Nowadays there’s lots of techniques for measuring just how good an NBA player really is. Honestly, there’s too many. There’s win shares, and PER, and real plus-minus. There’s VORP, and PIE, and offensive and defensive net ratings. In recent years the Clipper front office relied primarily on “D.O.C”, a complex and proprietary metric that produced rigorously-tested quantitative guidance for most of the team’s personnel moves.
Clipper fans have become more fluent in these measurements than most fan bases, and mostly not by choice. Perhaps more than any other star tandem in NBA history, the “how good is that guy really tho?” debate dogged Blake and Chris since the archangel David Stern (blessed be thy name) gifted us the pairing in December 2011.
For Blake, the issue was always optics. Even in his prime (and yes, he’s past his prime), Blake’s game did not translate well to a traditionalist’s eye test—his post moves graceless, his jumper questionable, his defense hampered by a limited wingspan. Combine that with all the dunks and Kia commercials and the whispers of dependence on Chris, and the doubt swirling around his stardom was somewhat inevitable.
For Chris, the issue was postseason achievement. No one doubted his talent or savvy—they doubted his dominance. How could someone that good never make it to the Western Conference Finals? Perhaps at his size and level of athleticism, he was always better suited as the second best player on a team. The heart of an alpha, stuck in the the body of a beta.
So Clipper Nation took refuge in the numbers. Chris was top 10 in PER since PER was invented. By any statistical measure, he is one of the greatest point guards of all time, and his playoff numbers only surpass his consistent excellence in the regular season.
There’s comfort in those numbers. There’s truth in them. But now, I fear that CP’s greatness will get lost in the simplifying impulses of collective basketball memory. People have already forgotten how fucking great Jason Kidd and Gary Payton were, and they led their teams to the NBA Finals. In the grand scheme of things, however dumb the “ringzzzz” argument is, our NBA histories are piloted by narrative, which statistics can bend but not hijack. Only tortured fan bases really remember the bad bounces and injuries and cruel quirks of fate that derailed the seasons they should have made it. A decade from now, the 30 for 30 on Lob City isn’t going to be titled this:
With his move to the Rockets, Chris is no longer the unquestionably best player on his team. His opportunity to lead a roster to a deep playoff run, to answer the questions that have unfairly dogged him the ladder half of his career, vanished with those late-night DM’s from Daryl Morey. In the “Nash vs CP” or “GP vs CP” or “Kidd vs CP” great point guard debates, the de facto tiebreaker will always be postseason achievement. And Chris will always lose that tiebreaker.
But there’s another narrative Chris doesn’t get enough credit for, a truly unique accomplishment that burnishes his legacy in a way that only Clipper fans really appreciate. Chris did something that neither Kidd nor Nash nor Payton ever did. He did something that Magic and Kobe and Timmy never had to do, that MJ and Lebron only kind of did, that no Celtic has ever had to do...ever.
Chris Paul transformed the perception of an NBA franchise more than any other player in the history of the NBA. Clipper fans will always be grateful for that. You’ll never love a player like we loved him.
We would have killed for Craig Ehlo
Seven years ago, the Clippers were a laughingstock—literally. Before Chris Paul, you would mention you were a Clipper fan in L.A., and there was a good chance the person you were talking to thought you were joking. Every Clipper fan over the age of 25 has had an exchange like this one, either with a coworker or friend or frequently with the father of the girl you were dating.
“So, I hear you’re an NBA fan. Who’s your team?”
“Hahahaha! Good one. No seriously, what’s your team?”
“Al Thornton is going to be an All-Star.”
“Please stop dating my daughter.”
There is no other fan base in the NBA that endured the level of derision Clipper fans were forced to swallow before Chris Paul. It’s not close. Look, I know it must have sucked to be a Cavs fan before Lebron—but that franchise made the playoffs 13 times before they drafted him. We made it four times. In 30 years. We had Dan Dickau run point for us for an entire season. We would have fucking killed to have Craig Ehlo.
The Clippers were so bad for so long, we transcended sports. People who didn’t follow basketball knew the Clippers were synonymous with a special kind of haplessness. I remember listening to NPR in the car with my mom on my way home from junior high school, and Terry Gross was interviewing someone who made an offhand comparison to the Clippers to underline his point (“FEMA is like the Clippers of federal agencies” or something like that). And Terry Gross laughed and said, “Yeah, they’re really bad, right? The basketball team?” Teri Gross threw shade on us.
