Chris Paul, in any basketball viewpoint, is one of the greatest point guards of all time. When it comes to efficiency, there is no player that enters the conversation more than CP3. With the 20th most efficient season in NBA history in 2008 and a career average of 25.7 PER, this man is the definition of an efficient point guard
And with 9 all-star selections, 4 first team All-NBA selections, 6 first NBA All-Defensive Team selections and an All-Star Game MVP under his ledger, it would appear to be surprising if Paul’s accolades and achievements were quickly forgotten after retirement.
But after his 5th straight blown lead in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Clippers and breaking the record for most playoff games appeared in without ever making the conference finals, Paul´s legacy is in serious question.
When the Chris Paul era is over, how will he remembered?
In order to answer this, we have to go back to 2005 with the NBA draft. A 20-year-old point guard out of Wake Forest, Chris Paul, finds a match with the 18 win New Orleans Hornets. Going 4th overall, he would go on to win Rookie of the Year averaging 16.1 points, 7.8 assists, 2.2 steals as the legend of CP3 was born.
After increasing their record by 20 wins with Paul, the Hornets were a team on the rise in 2006, barely missing the playoffs by 3 games. But in 2007, Paul had finally blossomed into a legitimate star. At the start of the playoffs, the Hornets were near favorites to win it all with a 56-win explosion led by First Team All-NBA selectee 22-year-old Chris Paul who averaged an absurd 21.1 points, 11.6 assists and 2.7 steals on the year.
Despite getting eliminated in 7 games by a loaded Spurs team in the second round, this was a young Hornets team who could clearly be NBA Champions. The Hornets were the most exciting young team in the league with all the pieces to contend soon enough.
But that dream never formulated.
Year after year Chris Paul and the Hornets looked like locks for a Finals appearance, but every year brought another early exit.
In 2008, a 4-1 loss to Denver in the first round. This was arguably CP3´s finest year with a 30.0 PER. In 2009, they missed the playoffs completely. 2010 came and went the same way. The early prime of the greatest modern pure point guard rotted on a team that made the second round only once with 2(!) playoff appearances.
So what happened? All there is to his playoff fruitlessness riddled career was bad luck and being stuck on a roster that lacked extra star talent. Year after year Paul had to go head-to-head with historically great teams in the loaded 2000s Western Conference day in and day out without a whole lot of help. Even just qualifying for the playoffs is a crowning achievement back then for a team with only a single star. And once in the playoffs, trying to best the 2007 San Antonio Spurs and 2008 Denver Nuggets would fare futile with the comparative lack of talent on the Hornets roster.
But then 2011 happened. The greatest hypothetical in NBA history was born in the infamous vetoed Chris Paul trade. In this three-team blockbuster of a deal, the Hornets would have received Lamar Odom from the Lakers and Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic from the Rockets whilst sending then-Laker Pau Gasol to the Rockets.
The Lakers would have ended up with a franchise-altering and just hitting his prime star in Chris Paul. This would have created a backcourt of Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant, an absolute nightmare for any team to handle. On top of that, the Lakers were still planning to deal Andrew Bynum and whoever else needed to land then-superstar center Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic.
What could have been a dynasty ready roster was evaporated in minutes with commissioner David Stern’s veto. A highly controversial move that has been one of the most blatant and hated impediment of power in NBA history.
Only 6 days later Paul was traded to the 32 win little brother of the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers. In exchange for Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and Timberwolves 2012 unprotected pick, the Hornets sent Paul to the eventual Lob City in Los Angeles.
Who knew this move would put even more dents on Paul´s legacy.
At this point, CP3 was regarded as a historically great point guard, but many felt he was never good enough for a ring. Fans just grouped him up as another Dominique Wilkins or Steve Nash. A great player who just wasn’t ever great enough. But as this trade made headlines, things have started to look up for Paul. The Clippers have a legit all-star now and with rookie of the year Blake Griffin, the grass suddenly looks a whole lot greener in Los Angeles.
No one expected Paul to have 5 straight blown leads in the playoffs and in 6 tries the Clippers couldn’t get out of the second round.
