Chris Paul, the NBA’s mercenary fixer, is ready for another postseason run

People are incomprehensible. A basketball play is a simple thing, with simple objectives. You draw up a plan and you execute. You teach fundamentals, principles that will guide you when the play doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, because people rarely do what they’re supposed to for any number of irritating reasons.

When random things happen, when unfortunate things happen, stay calm, act quickly, but with a clarity of thought, fall back on those basics, those essentials; this is a children’s game, you know what to do. You know where the man you’re guarding wants to go, where he likes to catch the ball, where he likes to shoot, when he likes to release his shot. There are a million bad passes, a million bad shots, nothing but wrong places to run to on the floor during a fast break. There is one correct option. It’s simple shit.

For an incredible 19 years, Chris Paul has wandered the bombed-out NBA landscape, a sword for hire, guided by hard and fast rules, principles beaten into his muscles, into his mind, into his soul, that are dynamic, that can slot into any on-court situation in the league, and transform a jumbled collection of lost, disgruntled, misguided fools into a team. Over and over again, he has been written off, discarded, left for dead because he was too small, too old. Each time, another desperate team asks themselves, why not? We’ll take the draft assets and eat the salary, and who knows? Perhaps there is some wisdom left to impart, some valuable minutes left to play. Each time, they’re rewarded for their courage. You don’t hire Chris Paul because he’s a low-key, regular guy. You hire him because he’s a killer, because all he cares about is your team and its next moment.

He’s the NBA’s Michael Clayton, a bag man, a hangdog fixer of bad situations. A career loser who knocked on the door many times, and got close, but never got over the hump. At this, what he does, he’s great. He has a thing everyone wants, he’s made a niche for himself. He finds the seed, he shapes the soil, he speeds the harvest, he feeds the planet. Ask Tyson Chandler. Ask Blake Griffin. Ask Shai Gilgious Alexander. Ask Devin Booker. They’ll tell you. They know. A franchise has a history, looks one way before Paul gets there, and looks like something else by the time they’ve decided they’ve wrung all they can out of him, so he can go defy the odds and do it again.

When he was young, Chris Paul was an unbridled horse running wild in an open pasture, Shiva the Point God of Death, imposing his will on the game in a way few men any size, but particularly his size, ever have. He is listed, quite charitably, as six feet tall. A decent height for a wills and trusts attorney. It’s this faulty casing that has cast a shadow over his career. He has overcome this, let’s say, pretty important barrier to becoming a professional athlete by possessing arguably the highest basketball IQ in league history. By seeing with sonar. By having the court mapped at all times like a basketball Ptolemy who sees those weird angled lines that transform a scatter map of randomly strewn dots into ladles and Greek hunters.

Somehow, he’s always been a fierce man and perimeter defender, never a turnstile, as you might expect from a player so small and offensively gifted. His hands are quick but it’s easy to be quick when you telekinetically understand exactly where someone with the ball is, where they want to go, and what they want to do before they know it themselves. He turned his mid-range dagger into a deli slicer. It is automated, the same and perfect every time. Anything you can use to overcome the body with intellect and effort, he’s done, shy of a mech suit.

There are few things I’ve ever seen in my life that compare to the break he’d run at his basketball Julliard in New Orleans. He’s the all-time best at it, give or take a Jason Kidd, who has admitted himself Paul is much better. The only thing moving as fast as his legs were his eyes, peeling the skin off the defense, who couldn’t react at the same speed because it’s not physically possible. It was like watching a child play chess against a supercomputer. It was like watching an octopus with four tentacles swimming with the current.

Here’s a brief clip from Game 5 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs in Paul’s third year, 2008, a man in full on the New Orleans Hornets, flanked by his enforcers Chandler and the great David West, the 56-win second seed that season, when they beat the breaks off Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks in five games. Paul turned in a masterpiece, a triple-double in a 99-94 win, a moment when it appeared his story with one team in one city was just getting started:

But it wasn’t meant to be. There are conflicting reports, and motivations that explain why Paul might have wanted out of New Orleans. Above all a shaky ownership structure, and uncertain future for a franchise and a city with an uncertain future. Regardless, he was out, and what would become a nomadic journey through the NBA began.

