It’s hard to describe the feeling of the last couple of years to those not following the Los Angeles Clippers up closely for most of their life, not really used to seeing stars playing for the team and actually succeed with it in a way that makes losing in the first round of the playoffs sound like a disappointment. Chris Paul, above everyone else, has been in charge of creating that change.
Vinny Del Negro is probably a decent coach, but it’s not him that makes the Clippers into such a great team over the last couple of seasons, making the conference semifinals in 2012 and taking a 2-0 lead in the first round series against Memphis in 2013. There isn’t anything about their schemes on both ends of the floor that makes you feel too appreciative of his coaching abilities, and you know that when things don’t go so well he might be the first one out the door.
And it’s not Blake Griffin, a number one draft pick that needed one year to get over an injury, but has been everything that’s been expected of him and more. No one thought Griffin is going to turn into the next Tim Duncan or Karl Malone, but he’s a 20-10 player who has become more than just high-flying dunks and highlight reels for people to put on replay when they go on YouTube.
It begins with Chris Paul, and it ends with him. It’s about the way he ignites the team on defense, making them an unit that doesn’t have the basics down very well, but through enthusiasm, intelligence and physical ability can lock down the paint and do the most damage in the NBA off turnovers, which begins with the pressure Paul puts on ball carriers when he’s in his zone.
And on offense, it’s all about Paul, especially in the half-court game. There’s no better point guard in the NBA, even if he isn’t the best shooter or the most athletic of the bunch. Paul has that special ability to take over the game in the final moments, despite not being the most imposing figure on the court. He’s just that good with his dribbling and with his shooting ability in the clutch.
When his contract runs out at the end of the season, the first thing to do is try and seal him with a maximum deal, Paul would like to get and sign. It seems that with the current core of players and spirit in the franchise, Paul would like to keep on trying to reach ever greater heights next season, unless something really surprising happens and the Clippers make it out of the West.
But then, if the Clippers do lose to the Grizzlies, will Paul still want to be part of a team that suddenly took a step backwards? The slight paradox of this whole situation is that it’s up to Paul to make sure the Clippers are good enough and worthy of his long-term commitment.
Because unless Paul is close to his best each and every night, the Clippers don’t make it out of the first round, being the one and only advantage they have in this series against a well-coached yet predictable team, that also lacks the depth the Clippers have on the bench. Then again, when you put Eric Bledsoe in the starting position, the bench doesn’t look as good, and the starting lineup doesn’t operate as good either.
There are other valuable pieces to the Clippers, but nothing is even remotely close to Paul. Take out Blake Griffin from this team, and they still make the playoffs in my opinion, only in a less flashy, high flying style. But without Paul? You might get lob city still, but with a lot less winning.