- assuring that the Clippers would have the final possession. Who does that?
He is one of the few remaining true point guards in the game, a pass first guy who would much rather get an assist than a basket. He was second in the NBA in assists per game this season at 9.7 -- despite playing a career low 33.4 minutes per game in Vinny Del Negro's deeper rotation. His handle is without equal as is his court vision -- he can take the ball with him anywhere he needs to go, and then deliver it to a teammate at the perfect time and place. It's not by accident that players from Willie Green to Matt Barnes have career years playing beside Paul.
His quick hands and uncanny basketball instincts also serve him well on the defensive end, where he led the league in steals for the third consecutive season. He is always thinking a couple of moves ahead -- and invariably knows what his opponent is going to do before he knows himself.
And although his preference is to pass-first, he is also a terrific scorer. His mid-range game is among the best in the league, making a Chris Paul pick-and-roll a real pick-your-poison scenario -- if you try to jump him he'll split the double team, if you're not aggressive enough he'll turn the corner, if you go under he'll hit the jump shot, and of course he'll find the roll man if he's open. The Clippers and Del Negro took plenty of criticism for having an unimaginative offense this season -- but frankly, you could do worse than a steady diet of Paul pick-and-rolls.
He doesn't have many. Ironically, although Paul was once again named first team All-Defense this year, he's actually not a great defender. He's not bad, and he's clearly excellent when it comes to creating turnovers and getting steals, but his size can be exploited by bigger guards, and he can have trouble staying in front of the quickest point guards in the league. Again, he's not bad, but relative to the rest of his game, it's an area where he could be stronger. (It's just another example of how poorly good defense is understood that he is considered one of the two best defensive guards in the league -- he clearly is not.)
Another quibble (and I'm really nitpicking here, it must be said) is that Paul tends to defer too much early in games. His preference is to pass, and especially early, he tries to get his teammates involved, many times to the detriment of the offense. It is not at all unusual to see Paul pass up a 12 footer early in a shot clock only to have the Clippers wind up with a much worse shot.
Late in games he sometimes has a different problem -- in an attempt to milk as much clock as possible, the Paul-led Clippers have displayed a tendency to get tentative while nursing a lead late in games. On several occasions this season that cost them, or nearly did. Paul's a patient fellow, and tends to prefer to use a lot of clock in general -- hopefully we'll find out next season whether this tendency to allow the game to stagnate while playing with a lead was Paul's issue or Del Negro's.
Future with the Clippers:
Paul is an unrestricted free agent. All of his public comments regarding the Clippers have always been very positive: he's always characterized himself as very happy as a Clipper, and he says he loves living in L.A. However the playoff loss could be viewed as a reason not to re-sign, especially since Paul did everything he could in the postseason but the rest of the team faltered. There was also a story recently quoting unnamed sources saying that Paul was unhappy with the Clippers for allowing his name to be tied to the fact that Del Negro's contract was not extended. Does this all mean that Paul will leave this summer? Paul could of course sign elsewhere -- he has that option. But would he?
The simple answer is no -- not the way I see it.
Was the playoff loss a disappointment? Sure. Is Donald Sterling a bad owner who put his foot in his mouth regarding the Del Negro situation, making Paul look bad? Yup. But even given those issues, ask yourself this: where is he going to go that will be better?
There are a very limited number of teams with enough cap space to sign Paul; fewer still with the space to sign Paul and someone else. The destinations most frequently floated as possible for Paul by those with an interest in building suspense over his future are Dallas and Atlanta. But if the lack of playoff success in L.A. this season was the big problem, would Paul really have a better chance of winning in either of those places? Is a 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki a better running mate for the next five years than a 24-year-old Blake Griffin? As for the idea of Paul teaming up with Dwight Howard or elsewhere, I'm not buying it. Paul has watched Howard whine through the last three seasons -- why would one of the most competitive players in the NBA want any part of that? Paul can call Kobe and ask him what it's like to play with Dwight.
Paul fully understands what the L.A. market has done for him. Would Cliff Paul exist if Chris Paul had not come to the Clippers? He's charming, he's telegenic, he's smart and he's media savvy. He's a terrific guest on Kimmel and Leno. The L.A. market has done wonders for Paul's Q-score and earning potential. As for Donald Sterling, he may be a bad owner, but he has signed the checks for two years and Paul hasn't seemed to mind.
L.A. is the right team and the right market for Paul. Paired with another superstar in his prime in a major market, he'll have a legitimate chance to compete for a title. He has a tremendous amount of influence with the front office -- and while he may profess to not having asked for that influence, you can rest assured that he likes having it. The fact that the Clippers can pay him more than any other team is just one more thing. He'll sign with the Clippers after politely listening to a couple of other pitches -- and then he'll get down to the business of trying to build a championship level partnership with Blake Griffin over the next five seasons.