Things changed at the end of Game 5 of last season’s Clippers-Thunder playoff series. Chris Paul made three critical mistakes in the final 45 seconds of an improbable Thunder rally, and Oklahoma City wrapped the series in the next game. The Clippers were vanquished again.
You began hearing it, and reading it, all over the place: Nine seasons in, Chris Paul, the alleged Point God, had yet to appear in the conference finals. It has been no different in this corner of the Internet. Andrew Sharp wrote incisively about how Paul’s future playoff fate, and all the variables that will go into it, would determine the way we remember and talk about Paul. As I stood backstage during the taping of the first Grantland Basketball Hour, attempting not to crap my pants at the thought of appearing on national TV between Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose (and Jalen’s bat), I listened intently as Simmons asked Jeff Van Gundy about Paul’s conference finals shutout: “What does it mean?”
I kind of wanted to rush the stage.
The Paul discussion crystallizes two nagging trends in basketball fandom, media culture, and sports analysis: (1) an obsession with championships as the sole marker of success, and (2) hand-wringing over legacy, “narratives,” and how the collective We perceives particular NBA players.
The word “narrative” pops up in sportswriting more often than a non-fan might expect, since we’re writing about a bunch of grown men wearing funny uniforms running around throwing balls of various shapes. The need to turn games into something grander is natural. It can feel silly to invest so much anguish into a game that doesn’t hold larger metaphysical importance.
It’s also fun. Finding big-picture arcs to sum up a player’s career inevitably simplifies things in a way that generates energetic arguments with our buddies. Is LeBron “clutch” or not? Is Russell Westbrook a true point guard? Does Dwight Howard smile too much to be a championship player?
Sports absolutely can reveal something deeper about a player’s core nature. Some players thrive under pressure, demanding the ball in the hothouse of a Game 7, as if shouldering the burden of a team’s season is no biggie. Some players shrink from those moments, prove themselves to be selfish, or morph into injury-riddled tragic figures. There is grist for the literary in basketball.
But it can seem at times as if “narratives,” and anxiety over them, are taking over sportswriting. When Derrick Rose said last week that he’s cautious returning to action in part because he wants to ensure his post-retirement health, there was a voluminous outcry against anyone who would dare label Rose a wimp. The think pieces criticizing anti-Rose machismo seemed to outnumber the voices actually calling Rose a wimp.
When Kevin Durant broke his foot, we all salivated at the thought of finally seeing Westbrook take the reins of the Thunder offense and bend it to his will. That excitement came with a caveat: Whatever Westbrook did would somehow become a referendum not only on his ability, but also on the very nature of Westbrook as something other than a True Point Guard. We wouldn’t just examine the specifics of Westbrook’s game — how it helped, and sometimes hurt, the Thunder on both ends of the floor. Some corners of the basketball media would use the time to rewrite Westbrook’s legacy.
The great Paul Flannery of SB Nation expressed his exhaustion with some of the call-and-response in this exchange with Tom Ziller:
I’m not worried about Russ playing his game because he’s never once shown a tendency to give one good god damn what anyone else thinks about his play. I’m just anticipating the think pieces and the rebuttals and I’m getting bored with it already.
Narratives are fun, and interesting. They can get at larger truths, and they reflect the way that we, as fans and media, think and talk about basketball. There is value in just analyzing that — in digging into media discussions and fan behavior. The zoomed-out examination of basketball, and of positions, at FreeDarko changed the way a lot of us think about the game — for the better. Shining a light on some of the team-level “narratives” — the notion that a jump-shooting team can’t win it all, for instance — can reveal deeper truths about the game, even if anyone paying token attention already knew the basic conclusion.
Some narratives are also, frankly, dumb. The word “narrative” can act as a synonym for “line of thought that exists somewhere in the world, and is demonstrably false.” We use an awful lot of brain space addressing and rebutting “narratives” that probably don’t merit all that much attention, save for the fact that they bring clicks. The “LeBron isn’t clutch” narrative after the 2011 Finals was ridiculous, given his past buzzer-beaters, overtime baskets, insane streaks of consecutive points, and other playoff heroics. It was accurate to say that LeBron quaked under the pressure of his first Finals appearance with villainous Miami, but that’s very different — and less catchy — than just branding him a crunch-time failure.
The notion that Dirk Nowitzki was “soft” gained some traction after the 2006 Finals and the Mavericks’ subsequent flameouts, and it died only after Nowitzki triumphed in those 2011 Finals against the Heat. Nowitzki was never soft. He wasn’t even a much different player in 2011 than the one he had been in 2006 and 2007, when Golden State’s “We Believe” team pulled off an all-time upset over Dallas. He was more experienced, smarter, better at posting up the Stephen Jackson types who gave him fits in prior seasons.
