What we’ve more or less known for several years spanning multiple presidential administrations is that a person, currently in his thirties and born in Ohio, is the most important and influential men’s basketball player of the past twenty years, at least. While it’s contentious to suggest that the state is the birthplace of aviation, as the state itself does, instead of aviators, which is what it is, its place as a basketball haven is beyond question.
The antecedent, however, lies in the heart of the beholder: LeBron James is, by most credible accounts, at least the second- or third-greatest basketball player ever to walk the earth. His performance in the 2015 NBA Finals, nevermind the following year, won many people over following his period of Heat villainy.
Then again, well, the guy who spearheaded the Finals win over him, as well as two more later on, put on a 37-point performance Tuesday night against a former teammate’s would-be superteam when the Golden State Warriors beat the Brooklyn Nets 117-99. That guy, Steph Curry, was (and, the hope goes, always will be) cooking.
It is the latter half of the 2021-’22 NBA regular season, and the Los Angeles Lakers sit in eighth place in the Western Conference with a 28-29 record. Big man Anthony Davis, acknowledged to be a big without allowing himself to be referred to as a center, has missed twenty games, while LeBron James, the fulcrum upon which all Lakers-based activity must depend, has incurred an apparent return of the high ankle sprain which had once befallen him.
James has taken to imploring his teammates to work harder in his absence, which seemingly grows longer at his whims. On Instagram, his beseeching increasingly includes the term “brodie,” seemingly in the pejorative. Teammate Russell Westbrook notices.
The thousand injuries of Lebrunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled – but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity.
When the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul, it seemed to be an opportunity, albeit a misguided one: the aged Point God would arrive and, just as he had in OKC before, impart some majestic secret knowledge on the youths, a Gnostic arriving to guide things just enough, to the point that they would be able to grow beyond his available measure upon his departure. He would never be at peace, but if this was his role at 35, Paul would be charitably useful. Only then would he again elevate everyone around him, and so far, he has exceeded that.
Did I think this year’s edition of the Phoenix Suns was that team? Not necessarily, but they had a lot more juice than many previous editions of Chris Paul Teams, with or without the State Farm sponsorship. Despite their youth and various fears, here they are: the orbs whose mascot and logo cause so much consternation, and yet a team whose continued excellence brings a familiar chill to anyone daring themselves to watch following his time with the other Hornets, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder. Finally, now, Chris Paul is in an NBA Finals.
It would be negligence to suggest that Paul’s presence alone turned a team that went undefeated in last year’s abridged bubble – and still missed the playoffs! – into the Western Conference representative this year. Paul is and remains the Point God, perhaps now more than ever, but we’ve already talked that over, so it seems fair and fitting to bestow some glory on the rest, the co. in CP3 and Co.
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.
Historically, there is a slight dispute over the first usage of the term “triple-double” in a basketball context – Philadelphia 76ers publicist Harvey Pollack stakes a claim, as does ex-Los Angeles Lakers PR man Bruce Jolesch. Fittingly, they are intertwined courtesy of the same player, Magic Johnson, who had seven triple-doubles the 1980-’81 season and would ultimately finish with 138 in his career.
That number was still 43 behind the career total of Oscar Robertson, who held the record for nearly half a century and had set his final total at 181, in 1974. That number stood until Monday night, when Russell Westbrook, now of the Washington Wizards, pulled down his tenth rebound against the Atlanta Hawks and, having already notched double-digit points and assists, broke the Big O’s record for career triple-doubles on his way to a 28-point, 13-rebound, 21-assist performance. Naturally, Westbrook barreled up the floor and promptly missed a three-pointer.
It’s been the longest, coldest, loneliest winter, and every time I look up – usually to take my eyes off the screen for the requisite twenty seconds-per-twenty minutes of screen time, or about as much as my stop light eyes can stand in the middle of the afternoon – it gets longer. Once again, winter is and has been upon us, beautiful falling snow giving way to the malignant ice, which has never done anyone any favors and, really, just ought to melt immediately, in between Jack Frost’s cosplay as Punxsutawney Phil.
Even in New York City – we’re the lucky ones as far as the past two weeks have gone, and among places you’d expect to not be doing so well in a February winter – seasonal depression is self-evident in almost anyone you encounter, as far as “encountering” a person can go these days: there is the lady on the muffled phone call, pulling from a cigarette in between listening; there is the shop owner, only going inside when a potential customer directs her in; there is the man on the street, literally pleading with his corgi to please join him on the street corner.
Long before it was the juice that fueled your disappointing Zoom meetings, coffee was a delight of the Arabian Peninsula. It might delight people to know that the word “coffee” is itself derived from a word originally given to a type of wine, at least in many common interpretations; what somebody saw in both was appetite suppression. Fair enough.
It might be curious, then, to learn that the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler started selling homespun coffee in the NBA bubble under the moniker Big Face Coffee. For $20 a pop, any resident of the bubble could have a taste, courtesy of a five-time NBA All-Star. Butler is one of the most notoriously hard workers in the league, and, as such, his appetite has never come into question. On Sunday night, and with a stupendous amount of help from Bam Adebayo – who, it’s worth noting, hates Butler’s pricing strategy – and company, he pushed the Miami Heat into the NBA Finals, ready to stand up to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
At some point, what you are becoming and who you are meet. Sometimes you decide the time and place of that meeting; most often, you do not. Rarely is it easy, a Craigslist handoff that satisfies both parties over a diner coffee at some halfway point. Someone is usually coming away sour. Given that who you are now, in the present, has the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonably safe to say that who you are looks at who you were and wonders how, exactly, you are standing here, right now, like this.
Who is Paul George, now? I can tell you – anybody who watched the NBA at the beginning of the last decade can tell you – who Paul George was in 2014, which was a would-be dominant force meant to supplement the LeBron-stopping powers of Roy Hibbert and the rest of his merry band in Indiana.
Following Tuesday night’s Game 7 loss against the Denver Nuggets, however, in a series George’s current team, the Los Angeles Clippers, many observers heavily favored to win and one in which those very Clippers were up 3-1, the question becomes much more hazy: who is Paul George, and what is he going to be in terms of championship contention in the forthcoming NBA?
On Tuesday night, we received the first-ever NBA Game 7 that occurred in the month of September. The series had been a showcase for two of the league’s premier young teams, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, and specifically for those teams’ respective young guards, Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell.
Two teams, of the same juggernaut division in the same juggernaut conference, sporting a guard apiece of the modern vintage, but with a distinctly timeless flair: they are Murray and Mitchell, players who would’ve been wildly successful in any era of the NBA but are coming into their own now, in an exceedingly strange 2020. This first round series, an instant and all-time classic, certainly had the flavor of, if not necessarily “kingmaking,” then a long-awaited debutant ball. Each of them revealed parts of themselves and their respective games that are almost certain to shock and amaze for years to come.
So, as with everything showing any kind of promise under the microscope of popular opinion, we ask: Where do they go now?