How Chris Paul, the NBA’s Most Ruthless Player, Came Out on Top
Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul got together with a group of talented young players and gamed the COVID chaos to his advantage like a diabolical genius.
Over the last nine years, Damian Lillard has indoctrinated Trail Blazers fans into a concept of basketball excellence that has terraformed the minds of everyone in Portland, Oregon. He is exactly what every fanbase says they want in a franchise player: a leader of men, devoted to whichever place he plies his trade; a stunning clutch performer; and a guy who refuses to participate in the kind of flopping and histrionics that define the James Hardens of the world. Dame doesn’t do it like The Big Guys. He went to college for four years. He owns a Toyota dealership in town. He doesn’t even argue with referees all that much. Even when the Blazers lose, or Dame misses out on the All-Star team, Blazers fans double down: losing with Dame is better than willing with someone else. There is no true victory without honor, they say.
As a Blazers fan, I bought it for a while. It’s really very addictive, logging onto Twitter and arguing that a player in a small media market should have made All-NBA First Team and not Third Team, like he did. But as the team has found itself stuck in the mud and indulging in a series of terrible decisions, I have been struck by a bolt of clarity: I hate that shit. Honor and community, fair play, all that trash. The truth is, I crave dishonor, the providence of basketball Odysseuses. Sportsmanship is for suckers.
Death to honor, I say. Flopping is the province of gods, leaving in free agency is the only rational action in a league and a world dominated by money, chastising your inferior teammates is the sign of true genius. I would trade all the Damian Lillards in the world for one Chris Paul.
Paul is one of the greatest players of his generation, still plying his trade at the highest level at a time when many of his peers have drifted off into the sunset. His game is comprehensive. There are no weaknesses. He is a brilliant playmaker, a thinker in space who creates angles that wouldn’t occur to anyone else. He has assisted on 45 percent of his team’s field goals when he was on the court, the second highest mark in the history of the NBA, and has put up multiple 50 percent assist percentage seasons on multiple teams.
Paul is a sub-six-foot point guard who still manages to play irritating defense through pure uncanny force of will. He is a crossover artist, Iverson-level ball-handling maniac who still has the presence of mind to not let himself dominate possession night to night. From midrange or three or the rim or the line or wherever, if it’s on a basketball court, Chris Paul can score there. He is currently the best player on an NBA Finals team at the age of 36. 36! He doesn’t even seem like a dude who is in particularly good shape, and he’s decisively better than an All-Star guard on his team who was 12 when he came into the NBA.
The man is a miracle, the Platonic ideal of a guard, a complete package. He is also basketball Napoleon, an advantage-seeking jerk who leaves a trail of intrigue wherever he goes.
Here is a young CP3, decked out in Wake Forest colors, punching Julius Hodge in the dick in the middle of a game:
Did age mellow his psychotically competitive, and maybe a little dirty streak? Hell no. Paul is always seeking little rule-bending advantages out there—slipping a leg around, wiggling, taking a flop. Check this out from this year’s Conference Finals, where Paul was facing the Clippers, his old team:
Absolutely shameless, really beautiful rogue crap. Watch him send himself tumbling to the ground, get up and then, with a smile in his eyes and evil in his heart, openly suggest that Cousins ought to be ejected for the terrible crime that Chris managed to frame him for. Not everyone is a fan. Some are viewers with cops in their hearts, who feel that fooling referees is somehow immoral or contrary to the spirit of the game, people who just don’t understand that cheating and advantage-seeking is part of the spirit of every game, the little extra space you slip into because you know that winning is cooler than losing.
Some, on the other hand, are Chris’ colleagues.
Paul’s excellence, working in tandem with his shamelessness, drives some opponents to the edge of madness. Patrick Beverley is a grown man, so in his feelings about Chris Paul dismantling him with evil magic that he shoves him in the back like a cowardly fella in a playground. Chris doesn’t even seem like he gives a damn, taking the opportunity to roll around on the ground for a while to really emphasize the flagrant foul while smiling like he’s the Joker. Then, he gets up off the floor and:
Immaculate. A moment of pure, unadulterated dickheadery. A 36-year-old man who thinks it’s fucking hilarious that he drove a 33-year-old man to shove him in the back on national television. This is the spirit of true excellence, not that honor-bound playing-the-right-way bullshit.
If Chris Paul is somehow imperfect, it comes from his prickliness as a teammate. After The Last Dance premiered last summer, many people got their first taste of Michael Jordan, one man atom bomb—a dude with next to no regard for the feelings of his teammates against the spoils of victory. Chris Paul is also like that, except he isn’t Michael Jordan.
Remember this? When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul to complement Blake Griffin after Blake’s insane Rookie of the Year season where he dunked his way through space and time? “It’s gonna be Lob City,” he says, cursing his squad with the moniker it would wear like a millstone for the next six or so years. Because Chris Paul doesn’t play fast; Chris plays half-court basketball, stubbornly and idiosyncratically. This clash of styles and personalities doomed the Clippers, playing in a Western Conference newly dominated by an idiom-altering Golden State Warriors squad, to never quite becoming a contender. Chris moved on to Houston, where he netted a huge contract to play in a backcourt with James Harden, also a heroically inveterate flopper. They also did not get along. Harden, fed up with Paul, demanded the team trade him for Russell Westbrook, a worse player whose style was even less synchronous with Harden’s. Without Paul nagging everyone into consistent excellence, they got significantly worse and ultimately traded everyone.
Paul was thought to be out of the playoff picture when he was shuttled off to Oklahoma City but, somehow, he managed to command a squad of impossibly young players and washouts to the sixth seed out of pure spite. OKC, dead set on rebuilding, gave him carte blanche to get his big-ass contract traded wherever. He requested the Suns, a young team with a high upside that hadn’t been in the playoffs for more than a decade. Young players, open to the brutal force of his psychic power. They’re in the Finals now. Loyalty to the imagined nation of an NBA team is nonsense when you’re trying to win basketball games.
Paul wants to make money and he wants to win. He doesn’t blow smoke up anyone’s ass about loyalty or fair play or any of that nonsense. He doesn’t sell himself short for The Team or The Fans, he doesn’t censor himself or hold back to spare the fragile feelings of dudes who have been told they’re special their entire lives. He is a pure malevolent basketball force, an itchy scab on the arms of friend and foe alike, an NBA demon. How appropriate it is that when the whole league collapsed under the weight of this horrible, completely unsustainable COVID schedule, Chris’ main priority was getting together with a set of young legs and gaming the chaos to his advantage. If anyone out there can be said to have won this insanely unfair title by his own doing, it would be Chris Paul. There is no NBA player in the league that more deeply understands that fairness itself is a construct—a series of traditions to mutilate on the road to victory.