Four moments. Four teams. Four incredible, once-in-a-lifetime anomalies happened to a single basketball player over the course of a single career:

The 2011 trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, where an in his prime Paul would have joined forces with an in his prime Kobe Bryant at the end of 2011, extending his championship window. Only the league was coming out of a brutal lockout that was mainly about the owners vainly, hilariously trying to throw their bodies in the path of player empowerment, believing larger market teams would forever have an unfair advantage and ruin competition. For a league-owned small market team to immediately respond by trading its marquee player to the NBA’s mother-of-pearl-spoon-that-shovels-both-coke-and-caviar-into-high-priced-escorts franchise was a bridge too far. So the trade had to be vetoed, so Paul could immediately be traded… the exact same market.

2015, four years later. To describe what CP accomplishes with the Clippers goes beyond resurrection, because something brought back to life has to be alive first. He builds the franchise in his image. The laughable, hapless losers are gone. They are second in the West, they have vanquished the very dangerous Spurs in a classic seven-game series. The Warriors are looming but they are not “The Warriors” yet. They are ringless, and generally seen as a freakshow, a flukey team that can’t sustain a whole postseason just shooting threes at an unprecedented clip, which is “why” the Clippers disposed of them in another classic seven-game series the year before. The Clippers are up 3-2, by 19 points (largely thanks to 31 and 11 from Paul) with two minutes left to play in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western semis. The Rockets have been beaten into submission. Their star, James Harden, is on the bench, essentially waving the white flag. The Rockets came back, powered by Josh Smith, who averaged 12 points per game that season and shot 33% from three, and Cory Brewer, who averaged 11.9 and 28%. The two combined to go 6-12 from 3 in the game. Houston eventually won the series, clearing the path for the Warriors.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Five

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

2018, three years later. When Kevin Durant is traded to the Warriors, the league goes running. It’s an impossible collection of talent, better to hoard assets, develop young players, wait for the storm to pass. Only Daryl Morey, the card-counting nerd God of advanced stats, decides to bet on variance, that miracles are possible, and he does it by pairing Paul with Harden, an odd marriage that shouldn’t work, but does, to the point that the Rockets have the Warriors closer to elimination than they will ever be with their full unit intact, about to go down 3-2 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, when with a minute to play, Paul spins, goes up in the key, and lets off a one-handed floater/hook that misses back rim, and lands awkwardly, straining his hamstring, ominously, sans contact. He doesn’t run back on defense but stays on the floor, walks to a corner and works as a decoy to clear out for Harden on the ensuing possession. The Rockets trainer has to come out and escort him to the bench. Paul is looking out into the crowd, but not at them, into the middle distance, because he already knows what has happened, and what is coming.

2020, three years later. It’s the fourth quarter with 20 seconds to play in Game 5 of Chris Paul’s first NBA Finals. The Suns, an abject joke of a franchise when Paul got there, went up 2-0, the Bucks hit back, and now it’s the rubber match. The Suns had a 16-point lead, now they’re down one, because the Bucks responded with what was nearly the greatest shooting game in the history of the NBA Finals. Devin Booker drives into the lane as time winds down, where he’s doubled at the rim. He pivots out to what should be a pass, likely an open three for Paul waiting on the wing, but instead smacks into the waiting arms of another genius, Jrue Holiday, who tears the ball out of his hands, skips up the court, and throws an unlikely oop to Giannis, sealing the game, and eventually, the championship.

Change any one of these events, and the piece I’m writing now has a very different tenor and message.

The price of genius can be madness, and you could argue all this loss, all this failure, all this disappointment, has birthed a kind of neurotic madness over the years in Paul. He has become a guy who looks at times like he wants to tear off his own fucking skin. How can he not? What a grubby and imperfect, frustrating thing a basketball game can be, a basketball team can be. How frustrating it must be to watch generations of these young gods come and go through the league, Paul knowing what he could do with a fraction of their size and athleticism had he not been born into a body more suited to working as a wills and trusts attorney.

He has become a very flawed and human perfectionist, a keeper of hidden sins, in a perpetual state of chiding his rookies for leaving Snoopy in the vestibule. Most people watching the game at home, in the crowd, coaching the game, playing on the floor, don’t know that you missed your mark, or made a dumb pass, or didn’t roll on that pick you were supposed to pop out on, that you made up for with athleticism or a lucky low percentage shot on a broken play that ends with a good result.

