After 16 Years, Chris Paul is in the NBA Finals

The Phoenix Suns closed out the LA Clippers four games to two, clinching the Western Conference and sending Chris Paul to his first-ever NBA Finals. Ironically, the game was in the building–the Staples Center–where Paul played for six seasons and against the team that, if we’re being honest here, Chris Paul transformed from a joke into a contender. There would be no Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers if not for what Chris Paul did prior with Lob City and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers were not taken seriously at all as an organization until Chris Paul turned them into a perennial playoff team.

The main story here is Chris Paul. I don’t want to short-change the rest of the Suns, because they deserve just as much credit as Chris Paul here, but this Finals appearance has the potential to re-write his legacy. We’re talking about a possible shake-up in the all-time NBA rankings.

Last night was his moment to shine: the Suns were able to build a 2-0 series lead without him, but then after he came back, they lost two of three games. Chris Paul had to step up last night. He could not allow that series to go to a seventh game. And he delivered: 41 points, 8 assists, 3 steals on 16-24 shooting and 7-8 from three. He had 31 points in the second half, and absolutely took the game over. He was just on fire. It was incredible to watch: at a certain point in the second half, he just basically said, “There is no way we’re losing this game.” He would not allow his greatest chance at a ring to slip away.

Chris Paul has always been well-respected in terms of his greatness as a player. He has won everywhere he’s been. Honestly, other than LeBron, there might not be any other player in NBA history better able to singlehandedly turn a franchise around than Chris Paul. He turned the Hornets into a playoff team. He turned the Clippers into a playoff team. The Clippers had never even had a 50-win season in their entire franchise history but once they got Chris Paul, they had five straight! He elevated the Houston Rockets from a playoff team into a Championship-contender, and they probably would’ve won the whole thing in 2018 had Paul not gotten hurt in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors when Houston was up 3-2. He turned the post-Russell Westbrook Thunder into a playoff team.

And now he’s got the Phoenix Suns–who hadn’t even made the playoffs since 2010–in the NBA Finals.

The best part of it all is that Chris Paul was basically written off and kicked to the curb by not only his team, the Houston Rockets, but most of the NBA media as well, after the 2019 playoffs. Down 3-2 to Golden State, the Rockets had a golden opportunity on their home court to tie the series and force a game seven due the fact that Kevin Durant exited game five with a calf injury and was out for game six. But they couldn’t get it done and wound up losing and getting eliminated.

The Rockets very well could’ve won game five, too, as when Kevin Durant went down at around the 2:09 mark of the third quarter, the score was just 68-65 Golden State. The game was close until the final two minutes, when the Warriors pulled away, but with no KD on the floor for the entire fourth quarter, that’s a game the Rockets should’ve stolen. The fact that they couldn’t steal games five and six with KD missing was a massive missed opportunity, and Chris Paul got most of the blame for it.

He didn’t have a great series: 16.7ppg, 7.2rpg, only 5.7apg, just 44% from the field and an abysmal 31.4% from three over the six games. Every game in that series was close: Houston’s four losses were by four, six, five and five points. If Paul was better, Houston probably would’ve won. So Chris Paul rightfully got the blame. He had a falling-out with James Harden, and the Rockets traded him to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. Not only did they ship him off to presumably waste away his remaining years on a bottom-feeding franchise, the Rockets were so desperate to get rid of him, they sent OKC two first round picks plus two pick swaps just to get the Thunder to take Chris Paul off their hands. That was how low the league’s opinion of Chris Paul was at the time. Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta said Paul’s contract was “the worst he’d ever seen in business or sports.”

That was the moment most people closed the book on Chris Paul. Hey, he’s had a nice career and done some great things in this league, but he’s over the hill now and it’s time to put him out to pasture. That was the conventional wisdom.

But then, instead of fading away in Oklahoma City, Chris Paul started winning games. It wasn’t a great roster by any means, but it was solid: CP3, SGA, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder. They finished with a record of 44-28 and made the bubble playoffs. They even took the Rockets to seven games in the first round.

Suddenly, Chris Paul wasn’t finished. One year later, and look where he is now. It’s just crazy to think that barely two years ago, the guy was basically left for dead by the whole NBA, and now he’s the odds-on favorite to win Finals MVP.

Now, I understand a lot of players in the NBA don’t like him. There’s a reason for that. Kenyon Martin once said players don’t like him because they see him as “a politician” and “sneaky.” He’s been the President of the NBA Players’ Association since 2013, after all. He’s demanding and can be tough to deal with. And then there’s his outrageous flopping and constant complaining to the refs. My friends and I call him the “little fucker” because of all the shenanigans he pulls on the court. You could even call him a dirty player. But hey, when you’re a short guy in a tall-man’s league, you have to level the playing field somehow.

And at the end of the day, he wins everywhere he goes.

It has been a long, winding road to this point for Chris Paul. He’s made a lot of enemies along the way, but he’s also got teammates that will follow him to the ends of the earth.

He’s always been known as one of the best point guards of all time, but he has not had the playoff success to justify putting him alongside guys like Magic, Isiah and Steph Curry.

I know I said yesterday that this is an “asterisk year” for the NBA playoffs. I stand by that view. The Suns’ road to get to this point was through the banged-up Lakers in round one, the Jamal Murray-less Nuggets in round two, and the Kawhi-less Clippers in round three.

