Chris Paul is still the best and purest point guard in the NBA at the age of 30. He's also watching the rest of the playoffs at home, again. Something's got to give.
Photo by Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
At six feet tall, Chris Paul is the least impressive physical specimen to double as franchise NBA cornerstone since A.I put defenders on banana peels, but only five players in league history have a higher playoff Player Efficiency Rating. In the last 10 seasons, Steve Nash is the only other peer to lead the league in assist percentage, which charts the percentage of field goals individuals assisted while on the floor every year. Nash was that rare unicorn who peaked in his 30's. He's also the only retired MVP to never reach the Finals.
As Paul has grown longer in the tooth, his self-mastery has become even more refined. Paul is in the utmost command of himself and his game; he doesn't expend excessive energy on offense, leverages the leftovers on defense, and finishes each game right around E. At the same time, his NBA-scale Napoleon Complex has matured into "Get Off My Lawn"-grade orneriness. His incessant moaning towards officials isn't unique, but the extent to which his competitiveness antagonizes teammates, and his unusual compartmentalization within the confines of the game, both are.
Not everything Paul does is unconventional; he does the things great point guards do, and does them better than most anyone that's played the position. Paul handles the ball on a yo-yo. he regularly backs up his defender 35 feet from the basket, counterintuitively turning away from his hoop, to innovate blueprints for the current possession in his mental clipboard. From that high ground, Paul imagines new angles to dish from and then executes to perfection. His buoyant lobs are on every scouting report, but there also isn't a more imaginative bounce passer in compact spaces than Paul, and no one is comparable navigating the outstretched branches of those trees in the post. No one in the league plays a better game of red-light/green-light, and once he's pushed his defender off-balance like an 18-wheeler Tokyo Drifting around a sharp turn, he can jump stop and elevates to shoot.
This is the same player being baited by Skip Bayless on ESPN. This is the genius-grade playmaker who somehow, still, has not made it past the second round in the NBA Playoffs.
As comforting as it is to believe that superstars age on a wider bell curve than everyone else, not even the Spurs or LeBron James can call Father Time a deadbeat dad.
There are subtle signs that Paul is adjusting better than anyone not named Nash to the passing of his athletic prime. Even before he strained his hamstring against San Antonio, Paul's forays into the paint tapered off in a major way this season. Instead, the NBA's best mid-range shooter took considerably more triples off ball screens than ever before.
Analysis hints at a drastic shift in approach at what looks like a pivotal juncture in Paul's athletic career. During the offseason, Doc Rivers sacrificed the synergy between Paul and his elite understudy Darren Collison—and spurned Paul Pierce in the process—to give Spencer Hawes the four-year $23 million mid-level exception. Rebuffed by the Clippers, Collison accepted a three-year, $16 million deal from Sacramento and Pierce put his world-historic old-man game to brilliant use in DC. Hawes has played 57 postseason minutes in total, and Rivers' talent evaluation credit score took a hit.
LeBron took a two week sabbatical after his 30th to finish the season in a groove. The NBA's chief oenophile, Gregg Popovich preserved his vintage port roster of tricenarians by chilling them over the course of the regular season, simultaneously seasoning his reserves. Coach Doc, given the roster that GM Doc built—Jordan Farmar, Paul's ostensible backup and the recipient of the team's biannual exemption, was off the team in January—went a different way. He tasked Paul with doing more, and Paul did it: he trudged through an entire 82 game slate for the first time in his career, and led the league in net efficiency, which tracks the number of points per 100 possessions a player's team performed better or worse with him on the court. The Clippers outscored opponents by an average of 12.2 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor and were outscored by 7.6 points without. What appeared obvious from the couch was demonstrably true—Chris Paul made the Clippers work.
Paul is great, but the question that matters most, in the wake of the team's abject collapse in the second round, is how much more he can wring out of himself. It will be a long time until we see a player like him, and while his Hall Of Fame peers all dealt with their declines with varying degrees of grace, Paul's diminutive stature separates him from most. As CP3 transitions into CP30, the future's uncertainty and the urgency of the present becomes even more pronounced.
Paul has staved off the beginning of his career's third act with his preternatural mental processor, surprisingly precise shooting off the dribble and a perfectionism that scans as prickliness. He managed this because he's Chris Paul, but not even he can do this forever.
As dated as Paul's mid-range proficiency seems next to Steph Curry's downtown catapulting, his modest excellence is more efficient than a generation of quick-twitch Slam Ball point guards. If Paul seems old-school at 30, it's important to note that school is still very much in session. But if there's no point guard in the NBA quite like Paul, it's also not clear how much longer Paul can be Paul. The scar tissue on his playoff resume, and his ligaments and muscles, will affect him more with every passing season; he may never get better teammates than the ones that just rolled over against Houston.
Paul and the Clippers have to evolve to stay ahead of changing circumstances. Part of that will mean pumping the brakes on their excessive regular season usage of Paul before he gets driven off an unforgiving cliff, although that would require that the capped-out Clips somehow finding a dependable backup.
The wear and tear of the Clippers breakneck pace, which was second fastest in the league, may not be ideal for preserving an aging four-star point general. That most likely won't change, and shouldn't. But as L.A.'s cantankerous point god enters the autumn of his career, ringless, it's clear that the clock is ticking. The Clippers have a system that works and a point guard who can make it work like no other. They're also at home. It's as good a place as any to figure out how to turn Paul's immutable artistry into postseason results.