By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The grumblings started long before the fall, long before Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers fell in the Western Conference semifinals to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They’ve been rumbling around the basketball world for years now, the questioning of Paul’s place among the game’s current greats. Where does he fit in a landscape where he’s generally considered one of, if not the best point guard in the game? And yet there is still that glaring hole on his resume.
Paul has never been to the conference finals and has therefore only been a spectator when the NBA’s champion has been crowned.
He’s won multiple gold medals in international competition, including the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, and is a staple in the talent-laden USA Basketball pipeline. And still, there are folks that want to chip away at his armor after years of excellence from him.
It doesn’t help that his contemporaries have hardware he lacks. LeBron James has championships rings and MVPs trophies to spare. Kevin Durant joined the elite club with his first MVP this season. Tony Parker has a Finals MVP and plenty of rings. Derrick Rose has his MVP. Rajon Rondo a ring and multiple trips to the conference finals and The Finals. Even the oft-maligned Russell Westbrook has been to The Finals.
Paul is in that weird superstar purgatory where everyone knows he belongs in any conversation of the best of the very best, until they start weeding guys out based on their accomplishments. The same superstar purgatory that veteran All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love have taken up permanent residence in the past few seasons (Anthony has been to the conference finals but still gets panned for not winning it all. Love is still waiting to make the postseason.)
Paul’s been a subject of a witch hunt, of sorts, this season in particular, with pundits and Hall of Famers questioning the validity of his superstar status. It’s a witch hunt that needs to stop!
Paul’s a seven-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA pick (three times on the first team), a five-time All-Defensive team selection and has led the league in assists three times and in steals six times. He knows better than anyone that the shortcomings in the playoffs are the one dark mark on his ledger right now, that’s why he takes the losses as hard as he does. That’s why this latest failure stings the way it does and will until he gets a chance to make it right.
Those of us who chronicle the league have been tossed into the fire as well. We’ve been accused of giving Paul a pass because he’s always been good to us, always been as cooperative as possible and is a drama-free superstar in a world that boasts few of those.
That’s garbage. I don’t hold Paul to any different standard than anyone else. He and Deron Williams came into the league and promptly bum-rushed the point guard hierarchy. Paul played his way into the elite mix, held his own all the way up and fended off challenges year after year.
He doesn’t have to defend his position to me, you or anyone else.
He is not the fist superstar to fall down at a big moment in the playoffs, the way he did in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Westbrook and Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder. That final and disastrous 13.9 seconds will not define Paul’s season or career. And to hear people suggest that it would or even should is a testament to the prisoner-of-the-moment syndrome that permeates every fiber of our current sports culture.
“I just feel awful for him, point-blank I do,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after his team bowed out to the Thunder in Game 6. “He’s the spirit of our team and right now his spirit is broken.”
You’d expect nothing less of a man who holds himself to the standard Paul does. But if we start running down the list of Hall of Famers who came up short in big moments, who didn’t win it all, we’d be here all day … and night.
This notion that Paul’s incapable of leading a team to championship heights is preposterous. No one took the Clippers serious as a contender before his arrival. For him to power them through the turmoil of the ongoing Donald Sterling saga the way he did goes down as another of his standout performances.
That in no way lets him off his own hook. Paul’s not looking to be patronized by me or anyone else for doing and saying the right thing, or coming close but not breaking through to the conference final threshold after a decade in the league. He wants more, he needs more. And that’s the way we all like our superstars, our champions to be built.
Paul believes he has championship DNA. And he knows that the only way to validate his own belief in himself is to make sure he and Rivers, Blake Griffin and the Clippers find their way to that next level in the near future.
If that means going back to the grind for yet another summer with the rumblings surrounding him and the questions lingering about whether or not he’s going to be a true superstar or a superstar with an asterisk, bring it on.
“I prepare for every offseason like I always do,” a clearly agitated Paul said after that Game 6 loss to the Thunder. “It’s nothing just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”