Or sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. I've heard it both ways.
Chris Paul did not have the best game his career last night. Hell, he needed a pair of late free throws and an irrelevant breakaway dunk with a second left to get to 29 points and assists (21 & 8). But last night, as he frequently does, he put on full display why he is a top-three MVP candidate and would not be a travesty as an upset winner of the award.
In the waning moments of Wednesday night’s game in Denver, a vaguely familiar sound began to rain down from the Pepsi Center rafters…
BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!
Born in Boston in 1982, unifying sworn enemies against a common foe, the battle cry permeated the NBA in the 1980s, making a cameo any time a lesser opponent pushed Magic Johnson and the visiting Showtime Lakers to the brink and rocking packed arenas at playoff time. Respect. A tip-of-the-cap to the NBA’s preeminent Western power, it accompanied the Lakers on virtually every road trip for the remainder of the decade. It was the ultimate legitimizer.
BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!
On Wednesday night, it was bestowed upon the Clippers. This is, of course, not to say that the Clippers own the Western Conference, or that they ever will. Nor is it my goal to say that the Clippers are inherently unworthy (though there is fair bit of historical failure to contend with) of the respect of opposing fans. I’m not even saying the gesture carries the same weight it did 30 years ago. But it was weird.
And it was all because of Chris Paul.
This season, statistically, Paul is your average, run-of-the-mill #pointgod. Down a bit from his incomprehensibly dominant 2007-08 and 2008-09 form, Paul’s 2011-12 performance is the third best of his career and ranks in the very top tier of the NBA’s elite.
His 29.2 ranks second to LeBron’s 31.6 in Hoopdata’s Adjusted PER. Only LeBron (11.2) and Kevin Love (10.07) have more Adjusted Win Shares than Paul’s 9.98. Among point guards, only Lou Williams, Brandon Jennings and Gary Neal turn the ball over less frequently than Paul, who is coughing the ball up a career-low 11.06 times per 100 possessions. He ranks third in the league (behind Rajon Rondo and Nash) in assists per game (9.0), Assists+ (adjusted for 3-pointers; 10.2) and trials only Steve Nash and Mario Chalmers in True Shooting Percentage. He leads the league in steals (141), steals per game (2.5) and steals Steal Rate (3.7 per 100 possessions). Still brilliant. Historic, actually.
He is the reason the Clippers are one pace for the best winning percentage in franchise history (currently .629; the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves hold the current mark of .598) nearly six percentage points better than 2005-06 team that holds the mark for the L.A. era.
Despite his sometimes maddening (but let’s honest, sometimes funny and awe-inspiring) penchant for the dark arts, Chris Paul is every bit the genius maestro that we’ve come to expect. He controls time and space on a basketball court better than anyone alive today and owns property near the very top of the historical list. He is the only reason that a Los Angeles Clippers jersey has ever heard a “Beat L.A.” chant in person.
He is, as always, the very pulse of his team. And the circumstances under which he’s become the unequivocal soul of the Clippers – just four months after his arrival – put this season’s effort on par with anything he’s ever done. In a season in which he’s been shorthanded in terms of both on-court production (I’m not going to get into it here, but Blake Griffin has shown shockingly little, if any growth in either his skill set or maturity) and leadership (Chauncey Billups' absence, combined with Blake’s aforementioned developmental hiccup), Paul has a carried a monumental laughingstock to within half a game of a first-ever division crown.
As it did a year ago, the annual race for NBA’s top individual honor will come down to a photo finish between one of the NBA’s young, shining lights, a beacon of all that is good about today’s game (and yes, Kevin Durant absolutely is all of that) and the most overpowering physical force and greatest statistical wonder of our time. As with last year, I feel that LeBron James is the award’s most deserving recipient. However, in the event that LeBron’s time in the corner is not yet up, I hope Chris Paul receives the honor. This will not happen of course, but give it a thought the next time you watch Chris Paul – flanked by a supporting cast that is above average, but by no means elite, and not quite the headiest crew– makes a fairly important regular season game feel like something more.
Looking ahead, proper lines will be harder to find in these final days of the regular season, with wild swings in playing time impacting matchups all over the court. But if a palatable number on Chris Paul (in Phoenix) were to pop up, it’d certainly be worth a look. I don’t think his pedal comes up from the floor the rest of the way.
Until next time...