Chris Paul is now 37 years old, and in the latter years of his NBA career. It’s especially during these points of time when we focus on a player’s legacy and how they’ll be remembered. However, at this point in time, Paul’s legacy is a bit confusing.
How can a player be considered such a winner, yet a loser at the same time?
If you’re confused by what I mean, let me explain. Paul is one of the most valuable players in the NBA; not the best, but most valuable (there is a difference). When you look at his career, every team he’s gone to has improved due to his presence. However, while he’s been able to lead teams to more wins and deep playoff runs, he’s never been able to lead his teams to a championship.
Can one of the league’s greatest winners also be one of its largest losers? Or is there something else going on? Let’s find out.
The New Orleans Hornets were one of the worst teams in the NBA, but under the reign of Paul and the coaching of Byron Scott, they quickly became a playoff team. After the Hornets, Paul was to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers to team up with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, but because David Stern vetoed the trade, he ended up with the Clippers. The Clippers were a sorry franchise, with an even sorrier owner in Donald Sterling.
However, the team as a whole was solid. With athletic big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles quickly became known as “Lob City” due to all the lobs Paul threw and the amazing finishes Griffin and Jordan made. They had a solid supporting cast, with J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Reggie Bullock, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green, and later Paul Pierce. The team was poised to make deep title runs year after year.
The season before Paul arrived, in 2011, the Clippers went 30-52, finishing as the 13th seed in the Western Conference. However, the next season, with Paul playing point guard, the team dramatically improved, going 40-26 in the lockout season. After not making the playoffs at all, the Clippers lost in the second round in the 2012 playoffs, to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the San Antonio Spurs.
In 2012-13, Paul’s second season with the Clippers, the team finished 56-26, while Paul led the league in steals for the third season in a row. It’s not a huge surprise that the team improved further in 2013, because, as Steve Kerr said, a team really gels and comes together in their second year. While the team lost in the first round of the playoffs, they continued to get better and better.
One easy way to see Paul’s impact on the Clippers is by win shares. Win shares are a stat that estimates the number of wins contributed by a player to his team. In his first season with the Clippers, Paul contributed 12.7 win shares, and led the league with 10.4 offensive win shares. This means that Paul accounted for roughly 13 of the Clippers’ wins that season, which can be seen in the change in record. In addition, by leading the league in offensive win shares, that means that on the offensive end, Paul was the most important player in the entire NBA when it came to getting his team extra wins. During the 2012-13 season, Paul increased his win shares to 13.9, meaning he accounted for almost 14 of the Clippers wins that season.
Before the 2013-14 season started, head coach Vinny Del Negro was let go, and the Clippers traded for their new head coach, Doc Rivers. Yes, traded; they gave up a 2015 first-round pick to acquire Rivers from the Celtics. The Clippers went 57-25, while Paul averaged 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, and 2.5 steals, leading the league in assists and steals. Paul also led the league in assist percentage, with 48.9%. Assist percentage is an advanced stat that shows the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted on when they were on the floor.
This means that when Paul was on the floor, he accounted for nearly half of his teammates’ buckets with assists. It’s no wonder to see why his win shares are so high, and why he makes such a positive impact on his team. Paul would average around the same mark in assist percentage during the next two seasons, and as a result, his teammates improved. Jordan went from a solid starting center to a double-double machine who led the league in rebounding twice and in field goal percentage five times, while being named an All-Star for the first and only time in his career. Griffin had his best years in the NBA with Paul and Coach Rivers, while Reddick led the NBA in three-point percentage (47.5%) with Paul as his point guard.
Without Paul, these Clippers would have been a 30-win team until around 2015, and would have likely only improved a few games here and there with Griffin’s development. The team may have had their first 40-win season during the 2015-16 season, if everyone else stayed on the roster and they just got rid of Paul.
So, the moral of the story? Paul was the Clippers during his time there. They would have been another team stuck in NBA purgatory without him – too good to tank, too bad to contend or even make the playoffs.
The same is true with the other teams Paul has been a part of. The Houston Rockets were already a playoff team that was making solid playoff runs every year, thanks to James Harden. However, during the 2017-18 season, the Rockets were one game away from the NBA Finals; and they likely wouldn’t have lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals if it weren’t for a fluke hamstring injury on Paul’s part and a historic meltdown from Houston in Game Seven. The Rockets had another solid playoff run in 2019, before Paul was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On the Thunder, Paul wasn’t expected to do much, and many people thought his career would quietly dwindle down in the place where it started, Oklahoma City. His supporting cast consisted of players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schroder. All of this led to this infamous statistic from ESPN:
Paul suddenly became an NBA All-Star again, despite missing out on the honor for the past three years. While the season was derailed due to COVID-19 and finished in the Disney World bubble, Paul’s Thunder finished with a 44-28 record, the 5th best in the Western Conference. While many people had them as an easy out in the first round of the playoffs, they pushed Harden and Russell Westbrook to seven games before bowing out of the 2020 NBA playoffs.
One team that failed to make the playoffs that year was the Phoenix Suns, despite going 8-0 in the bubble. The team clearly had promise and potential, and people were expecting them to make the playoffs next year. However, once they traded for CP3, the core of Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton made it all the way to the NBA Finals. Without Paul, they were a fringe playoff team; with Paul, they nearly won the NBA Finals.
It’s clear in this regard that Paul is an all-time winner. So, what’s happened to make people question his legacy so much?
The answer to the question above is the playoffs. Despite leading many of his teams on deep playoff runs, Paul has never been able to lead any of his teams to an NBA championship. Some of those years you can call bad luck (such as 2018), but can we say he had bad luck every year in the postseason?
For example, Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals this year, against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. I’m not even going to go fully into depth about how bad of a nightmare it was for the Suns; if you don’t know about that game, Google a box score or search YouTube for highlights from that game. It wasn’t pretty.
In 2022, the Suns had a lead against the Mavericks, and they couldn’t hold it. In 2021, they were up 2-0 in the Finals, but lost four games in a row as Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks came storming back.
2020 was the bubble year, but in 2019, the Rockets were once again matched up against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals. In both Games Five and Six, the score was tied going into the fourth quarter. However, in both games, it was the Warriors who came away with narrowly decided victories.
Is Paul’s playoff reputation his fault? The Los Angeles Clippers are a “cursed” franchise, according to most NBA fans. Many players that go there suffer unfortunate circumstances to their careers, and Paul couldn’t get it done with the Clippers. They also blew a 3-1 lead against the Rockets in the 2013 NBA Playoffs.
2018 was bad luck, 2019 was a few games going in the wrong direction during the clutch, and 2021 and 2022 were meltdowns.
Many NBA legends (with rings and without) have stated that it takes luck to win a championship. Your team has to stay healthy, and a thousand other small factors have to align. When these factors don’t come together, then no championship is won; just ask Charles Barkley.
Chris Paul is one of the best regular season players in NBA history, but for one reason or another, he simply hasn’t converted in the postseason. Is he simply a recipient of bad luck, or does he choke on the game’s biggest stage? Let me know what you think in the comments below, don’t forget to follow the NBA Blog, and as always, have an awesome day!