While fans of the Red Sox or Cubs or Bills or Vikings or Blues were deemed “cursed” and “tortured”, and afforded appropriate sports fan empathy, Clipper fans were greeted with a confused scorn.
There was no accident of geography that made us Clipper fans, like Mets fans born in the wrong borough or even Angels fans born in Orange County. We could easily root for the Lakers. Why would we put up with this shit?
We had our reasons. Some of us were transplants, a red-eye away from the teams of our youth who didn’t mind the losing if it meant young talent, cheap tickets and the occasional Ron Harper-led victory. Others (like me and Kid Ink) were Kobe defectors, Southern California born-and-bred dissidents who found an antidote to the mamba in the carefree dunks and eternally dope Nike commercials of Darius, Q, Corey and Lamar. Some came to us with Elton and Sam, who brought a fleeting taste of what success felt like. Whatever our motivations, all of us were underdog junkees in one form or another—addicts to the blend of stubborn hope and masochism that kept us praying Elgin’s sweater would finally prove lucky on lottery night, year after year.
In 2010, we were cautiously hopeful. Blake appeared to be the real deal, winning Rookie of the Year, leading us to a semi-respectable win total, making us shit our Shaun Livingston-stained pants every time he recklessly dunked over a car or an Eastern European.
But we were still “the Clippers.” The curse would rear its head at some point, every sports columnist in the country warned us. Blake was one awkward landing away from suffering the same fates as Danny Manning, Shaun Livingston and countless others. And if the injury gods wouldn’t doom him, Donald Sterling would. No star could rise above the dysfunction of the franchise. Something was rotten in Staples—and always would be.
Blake was exciting, and we resented the tired tripe we had heard from sportswriters for decades. But I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a part of me that believed them. I had watched Shaun’s knee, and Elton’s achilles, and the profound misery of the Baron Davis-Dunleavy Sr. era. Sterling was a nightmare, and you could feel the players didn’t like being there.
The doubts lingered through December. Until David Stern (blessed be thy name) gave Clipper fans the greatest Christmas gift in NBA history.
“Dude. We got Chris Paul. Holy shit.”
On December 15, 2011, I refreshed ESPN.com’s NBA page over and over and over again until Marc Stein finally made it official. “Rumors: Paul to Clippers” and “Sources: Paul to Clippers” and “Report: Paul to Clippers” weren’t good enough for something of this magnitude.
I wanted real confirmation before I let myself pick up the phone. And as soon as I got it...
My friend Sam: “Dude!”
Me: “Chris Paul!”
Me: “Chris Paul!”
Sam: “Holy shit!
Me: “Holy shit holy shit holy shit!”
Sam: “What about EJ tho?”
Me: “EJ.....Uhhhh....Chris Paul?”
Sam: “Chris Paul!”
After 17 similarly articulate conversations with other Clipper fans, I started in on the dark side. These were even more enjoyable.
Laker Fan: “Whoa, Matt. I haven’t heard from you in awhile. How’s it...”
“Hahaha yeah, heard about that. Man Stern really screwed us on that one. Looks like you guys finally have a bona fide....”
“Yeup, he’s pretty good. Almost singlehandedly beat us in the playoffs. Him and Blake could be...”
“Jesus, are you guys going to be this obnoxious now? He’s not Kobe.”
“Whatever dude. He’ll probably get decapitated in your home opener anyway. Or Sterling will trade him for Brian Skinner and some picks. Kobe’s got at least another 15 years in him. ”
While some corners of Clipper Nation rightly fretted that there was no way to get equal value for Chris Kaman, most who had watched Paul play immediately realized the implications of the trade. If lightning didn’t strike his plane to L.A.—a scenario Vegas was pricing at about -350—he would be the best player to ever don a Clipper uniform. We were immediately a playoff team. We were arguably a contender.
Chris Paul was only 26-years-old when we got him, right in the middle of his prime. While it’s tough to separate younger Chris from the cerebral hard-ass he became in his later years, New Orleans Chris Paul was an absolute joy to watch play basketball. Some hyper-intelligent blend of Isiah and Magic, he was the rare player both you and your Dad could enjoy watching: YouTube-worthy handles and a relentless defender, quicker and smarter than anyone on the court, a player who enjoyed shitting on his opponents while elevating his teammates. And his team won games. Every year, when healthy, his team won games.