Year 1 brought a convincing sweep from the hands of the Tim Duncan-led Spurs in the second round. Year 2 brought a first round exit this time to the team the Clippers eliminated the year before, the Memphis Grizzlies. Year 3 brought elimination from the Thunder in round 2. Year 4 was arguably the most heart-wrenching, a 7 game loss to the Houston Rockets in the second round. Year 5 brought the 5th seeded Trail Blazers eliminating the Clips in 6. Year 6 and the most recent playoff heartbreak was a 7 game series loss to the up and coming Utah Jazz.
One can blame his team for all this failure with Blake Griffin going down with injury more times than one can count, a sometimes laughable amount of depth or even Chris Paul’s bad luck with terribly timed injuries.
However, with absolutely zero Conference Finals appearances, Chris Paul will only be the greatest but most efficient hypothetical of all time.
Chris Paul is one of the most talented players of his generation. His court vision is unmatched, he is a master of using his small size to his advantage and his passing skill can not be understated. But what kept him from ever achieving legend status of the Kobe Bryant’s and Michael Jordan’s was his lack of competitive spirit.
As much talent as Paul has when his team needed him the most he couldn’t step up and lead them. He lacks a fire that can drive an average franchise to be a legit dynasty. The best example of this was the 2015 playoffs, second round against the Houston Rockets.
The Clippers were up 3-1 against a greatly inferior Rockets team that was James Harden and not much else. Game 5 should have brought out the animal in Paul, one win away from his first Conference Finals appearance and he should have been playing with a chip on his shoulder. But he didn’t. Clippers lost that game in a 124-103 blowout. Game 6 was meant to be Chris Paul´s career-defining game. The Clippers need a spark and he single-handedly pulls them to the Conference Finals while finding a second gear he has always lacked.
They lost by 12 in a game where they Clippers were outscored 40-15 in the 4th quarter. So game 7 was upon them, Chris Paul should have been a raging monster at this point. His competitive fire should have broken through and he should have gone off like a superstar would have. But at the final buzzer, the Clippers were eliminated in a game they did not lead once.
That’s not what superstars do. A superstar would have found a second gear. A superstar would have played like a man possessed. But Paul didn’t even play like an all star. The Clippers needed a bad guy, a villain to show up and rip the win right out the Rockets hands. A villain with a mean streak that would have scared adults. Chris Paul is just too dang nice to be a superstar.
Chris Paul has just as much talent as a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. But what Paul noticeably lacks what they have is a competitive fire that turns good players into great ones. How many times have we seen LeBron dunk over anyone and let loose a war cry that could fire up any human being with a soul? How many times have we seen Jordan hit a clutch three and celebrate like he just won the Finals?
Paul simply lacks these qualities when it matters most. He has no ability to turn a defeated locker room into Sparta with nothing but a speech. He simply can not flip a switch and become the animal that his team needs in situations where a Conference Finals berth is on the line.
After so much heartbreak, after this much agony, Chris Paul should be an absolute brute with a raging forest fire for a soul. But he’s simply not. And those moments when Paul does show an uncontrollable anger and shows us he has this spirit, he almost refuses to resummon it when it is needed.
Instances like in 2013 when Paul cheap-shotted Marc Gasol in the closeout game against the Grizzlies or when he landed a blow below the belt on Julius Hodges while playing for Wake Forest in a game against UNC show he has this fire deep within him.
This angry Chris Paul would have been the key for beating the Rockets. An angry Chris Paul could have been the key in any of the short playoff runs of the 2005-2011 Hornets. A Chris Paul with fire could have been one of the greatest players of all time. If a Chris Paul relying solely on talent is a 9 time all star and 4 time First Team All-NBA, it´s frightening to think what could have been with a CP3 with passion.
His career is littered with hypothetical after hypothetical. What if Blake Griffin and Paul himself never got injured in the 2016 playoffs against the Blazers? What if he was traded to the Lakers and teamed up with Kobe? What happens if the Hornets scored 10 more points and won over the Spurs in the ´08 second round?
But the greatest hypothetical of his career if what if Paul was as competitive as he needed to be?
In the end, that will ultimately be his legacy. The greatest “What if?” of all time. Chris Paul held himself back his whole career and he has put together a surefire Hall of Fame-caliber resume. But now we’re left wondering what becomes of his career if he was able to find a fire within him.
Very simply, Chris Paul is the greatest hypothetical of all time.