Some Sort of Renaissance

Chris Paul and his reinvention with the Rockets
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Chris Paul holds up the NBA MVP trophy

It’s a process, says every NBA player at some point. “It” might be honing your game until its ideal form emerges, ready to be deployed in a championship series win and praised in NBA history forever—the process in its most romantic iteration: The Path to Greatness. Maybe this is the process that explains Chris Paul’s on-court irritability; he has sharpened his game to our shared vision of its ideal form only to see his finger ringless and the sideline writers of his career using cool analysis in place of warm praise. But going into the 2016-17 offseason Chris Paul made a change. Whether that change amounts to shifting scenery in the same play or a fundamental change in his game—and with it, the balance of the league—will be revealed in the playoffs.

On December 10th, 2016, the Clippers point guard had everything under control and left a stat line that, on this particular night, showed that the quantifiable nature of basketball can communicate in both concrete terms and figurative gestures. Paul’s 20/20 game with 0 turnovers was a clear-eyed effort that exemplified his vision of the sport. Driving to the hoop in fits and starts, sometimes assisted by a pick and sometimes not, Paul was inevitably surrounded by multiple defenders. This looked to be the plan as his herky-jerky movement either got the defense on their heels and himself a shot at the rim or at the right spacing to drop off a pass to his diving center. Other times he’d be at a near standstill, letting the play drag on until the defender relaxed and mismanaged his defensive spacing, freeing Paul up to take the jumper. This night was unmistakably a product Paul’s vision of the game, and the results, driven by an unwavering exactitude, quieted the doubt for another day.


The path to greatness wasn’t made easy for Paul, and he, in turn, didn’t always make it easy to watch. The beautiful, free-flowing moments of a basketball game, the dreamy seconds where players seamlessly fall into place, aren’t his calling. And, standing at an insurance salesman’s six foot tall, Paul has never had the physical tools that allowed players like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd to see over the heads of fast-break defenders and deliver a slick cross-court pass before the defense could get set. The blazing foot speed of Tony Parker that made his first step a reliable advantage to burn defenders and loft a floater over bigs is another tool absent from Paul’s repertoire. Further, not only do such skills provide the obvious benefit of an easy bucket, these are the plays that make top-ten lists and endear a player to the public. Instead, fans watched Paul directing his teammates, shouting—haranguing, really—because manufacturing points with others’ comparative advantages was the most direct route to the win.


In October 2017, as a member of the Houston Rockets, Paul appeared in a documentary where, sitting in a plush recording studio, he gave every indication it wasn’t necessarily fun running the Clippers’ offense. The documentary granted access to a normally opaque aspect of free agency, and from this vantage point, viewers saw Paul seeking counsel from Jay-Z, whose success and long-running popularity speak to his own knack for reinvention. The topics ranged from $210M contracts and organizational culture—topics you would expect to discuss with a mogul—to the conversations typical for any person who has to start over in a new city. Looking past the large sums of money and grounded discussion of family life, the most revelatory line came when Paul echoed the sentiments of many NBA analysts: the ball is in his hands far too often. Footage from a summer scrimmage with James Harden shows Paul verbally committing to changing his role in Houston. With the clanked perimeter shot followed by the phrase, “it’s sort of learning all over again,” we see proof of his intent and yet, the analysts who couldn’t agree more with this decision aren’t convinced of its success.


Do people of Chris Paul’s stature label their own moving boxes, taking the time to carefully write “trophy room” on the packing tape? One imagines there were at least a few boxes marked thus; the abridged list of accolades lining the walls of his new house could include a ROY trophy, 2 Olympics medals, All-Star MVP and whatever it is that you receive for 7 First Team All-Defense awards—maybe signed Tony Allen portraits? His past accomplishments are legendary, worthy of direct comparison to the logo himself, Mr. Jerry West.

From another angle, those accolades themselves may be an admission that Paul’s collection of hardware is cast in a material every bit as unbending as the old offenses he used to run. Left unchanged as the orchestrator of a pick and roll, grind-it-out offense, Chris Paul didn’t project to threaten the Warriors.

The defiant defense that makes players inches taller swing the ball to the other side in fear of his stout, leveraged post defense isn’t in doubt; it’s the game being close enough for it to matter. The man with 100% Hall of Fame probability still has something to prove.

His skill isn’t the question. His brand of savvy defense hasn’t disappeared, the same irritating sort embodied by stepping in front of an opposing point guard who, fresh from receiving an inbound pass, hasn’t noticed a human wall forcing him into a travel. It’s the spirit of this type of play that made it historically difficult to say Paul gets in the flow of the game. In fact, he’s actively tried to disrupt a fluid game at every instance possible, which makes his successful integration into the Rockets’ offense more impressive. He’s dealt large sums of assists in limited minutes and has finally played off the ball and become the recipient of James Harden passes, exactly what he envisioned in Jay-Z’s studio.

What’s left to prove is if he can remain in sync with the Rockets’ temperament when the high stakes playoff basketball tempt him to will his team to a victory and pound the rock more than he should. It’s vital to keep the D’Antoni project humming along, whether that means letting James Harden handle the ball for extended periods of time or jacking a shot from 30 feet to keep the defense on its toes or because it’s the first opening. It’s doing less in these scenarios that’s the challenge. As tempting as it is to ask Paul to go shot-for-shot with Stephen Curry and the new wave of score-first point guards, quickly facilitating perimeter shots for his teammates with the occasional outburst himself provides the best opportunity to defeat the Warriors and make it to the Finals.

Barring Golden State injuries, the Rockets won’t be the favorite to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy, and, in any case, there’s still something to be gained. But Chris Paul has put himself in a position to go from the old ideal of a point guard to a driving force on one of the league’s most innovative teams, and, regardless of the results, this process is proving a joy to watch.

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