But there was something else about Chris that seemed uniquely well-suited to us. He may have been in the league only a few seasons, but he looked and felt like a consummately polished vet. While occasionally veering into the corny, Paul navigated interviews with an expertise beyond his years, delivering perfect soundbites the media never really could do anything with. There was a practiced, diplomatic class to off-the-court Chris Paul that the franchise had never really enjoyed from it’s star player before (you could argue Elton had a lot of those qualities, but Elton was never the star Chris was when he got here). Chris could have easily been the 12th guy in Ocean’s Eleven, and blended in perfectly. Everyone else on screen would instantly have averaged 3 points more per game.
Most importantly, he seemed to genuinely embrace the underdog role that came with the franchise’s reputation. Maybe it was his height. Maybe it was because he wasn’t a top recruit coming out of high school and went to the fourth best basketball program in his home state. But the collection of talent, ego and edge, wrapped in a “is this guy running for office?” wholesomeness—it was straight from central casting.
My buddy Mitch offered me a ticket to the Clippers-Lakers preseason game, just a few days after the trade was completed. Mitch and I had been going to games together since high school, and we knew what to expect for these so-called “rivalry” games when the Clippers had homecourt: about half of Staples genuinely hostile at the Lakers, the other half clad in purple and gold, largely uninterested, amused by the animosity but not remotely bothered by it.
Walking to Mitch’s seats near the visitor’s tunnel, you could feel the vibe was different. Staples was still about half filled with Lakers fans—but there was legitimate tension in the stands. Chris was loudly cheered and jeered when he was announced. When Blake dunked over Andrew Bynum in the opening minutes, I honestly thought a fight might break out. All this—in a preseason game.
I turned to Mitch.
“They’re threatened. For the first time, they’re actually threatened.”
“Yeup,” said Mitch. “It’s fucking great.”
Happiness is a warm lob
Because the lockout meant the Clippers basically played 18 nights a week, that season was an absolute whirlwind—and a joy. Paul was brilliant, averaging 20 and 9 and emerging as the closer that won those games young Clipper teams of the past would always squander late. I remember one game in February in Philadelphia—a Grammy road trip game the Clippers would ALWAYS fucking lose—where Paul hit the game-winner. You could tell Ralph Lawler was close to openly weeping on air. Mike Smith’s erection nearly blocked out the screen.
The team was genuinely fun to watch. Staples was electric in a way it had never been for the Clippers. The crowd would obnoxiously overreact to any lob from Chris to Blake. The bench would obnoxiously overreact to any dunk. Mike Smith would obnoxiously overreact to any sprained ankle. It was wonderful.
Los Angeles will always be a Laker town. But the Clipper fan base expanded exponentially that year. For the first time ever, you’d see just as many 10-year-olds wearing Blake and Chris jerseys at an L.A.-area mall as you’d see Laker jerseys. Bandwagon fans would show up in surprising numbers at opposing arenas. League pass nerds adopted us en masse. We were the Timberwolves before the Timberwolves.
Most of all, the team won. Forty and 26, just a game behind the Lakers, easily securing a 5-seed. Clipper Nation was just elated to be back in the playoffs again for the first time since 2006. The team was talented, sure—and Paul was other-worldly. But they were young, poorly coached, and had little time to gel during a lockout-shortened season. Our expectations were tempered—we were just happy to be there.
We weren’t expecting the sledgehammer that was the first three quarters of Game 1 against Memphis, though. The Grizzlies—another underdog team some of us may have cheered in prior seasons—stomped us for 36 minutes, openly mocking us along the way. The texts from Laker fans rolled in—”Guess Stern didn’t screw us that much”, “Same old Clippers, just flop more”, “Good god this is embarrassing.”
But Chris provided us with another first that season: an epic playoff comeback.
The following morning, I got texts from friends who didn’t even follow basketball very closely asking about the comeback. After we gutted out an incredibly physical series in seven, we had another first—a bitter playoff rival we genuinely despised.
When the Clippers were swept by the Spurs the following round, Clipper Nation was disappointed but not heartbroken. The season had been transformative, and with players as talented as Paul and Griffin, the future was assured.
At least for one more season.
“No way he’s coming back after next year,” your Laker fans friend reminded you. “He’s a free agent, and no free agent ever re-signs with the Clippers.”
Next Week: Part II—Why You Haven’t Seen Any Clipper Fan Burn a Chris Paul Jersey
Shout-out to the homie Connor for the ‘shops. Connor, you are the Chris to my Willie Green.