But he hadn’t discovered some inner fortitude that allowed him to succeed in 2011 where he had failed before. Nowitzki before snuffing the Heat was, by almost any measure, one of the greatest postseason performers and clutch shooters in league history. He hit monster shots in monster moments every season, including in the last minutes of close games in those 2006 Finals, when Udonis Haslem frustrated him into some unusually bad shooting nights. Even then, Nowitzki was taking and making clutch baskets. They are on record. They exist. You can watch a lot of them online, for free.
What Nowitzki had in 2011 was a perfectly balanced roster that included by far the best two-way center, Tyson Chandler, that has suited up for Dallas during Nowitzki’s career. The bracket in the West that season opened up when Memphis upset San Antonio in the first round, leaving Dallas to dispatch an inexperienced Thunder team in the conference finals before flustering the Heat. Nowitzki has even conceded to me that Dallas might have been a tad lucky catching Miami in the Big Three’s first year together, when LeBron broke in the moment and the Heat hadn’t yet discovered their small-ball identity.
That stuff takes nothing away from the Mavericks’ invigorating title romp. That is how you win a title — with loads of talent and cohesion, good health,1 and matchup luck.
1. And the Mavs didn’t even have that after losing Caron Butler to a season-ending injury.
Dallas hasn’t won a playoff series since then; the West has just been too good. I shudder to think how we would talk about Nowitzki’s twilight had he not won that title.
The Western Conference bloodbath has created a lot of narrative victims over the last 15 or 20 years — and continues to do so today. Kevin Garnett couldn’t get out of the first round for seven years, and then he made the conference finals in Minnesota just once — in 2004, when the Wolves racked up the no. 1 seed and home-court advantage, an edge that helped in eking out a Game 7 home win over the Kings in the second round. Had they lost that game, the narrative gods would have rendered Garnett a loser — until he arrived in Boston and earned a ring with better teammates battling through the weaker conference.
Carmelo Anthony advanced to the conference finals just once, in 2009, before bolting to the East. The Nuggets in that season’s first round rampaged over the Hornets in five games, and even Denver’s coach, George Karl, could see that a knee injury was slowing down Chris Paul. The Nuggets eased by the Mavs in the next round, and it’s impossible to know if Dallas, the no. 6 seed that season, would have even advanced that far had Manu Ginobili not missed the Spurs-Mavericks first-round series with an ankle injury. Even Tim Duncan, one of the five or 10 greatest players ever, needs his full complement of teammates to advance in the West.
Deron Williams, once considered a true foil for Paul, led his deep Utah teams into the conference finals just once — in 2007, when Golden State did Utah the favor of eliminating the 67-win Mavericks, Utah’s potential second-round opponent, in that first-round shocker.
This is the context for the burbling Paul discussion, the environment in which Paul and his teammates will shape the “narrative” of his career.
It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the NBA is a relatively young league. The number of teams has fluctuated almost constantly, and the rules governing the on-court game and off-court player movement have changed several times. It’s useful to remember that when someone points out that Paul has never made the conference finals, that it’s unprecedented for a star of Kevin Love’s ability to miss the playoffs in his first six seasons, and that if Anthony Davis is actually as good as we all say he is, the Pelicans damn well better make the playoffs this season.
Breaking out historic precedent may not carry much meaning when considering the difficulty of advancing through this particular Western Conference. “It’s certainly more difficult today than it was in my time,” says Jerry West, perhaps the leading authority in living the weird dichotomy of thriving individually during the playoffs while always falling short of the championship. His peers knew West as “Mr. Clutch” before the Lakers finally broke through in 1972, but West bitterly remembers how strangers would accost him during his jogs through Southern California, shouting that he and the Lakers were “chokers.”
Today’s playoffs consist of more rounds than they did when West played, and free agency makes it more difficult for teams to develop continuity, he says. “It’s absolutely ludicrous” to judge players based on whether they’ve won a title, West says. “Has Chris Paul ever had the most talented team? No, he hasn’t. Take Chris Paul off the Clippers, and what do you have?”
What would it mean for Paul’s legacy if the Clippers lose in the first or second round again this season? I don’t know. It depends on how Paul plays. What if the answer should be, “It means nothing, because Chris Paul is awesome, and this entire discussion is sort of loud and silly”?
Paul has made the playoffs six times; he has led the league in postseason player efficiency rating in three of those six trips. His career playoff PER is 25.0. Here is the list of players who have logged at least 1,000 postseason minutes and exceeded that number: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, George Mikan. That’s the list.
But PER is a surface stat that scans a player’s overall performance. No evaluation would end there. Paul’s best pre–Los Angeles team was the 2008 Hornets, a 56-win team that lost at home in Game 7 to the Spurs in the second round. That was the only close game of the series, and Paul put up 18 points, 14 assists, and eight rebounds before fouling out in the last seconds. He missed a layup with 45 seconds left that would have pulled the Hornets within three, but he also leaped between Ginobili and Tony Parker for an offensive rebound with about 1:30 left that he tipped right to Jannero Pargo for a triple that kept New Orleans alive.
Paul’s first-round series that season was a snoozer, but the final game was close, and Paul dispatched Dallas with a 24-15-11 triple-double that included an 11-point fourth quarter on 5-of-7 shooting.
He was hurt in the middle of the Denver series the next season, and when he got hurt again in 2010, the Hornets missed the playoffs. The next season, Paul averaged 22 points and 11.5 assists, hitting nearly 55 percent from the floor, in dragging a hopelessly undermanned Hornets team into a surprisingly competitive six-game series against the defending champion Lakers.
Injuries to Paul and his most important teammates have dotted his playoff career. Blake Griffin could barely play in the final two games of the Clippers’ first-round loss against Memphis two years ago due to a severe ankle sprain. Paul averaged 32 points per game on 22-of-40 shooting over the last two games of that series, but the Clippers without Griffin didn’t have enough to compete.
That series might have been over earlier had Paul not gone berserk in crunch time of Game 2, sinking 3-of-4 in the last 2:30, including a buzzer-beater to win the game.
That performance gave Memphis fans some nauseating flashbacks to the previous season, 2011-12, when Paul’s late-game play bordered on the implausible. He almost single-handedly won Game 4 of that first-rounder in overtime, slicing through for a layup with 26 seconds left in regulation to break a tie, and then raining fire with a 4-of-5 run of jumpers and leaners to clinch the game in overtime.
Paul had botched the final play of regulation in that game, failing to get a shot up under pressure from Tony Allen and others. It was an awful mistake, much like the comedy of errors that cost the Clippers in Game 5 against Oklahoma City last season.
Paul committed two more crucial late-game turnovers in Game 6 of that Clippers-Grizzlies series in 2012, melting under Allen’s hounding defense. He missed all of his shots in the fourth quarter of that game and again failed to make a single field goal in the fourth quarter of Game 7 two days later. The Clippers won, so no one remembers that.
Paul played through a hip flexor and a jammed finger during those playoffs, and he tossed away what was effectively a series-deciding turnover in the next round against San Antonio. The Spurs swept that series, so the turnover in Game 4 was inconsequential in the big picture.
Paul has generally done well in big moments. He has outshot almost every superstar in crunch time, and he’s a tidy 18-of-36 in the last five minutes2 of playoff games in which the score has been within five points. He’s missed some big shots, and he’s suffered his fair share of boners; his turnover rate has spiked badly in several playoff seasons.
2. And overtime.
Guess what. This is exactly what you’d expect from a little guy who has supervised just about every important offensive possession for his team since the day he walked into the league. Paul has more hits than misses, and that’s rare for crunch time, when shooting percentages drop and even stars wilt under increased defensive attention.
What will it mean if the Clippers bow out early again this year? How will it affect Paul’s legacy?
Maybe these aren’t the right questions. They’re interesting, and inflammatory, but they also skimp on the work in a rush toward some false generalization. Maybe the answer would just be, “Chris Paul is awesome, and he played fantastically, but another great Western Conference team was just a bit better over a full series.” Such a failure could mean many things, only some of which would have do with Paul. Perhaps it might be some indication that it is difficult to win the whole thing with a point guard alpha dog.
Paul is objectively one of the 10 greatest point guards ever, a rare combination of historic passing, very good shooting, slicing attacks toward the rim, and elite defense at his position. He has no weaknesses, save perhaps his height, which can make it hard for him at times to see over the defenses and throw the cross-court passes that LeBron tosses with such ease.
The game provides truth. When you have truth, you don’t need narratives — including the one that says a player is somehow flawed until he wins a championship. Death to RINGZ.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Chicago’s New Choices
Chicago is eighth in points per possession, and it was much higher before laying an egg against the Pacers over the weekend. A Bulls team with a top-10 offense should frighten the rest of the league.
Pau Gasol isn’t a dominant scorer anymore, but he’s a legit low-post option who defenses must respect, and his passing and post scoring open up new options for a polished Bulls attack. Behold this masterpiece against Toronto:
Holy crap. Look at everything that happens here: a cross screen for Gasol that is a newly dangerous action; a quick “zipper” pick-and-roll for Jimmy Butler, playing out of his mind so far; a scripted action from Gasol, called “shorting,” in which the big man not involved in the pick-and-roll zooms up the lane, catches a pass from the ball handler, and kicks to the shooter open on the weak side. Derrick Rose finishes the job with a corner 3.
