The 80’s had Bird vs. Magic, and the Celtics-Lakers rivalry that propelled the NBA to national prominence. The 90’s had Jordan’s dominance. The 00’s had the Shaq-Kobe fued, which broke apart the Lakers and overshadowed Tim Duncan’s continual, consistent dominance. And the 2010’s had the Banana Boat, stemming from this semi-hilarious picture, a group consisting of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul that dominated both headlines and behind the scenes during their years in the NBA.
Chris Paul is the one that is forgotten about. The one not in that 2003 draft class, along with Chris Bosh. The one that (until recently) had never been to a conference finals. The one nicknamed Point-God, an affection that was fun during the regular season and depressing during playoffs. The one who barked and stomped and pouted around the court, and the one who was polished and friendly off the court. The one – not LeBron, not Wade, not anyone else – whose been the NBA player’s union president since 2013, and the one who had a major role in ending the 2011 lockout. Carmelo has the Olympic records and the NCAA tournament win at Syracuse. Wade has the 2006 Finals and two other rings, as well as an adorable marriage with Gabrielle Union. LeBron is one of the three greatest players of all time. Chris Paul has a bunch of State Farm commercials.
It shouldn’t be easy to forget about Chris Paul. He’s the best pure point guard the league had seen since Isiah Thomas, the best passer since Jason Kidd, able to walk the line between controlling the game and allowing his teammates to succeed as well. Some of that has been sapped by changes in the NBA playing style; with such an emphasis on threes and pace, “controlling” the game doesn’t exist; a team that is down ten points can suddenly be down only one in under a minute. Other parts of his game have declined due to age and injuries, many of them to his knees and legs, forcing Paul to gradually adjust his game.
The injuries are his “what if”, along with that vetoed trade to the LA Lakers. When Paul was originally drafted, his quickness and balance were Kyrie-like, able to maintain his momentum while bouncing off bigger players before twisting into some awkward floater or layup that would kiss the glass as it banked in. During his rookie season, he averaged 16.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 7.8 apg, and 2.2 steals per game, almost winning the Rookie of the Year award unanimously; by his third year, Paul finished runner up to Kobe Bryant after putting up one the single greatest point guard seasons ever. 21.1 ppg, 11.6 apg, and 2.7 spg, first team All-NBA and All-Defense, and carrying the Hornets to a franchise record 56 wins and a second round exit versus the Spurs, putting up 24-12-5 over 12 games. There was no reason to think Paul wouldn’t reach those heights again.
The next season, Paul put up almost identical stats, but the Hornets record fell as the supporting cast around him faded a little and the team was eliminated in Round 1. The season after that was even worse; Coach Byron Scott was fired within the first month of the season – a move that Paul was keenly disappointed in – and in February he tore the cartilage in his left knee, forcing him to miss a month of the season and changing that quickness and balance from otherworldly to above average. By 2011, the Hornets were owner-less and without a future, and Paul was traded to the Clippers after a botched deal with the Lakers.
The Clippers years were erratic, bouts of brilliance and productiveness combined with the worst luck and self sabotage at the exact wrong times. In 2014, Paul lead the Clippers to 57 wins, only to be bounced in the second round when, being tied 2-2, he blundered and botched the Clippers to a loss against the Thunder, causing them to lose the pivotal Game 5 and eventually the series. In 2015, he hit a magnificent series winning floater over Tim Duncan on a pulled hamstring, then blew a 3-1 lead versus the Rockets, which happened because Josh Smith and Corey Brewer went bananas. In 2016, somehow both Paul and Griffin sustained season ending injuries in Game 4 of the first round series against the Trail Blazers; the Clippers lost the series in 6. By 2017, it appeared that Paul’s window for titles had passed him by, and he would be another Charles Barkley or Karl Malone – a great who never lifted the trophy.
Sometimes narratives change, however. Dirk Nowitzki was known as a choker (because of those ridiculously officiated 2006 Finals), soft (because he was European), and a fraud who would never, ever, be good enough to win a trophy. Then Dallas traded for Tyson Chandler, the West opened up for a split second, and Dirk guided his team to the Finals against the Miami Heat in 2011 and won, producing some astonishing performances along the way. In Game 5, when it became clear that the Mavericks were going to win the title, Dirk ran to the locker room and cried, overwhelmed by the fact that he had managed to overcome the labels surrounding him. And know Dirk is known as an NBA champion, one of the Top 20 players of all time, and the owner of possible the best Twitter account by an NBA player.
The circumstances are a little different with Chris Paul – he is not the best player on the team, James Harden is – but a title for him would mean something very similar, a validation of his talents and skills and production. The Houston Rockets are the last best chance Paul has got to reach the mountain top. And Paul is making damn sure that he is putting everything he has got on the table.
Which brings us to Tuesday night, and the Rockets are losing by three at home in Game 5 versus the Utah Jazz, and Donovan Mitchell, the tenth pick in last years draft, just dropped 22 points in the third quarter to retake the lead, and James Harden is sick and not playing well, and Chris Paul was the only player that could drag the Rockets back into the game and ensure that the series wouldn’t go back to Utah.
And he dragged the Rockets back.
He hit step-back threes. He dropped dimes to PJ Tucker for more threes. He tickled and tortured Rudy Gobert on switches, before blowing past him and laying the ball into the hoop. He hit mid-range fallaways. He exploited every gap in the Utah defense, every sliver of space. And he hit the final dagger, an outrageous three pointer with Royce O’Neal draped over him that banked in off the glass and finished the series for good.
Making the Finals, letting alone winning it, is not going to be easy for the Rockets. First, they have to get past the best team the league has seen since Jordan’s Bulls in the Golden State Warriors. Even if they win that series, they will most likely face LeBron James, and with the form that he is in, the Rockets will have a tough series.
But there is still a chance, and if there is still a a chance, then Paul, like Dirk before him, or Kevin Garnett, or Rasheed Wallace, can change his legacy with every basket and every assist. Chris Paul as a player will not change; he will still be the pest pure point guard I have ever seen, and one of the most iconic players of this generation of NBA players, a force on and off the court. But our perception of Chris Paul will change, from perennial underachiever and choker to one of the most underrated and under appropriated stars the NBA has seen, and it won’t be so easy to forget about Chris Paul then.