They Call Them ‘Millions’

State Farm TV Commercial, 'Return' Featuring Chris Paul -

While the world’s wealthiest men continue to do their best to disprove other, better-known examples, some truths remain universally acknowledged: parquet looks great on television; nobody will ever understand how to domesticize bears; the American education system is broken. Regardless of our individual solutions to these problems, it seems reasonable to suggest that we agree on these.

Another truth nearly universally acknowledged – and only nearly because there remains a small but growing populace, somewhere, whose entire existence seems strictly to hinge on the acceptance of counterpoints and “asking questions” when there aren’t really any interested parties in the answers, including themselves – is that Chris Paul is the Point God. On Thursday night, helming the Phoenix Suns, and staking his case in the playoffs for the first time in direct opposition to his Banana Boat buddy LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Paul did his work, as always, leading the Suns to a continued rise.

Chris Paul is an archetype of one, the singular point guard who makes every team he’s ever been on demonstrably better – forever listed at 6’0”, he is likely far less imposing by NBA standards – he came out of Wake Forest, legs a-blazin’[1], already smarter than half the league at least as a 20-year-old in 2005. His Hornets teams[2] overachieved quickly – from 18 wins in his rookie season to 38, then 39, then 56 in 2007-’08, when he was the MVP runner-up. The Hornets made the Western Conference semi-finals that year, losing to the omnipresent and then-defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

After “basketball reasons” felled one trade to Los Angeles, another sent him to that team’s inhabitant little brother, the Clippers. Along with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Paul’s cult hero status went mainstream. It was fun, and it was kinetic – by then, people recognized Paul’s guile, and that, combined with Griffin’s all-world athleticism and Jordan’s two-way efficiency, made for a stylized and singular approach that should’ve been the big market alternative to what OKC had had prior to the James Harden trade. Add in Doc Rivers’ track record of managing egos[3]

Lob City lived and died with the health of its inhabitants; while it was here where he established and maintained a reputation as the best guard defender in basketball, racking up steals and deflections at the same pace as he was accumulating assist titles, Griffin’s knees going to hell and league trends challenging Jordan’s efficacy sometimes left Paul with an empty bag, and, eventually, his own injury issues set in.

Let’s do ourselves a favor and just not dwell on Paul’s time with the Rockets too much – It was unpleasant, seemingly for everybody involved, and 2018 was their closest and best chance, and even then, it felt like they didn’t really have a chance against the Warriors, especially once Paul’s injury issues set in once again, and he had little say in the matter. James Harden at his worst meets Chris Paul at his most noticeable worst, and while necessity met opportunity in the first place, neither of these people should ever have been in the same backcourt as the other but for All-Star Games. No further questions.

Once viewed as untradeable, Paul’s 2018 contract extension with Houston landed in Phoenix, and with it, the point guard universally acclaimed as the best of his generation and, by this point, one of the 3-5 best ever, depending on your personal temperament. Though he hadn’t gotten past the conference finals of any playoffs in his career, the 35-year-old could direct traffic, call for screens, operate off-ball and maneuver a defense definitively better than everyone except, at best, Magic Johnson and LeBron James.

While it wasn’t maligned at the time, the move seemed like a reach for both of Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns – the Suns went undefeated in the makeshift NBA bubble last summer, a team the league invited because they were just enough on the fringes of the playoff chase to deserve it and who literally gave it all, to no avail; Paul was a 35-going-on-36 genius who, it seemed, would’ve been better served figuring out how to get to Dallas, or Milwaukee, or one of the Los Angeles teams (again) in order to pursue a ring. If a buyout was the way, so be it.

It was never to be. Paul is now 36, beyond the outer edges of most NBA career expectations. So far in the playoffs, he hasn’t had to do too much, mostly because his just-on-time teammates have been fabulous. Throwing the Lakers into a dumpster as a largely-untested bunch of lottery picks and left-behinds is no small task, but here the Suns are. If they are to be heliocentric, Chris Paul has once again propped himself up as a star, even if in somewhat reduced radiance.

He’s also now, once again, into the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, having led Phoenix’s young chiefs through the muck of growing pains, learning aches and the Western Conference as it is with the same aplomb that he has every other team with which he’s ever found himself involved (State Farm included).

Throughout his career, he has remained orchestral in his technique, a conductor endlessly tweaking and feeling out sounds and reactions to their furthest limits. Weaving in and out of traffic like a motorcyclist through a sea of parked cars, Paul is as likely to draw two defenders and kick to the corner as he is to bum-rush a clogged lane, out of sight, only to pop up and drain yet another elbow jumper over a much taller, longer mark.

Of course Devin Booker looks like the 70-point, All-Star-enabled Coltrane to Paul’s Miles that I admittedly never seriously suspected he could sustainably be. Of course Deandre Ayton[4] looks like he’s going to make his own number one selection look reasonable by comparison to his draft class. Of course Cam Payne was the unsung-turned-properly sung hero of the first round.

Chris Paul enabled this, because he makes sure you always have to account for him. Julius Hodge knew it, against his will, and ever since, it’s been us. The Suns have drawn the Denver Nuggets – themselves no strangers to upsets nor bucking expectation – in the second round, and Paul’s burden will largely fall to those around him. Booker, Ayton and Payne are the characters whose variability might waver, but we know that Paul’s never will. At 36, Chris Paul continues to carve in stone for all to see, living his truth and ours.

[1] In hindsight, it is a bit unfortunate that most of my early exposure to Paul’s Wake teams came via 95.7 FM radio’s NC State broadcasts, after they’d switch over from classic rock while my dad was working in the garage, to basketball, capturing a lot of capital-G Guys and also a lot of aural Julius Hodge antics alongside, yes, that moment.

[2] Given that he is from North Carolina, and that his career trajectory has taken him from one Hornets team to an Oklahoma City-based Hornets team to a different Oklahoma City-based team, one that might not exist without his initial input, it would only fit that Paul eventually gets to either of the Pelicans or current-iteration Charlotte Hornets. George Shinn didn’t grow a divorce beard for this!

[3] With Danny Ainge’s recent “retirement,” the 2008 Boston Celtics are coming dangerously close to not having much more to show for themselves than that, beyond individual achievements; Rivers always goes somewhere and makes a team better, but – allowing for his nascent stint with the Sixers, which may immediately prove me wrong – that team was singular in a way that few others in NBA history have been, and they’re the first ones to remind you of that.

[4] To complete this, Ayton : Bill Evans, and Cam Payne : Adderley. But if this is holistic, maybe Chris Paul is Jimmy Cobb, and everyone else follows from that? DM me with your jazz : basketball comparisons because, well, you know.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: