The reaction was inevitable. With another early playoff exit, Chris Paul’s postseason resume and superstar credentials are under unfamiliar scrutiny.
Paul has largely evaded the criticism that bedevils most superstars, but the backlash was unavoidable this season when the Clippers – presumably the most talented, well-coached team he’s played on – didn’t advance to the Western Conference finals.
The uncharacteristic gaffes at the end of Game 5 provided his skeptics with the necessary fodder to criticize him, as there hasn’t been a reasonable explanation to Paul’s inability to make the NBA’s final four. Now, doubters can point to something tangible: Paul playing the worst 49 seconds of his career on the grandest stage, when he was needed most.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” Paul exhaled at the dais following the Clippers’ Game 6 elimination loss to Oklahoma City. The phrase has become his mantra after another season prematurely slips from his grasp — he uttered a similar sentiment at the end of last season, and the year before that.
So, why has Paul avoided criticism this long?
The logical answer is that it’s difficult to criticize a guy who plays the “right” way. Paul is the classic pass-first point guard, the selfless floor general that shares the ball (sometimes to a fault) and makes his teammates infinitely better. He rarely puts himself first, and on the rare occasions he does, he never forces the issue or takes ill-advised shots.
It’s also tough to a tear down a guy’s accomplishments when he’s put up the highest playoff PER in two of the last four postseasons. The blame has gone elsewhere — his coach, his teammates, the front office, ownership — and deservedly so in most cases.
But at some point it was going to come back to Paul. It was just a matter of time.
Fair or not, the media and the public demand deep playoff runs from All-NBA talent in the prime of their career — regardless of context or perspective, in most cases — and Paul has yet to deliver in nine years. Stars eventually stop getting passes from their critics, and it appears Paul is close to reaching that threshold.
Back in late March, how the Clippers’ playoff run would affect Paul’s career arc began to creep into mind. What outcome would satisfy his critics? A Western Conference finals berth, at the very least? A finals berth? Only a championship? Would a deep run be diminished if Blake Griffin clearly outplayed him?
Essentially, was Paul’s legacy at stake this postseason?
“I really don’t [think so],” Doc Rivers said before the playoffs began. “I answered that with Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen in Boston]. Let’s say best-case scenario we get to the finals [this season] and win it. Let’s say worst-case scenario we lose in the first round, and then he wins [a championship] next year.
“Does that hurt his legacy? [We both shake our heads.] That’s the point.”
In Rivers’ eyes, the legacy discussion ends if and when Paul and the Clippers win a title. Paul is then a champion and regarded among the pantheon of legendary point guards. If he doesn’t win in his prime, he still could win one later in his career like Gary Payton or Jason Kidd, and there’s an argument to be made that his statistical achievements already put him in rarified company.
Rivers continued, “At some point, all great players want to be winners. They want to win it. I just can’t tell you when that point is or when that time is. But I think Chris is a winner, and I think he will be a winner. I’m hoping it’s this year.”
The flip side to Rivers’ argument is that opportunity is fickle in the NBA, and championship windows can shut just as quickly as they creak open.
The Clippers have a strong foundation — Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Rivers — but the future could be dimmer than expected. Los Angeles might have two of the best half-dozen players in the league, but that doesn’t guarantee anything out West, where making it to the conference semifinals is a struggle unto itself.
Though Paul isn’t necessarily concerned with his perceived legacy, he still remembers how unpredictable the future can be.
He has often referenced back to his New Orleans days — 2008 to be specific — when he assumed trips to the second round and top-3 MVP finishes would be routine. As he looked around the locker room, he saw an All-Star power forward, an athletic, defensive-minded center, and a coach with Finals experience.
“I was up for the MVP award that year,” Paul recalled in an interview with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne last summer. “They hadn’t announced it yet, but I had a really good shot at getting it. And I was sitting there, I’ll never forget, I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, whatever. I might win MVP this year. I’m going to have a chance to win every year.’
“That was my third year in the league. Now I’m going into Year 9 and I still haven’t got close to the championship. It really does go fast and you don’t have those opportunities because of injuries and things like that every year.”
Instead of the success he presumed would continue, Paul has been to the second round twice in the subsequent six seasons and finished in the top three of MVP voting just once over that time span.
Ultimately, there are few players as polarizing from a historical context. Paul’s a statistical anomaly, a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent, but it has yet to bear fruit in the postseason. While the narrative surrounding his career has begun to take shape, Paul still has time to dictate the ending.
“The legacy should be done when you’re finished with your career,” Rivers said. “Then you have a legacy. He’ll have one and it’ll be a great one.”