That kind of versatility was just not available to any prior Rose-era Chicago team.
2. Glass-Tapping and the Basketball Gods
Players risk the wrath of the basketball gods when they snare a defensive rebound and think they have enough clear space to bang the ball against the backboard in a loud bit of showing off.
Terrence Ross risked this in that Bulls game, and the gods rained punishment upon Carmelo Anthony two days later, when he tried to pull this one-handed against Denver:
Whoops! Heed the fundamentals, Melo!
3. Lance Stephenson’s Pull-up Game
Stephenson has found his footing after a bricky, pouty start, but he’s still flailing away from the midrange; he is an ugly 11-of-46 on pull-up jumpers, per NBA.com’s SportVU data. The midrange shot is out of style, but it’s something every high-usage ball handler needs in his arsenal.
Stephenson can’t get to the rim every time, and his 3-pointer is hit-and-miss. He always seems to be leaning forward a bit on his pull-up jumpers, and that form isn’t working. Stephenson needs to clean this up.
4. Andrew Wiggins’s Step-back Jumper
This baby is gorgeous. Again, it’s not an ideal analytics-era shot, but it’s handy to have in your bag with the shot clock winding down. Defenses have already figured out that they have to respect it, and Wiggins can start using the threat of his step-back to work defenders off-balance for blow-by drives.
5. The Greek Freak, Driving at the 4
The Bucks are fun, people! One reason: They are shifting their young guys, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, across multiple positions, testing the give-and-take of playing big and small lineups.
Antetokounmpo gives up size and bulk at power forward, but he has a massive speed advantage over any big man unfortunate enough to check him. Antetokounmpo has leveraged that edge in smart ways. He can blow by any big-man defender, or at least get him backpedaling and off-balance, and then unleash a runner near the rim. Good luck, Marc Gasol!
When opposing defenses sink in to wall off those driving lanes, Antetokounmpo has been smart about kicking to open shooters:
Jason Kidd can do some fascinating stuff with this collection of giant limbs, and he already has them playing top-five defense.
6. Jonas Valanciunas’s Slow Passing
Valanciunas is a real threat on the pick-and-roll and in the post, with a burgeoning power game and a loping righty hook that he can get off over almost anyone. But he won’t approach peak lethality until he can read the floor at full speed and whip smart passes.
Valanciunas draws extra help on post-ups, but he’s slow recognizing open players, and he can make only the most obvious passes at this point. He can’t yet anticipate defensive rotations and find the player who’s about to come open — instead of the guy who already is, but won’t be much longer.
The same is true on the pick-and-roll. Valanciunas will catch the ball in space just below the foul line, with the defense in the middle of a crisis-level rotation. Passing opportunities abound, but they vanish fast, and Valanciunas notices them only once it’s too late.
This will come with time, but the Raps are ready to make noise now, and they need a fully operational two-way center.
7. Bismack Biyombo Blocked Shots
Biyombo has thankfully supplanted Jason Maxiell in the Hornets’ big-man rotation, making Charlotte at least 5 percent more entertaining. Biyombo can barely catch the ball on offense, but he is a rim-protecting highlight factory on the other end.
Offensive players struggled badly to finish when Biyombo was near the basket last season, per SportVU data, but Biyombo doesn’t just go vertical like Roy Hibbert and Chandler. He leaps way above the rim, and he wants to straight murder your shot with volleyball spikes that threaten to go way out of bounds or smash holes through the floor. He will eat your self-esteem. Just ask Shaun Livingston, who barely saw Biyombo coming before the big fella smashed Livingston’s shot to dust in Golden State last weekend.
8. Golden State’s Slate Uniforms
No. Just, no. Message to teams that have great regular uniforms: Please stop messing around with these hideous alternatives designed to vacuum up money from fans. When you think Warriors, you definitely think a drab gray. Come on.
9. Dwight Howard, Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler???!??
So, I guess this is happening now?
I’m torn on whether this should be a like or a dislike. On the plus side, coloring outside the lines is always welcome amid the haze of 30 NBA teams running the same general sets. Howard is fast enough to pull this off, and if Houston is trusting him to face up and work the pick-and-roll, it’s a good sign that he is indeed feeling spry and healthy.
But these aren’t going to be aesthetically pleasing adventures, and they promise to add more free throws to Houston’s already interminable games. The pluses outweigh the minuses; let’s count this as a like.
10. The Thunder, Going “on the High Side”
Brian Davis, the Thunder’s play-by-play guy, can get a little homerific for my taste, but he has a classic TV voice and a way with words. Case in point: When Oklahoma City comes from behind to take the lead, Davis will sometimes exclaim that the Thunder “are on the high side!” I like it!