But Chris Paul knows, and you will hear about the mistake, a nasal barking somewhere below your shoulder as you try to celebrate, because Chris Paul is not here to congratulate you for your good fortune, because Chris Paul understands one of these things are replicable and can lead to sustained success, the other doesn’t. He’s one of the unlucky players in the NBA who went through life wondering why shit kept falling out of the sky for him, so perhaps all his bad luck has made him contemptuous of good luck. The make, the miss. These are ancillary abstractions. The casuals, the simps and idiots count rings. Chris Paul appeals, plays for, and speaks to the ball knowers. He wants to win every game, every ATO, every moment. He wants to win on a molecular level.

This is why he is not a miracle worker, but a janitor. He travels the league, nudging and arguing, bleaching and scrubbing, begging and pleading young players on bad teams to learn the game, to realize their potential, dragging them to low seeds and bad playoff matchups over the stunning number of billable hours Paul has amassed as a player, with stunning consistency, regardless of where he finds himself. There’s some question as to how effective all this nagging is as a form of leadership. Other people, pale, human, flawed people, who have gone through their whole lives being celebrated and told how great they are, tend not to enjoy a relentless wave of their failures being pointed out and focused on with a microscope, and this explains Paul’s nomadic late career, why he comes into their lives for a time, then wears out his welcome. But there is no questioning how effective his unique brand of focus is in getting results that they will benefit from, in spite of themselves, for the rest of their careers.

When did everyone get so fucking delicate? Are you willing to do what it takes to win, or not?

Golden State Warriors v Sacramento Kings

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

It has been interesting to watch Paul somewhat out of context on this year’s Warriors team. It’s not his usual style of NBA renovation project; this is a veteran team with proven success, multiple leaders, a firm hand at coach and a forged identity as a franchise. He’s a cog in a system, when to paraphrase a delusional former teammate of his, he normally is the system. It’s ironic to watch his story potentially end here, with Steph Curry, another former foe who had to overcome unlikely size and strength deficits, but has succeeded, not with Paul’s meticulous intellect and effort, but with his own freak ability, a player who broke basketball by changing it, rather than perfecting what it was, as Paul did.

But listen to the reporters around the team, the comments coming from the assistants and the benchwarmers. He’s there in the margins, doing his thing, being annoying, making a difference. Is it a coincidence Jonathan Kuminga is finally making the most of his incredible gifts that had remained mostly locked and buried until Paul got in his ear? What were your expectations for Trayce Jackson-Davis or Brandon Podziemski coming into the season?

But this isn’t just a babysitting gig. There have been the healthy nights all season when he has the old magic, and you wonder what this team could’ve been if Paul had gotten there just a bit sooner. The Warriors, that beautiful abstract expressionist painting of a basketball team, a group that prides themselves on flinging it around and throwing it away on dumb turnovers just as often as they find rhythm and toss off unanswered 20-point or 12-win streaks, look disciplined. They look like a well-oiled machine rather than a wildly talented improv group, a drilled and hazed platoon, with Paul at the head, organizing chaos. Early in the season, there was a classic Chris Paul situation, on the second night of a back-to-back on the road, in New Orleans of all places, a schedule loss for most other teams. Instead, Paul was tidy, masterful, 13 points in 25 minutes with six rebounds, five assists, and two steals. Here’s a clip:

The Warriors’ odds — not just for a championship, but for any length of a postseason run in these playoffs — look bad. It’s been a tough year in terms of physical health, (Draymond’s) mental health, and their odd collection of players who look to be past their primes and approaching them, both too old and too young. They are 10th in the West, and will begin what will either be a very short or very long road against the Kings in the play-in on Tuesday night.

Regardless, in the minutes his body will allow, Chris Paul will be there for every game. He will execute, and he will expect every player around him to execute, whether in his beloved clutch situations, where there have been few better in league history, or up 20, or down 20, because to him, the score is and will always be a coincidence. If and when he loses, or if and when he finally gets the ring that has eluded him for so long, nothing will change for Chris Paul. He has never been and never will be the guy you buy. If you want to get past him, he’s the guy you have to kill.

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