But what do you expect the Suns to do, forfeit? Somebody’s gotta win it this year. And Chris Paul getting a ring because all the other teams got hurt–well maybe that’s just good karma for the ring he should have won in 2018 but didn’t because of his hamstring injury.

A ring’s a ring. 10, 15, 20 years down the road and beyond, people won’t talk about the fact that this was the most injury-plagued NBA playoffs ever. If Chris Paul can close the deal in the Finals–and I very much expect the Suns to win–then he will forever be known as an NBA Champion, and nobody can take that away from him, ever.

An “asterisk ring” is still 100x better than no ring at all. Do you think Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson and Karl Malone and Carmelo Anthony and Patrick Ewing would rather have no rings, or an “asterisk ring”? Exactly.

Chris Paul deserves a ring, bottom line. I hate seeing NBA greats retire without a ring. I just hate it. I want to see the guys who work so hard for so long get that validation and recognition.

And, when we debate the all-time rankings, we always tend to push the guys who never won rings off to the periphery. It’s like, “Yeah so-and-so was great, but he never won a ring.” You can’t truly get the recognition you deserve until you win a ring. And while it’s true that the guys with rings are in a different category than the guys who never won rings, it’s also kind of unfair.

Pro sports in general are unfair. Great players retire without rings all the time. There’s just so much that’s out of your control: injuries, incompetent management and coaching, bad supporting casts, being drafted by a shit organization. But the NBA is especially cruel in terms of great players never winning rings. Look at the NFL, in contrast: all the great quarterbacks of the past 20 years have won rings: Brady, Rodgers, both Mannings, Brees, Big Ben, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes.The only great QB of the past 20 years that didn’t get a ring was Philip Rivers. And Matt Ryan, but he had a golden opportunity in the Super Bowl and blew it.

Then look at the NBA, and how many great players of the past 20 years and even beyond never got a ring: all the guys I mentioned above, plus Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber, Dominique Wilkins, Elgin Baylor, Reggie Miller, Derrick Rose, Yao Ming, Dame, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Amare Stoudemire, John Stockton–the list goes on and on.

Fair or unfair, the only way you get included in the discussion of all-time greats is if you win that ring. If the Suns win the Championship and Chris Paul gets that ring, then we can finally have a legitimate debate about where he ranks among guys like Magic, Steph, Isiah and Oscar Robertson. Without a ring, you just can’t put Chris Paul in the conversation with those guys.

***

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rest of the Phoenix Suns. DeAndre Ayton has blossomed into a star big man over these playoffs.

Devin Booker has gone from good, promising young player to borderline superstar and it feels like he’s fully arrived. The conversation on Devin Booker for most of his career up to this point has been: “He’s gonna be really great some day.” Well, some day has arrived.

There’s a reason Chris Paul wanted to go to Phoenix. He saw the potential in these guys.

The Suns also have so many great role players, too. Cam Payne has been awesome as Paul’s backup in these playoffs. Jae Crowder, though a bit inconsistent, was excellent last night with 19 points. Mikal Bridges had some big buckets in the second half of the game. And Cam Johnson, who missed the game last night with an injury is a great piece to have: he’s long, can shoot threes and defend.

James Jones has really built a great team. And Monty Williams has been awesome as head coach.

As for the Clippers, I have a lot of respect for what they were able to accomplish even after Kawhi went down. Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, Terrance Mann and Nic Batum all stepped up massively. And of course Paul George: I think it’s safe to say nobody will be calling him “Pandemic P” anymore. He has more than atoned for his performance in the bubble last year. He played his ass off all series long, but you could tell he just didn’t have anything left in the tank last night. Coming into last night’s game, he had played 735 minutes in the postseason, by far the most of any player, with Devin Booker’s 605 ranking second. Paul George was just exhausted, and it’s hard to hold anything against him.

But honestly, the Clippers could’ve won this series. They would have won game two (the “Valley-Oop” game) if Paul George hits those free throws. And really, even without those free throws, the Clippers should have been better prepared defensively for the play Phoenix called. There’s really no excuse for allowing a team to get an alley-oop off an in-bounds pass with one second left on the clock.

And then there’s game four: the Suns won that game 84-80. No team in the NBA this entire season had won a game scoring only 84 points, until that game. The Suns were trying to give that game away; only problem was, so were the Clippers. They shot 3-19 from the floor in the 4th quarter and, according to ESPN, were 0-12 on shots that could have either tied the game or taken the lead. No team in the past 25 years has ever done that in the playoffs. Game four was there for the taking, and the Clippers blew it.

The Clippers could’ve won that series, even without Kawhi. They absolutely could’ve.

But alas.

As for Ty Lue: I don’t want to hear anybody out there saying “coaching in the NBA doesn’t matter.”

Yes, it does.

Last year under Doc Rivers, the Clippers were the team of the blown 3-1 lead. This year, under Lue, they’re the team that came back twice from 2-0 deficits in series. Ty Lue was the difference. Doc Rivers didn’t make adjustments, Tyronn Lue does. It matters.

Coaching matters in the NBA. Ty Lue was never thought of as one of the best in the league because the perception was that Lue won in 2016 because he had LeBron on his team. But now, nobody can short-change Tyronn Lue. He is one of the very best coaches in the NBA.

Octavian

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