The Warriors, the best team in basketball by a large margin, beat the Clippers on Tuesday, 110-106. It was a tantalizing affair, perhaps a preview for an outstanding second round matchup this May.
In the second quarter, Steph Curry, who may have actually attended Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, pulled off this fancy maneuver along the left baseline:
— SB Nation (@SBNation) April 1, 2015
The Clippers could have won by 30 and it wouldn’t have changed how NBA Twitter felt about the ordeal: Chris Paul, ya burnt!
— Complex (@ComplexMag) April 1, 2015
Reasons to love the Internet. Sorry Chris Paul. pic.twitter.com/kF8iVBac8R
— Ryan Sloan (@ET_SloanHome) April 1, 2015
Now, I’m all for having fun. Even Chris Paul, who typically falls somewhere between an irritable bastard and Travis Bickle on game days, admitted Curry got him bad. But Paul was brilliant on Tuesday (27 points, nine assists, two turnovers, +4, 12 for 12 FTA), and the social media madness this insta-meme created covers up an otherwise vintage Paul performance.
The Clippers are up to No. 5 in the West, pressing against the struggling Grizzlies and Trail Blazers for home court in round one. Warriors coach Steve Kerr correctly pointed out Tuesday that the game meant more to the Clippers — Los Angeles would have tied Portland in the loss column if they had won. Considering the game was in Los Angeles and the Warriors were down one Draymond Green, the probable Defensive Player of the Year, the Clippers know they left a victory on the table.
But let’s not pretend Tuesday was some grand reveal about why the Clippers can’t win the title. The end of that game was essentially a coin toss. Andre Iguodala sold the foul on his 3-point attempt like a used car salesmen, and Iggy never hits three free throws in a row. If the over-and-back call goes the other way a few moments later, the Clippers end up with a chance to extend the game.
The Curry play is ultimately a great representation for the game itself. Sure, the kid from Davidson schooled Paul with the double move… for two points. Meanwhile, Paul checked Curry the entire game, making him work for everything, and you can argue Paul won the matchup over the full game. Curry is an offense unto himself and deservingly a co-MVP favorite along with James Harden. But I can’t help but think we are painfully underrating the year-in, year-out performance of Chris Paul, the NBA’s greatest point guard going on eight years.
Paul has finished in the Top 5 in MVP voting four times. He was the second-highest vote getter in 2008, just his third season, after leading the NBA in assists and steals. But Paul lost to Kobe Bryant after everyone realized how idiotic the back-to-back Nash MVPs were — and that Bryant, the Alfred Hitchcock of buckets, still had never won.
In 2009, Paul put together one of the greatest point guard seasons ever recorded (22.8 points, led the league in assists and steals, 5.5 rebounds and .503/.368/.868 shooting splits), but LeBron had 20.3 win shares in a masterpiece season and ran away with the award. Crazy thing? Just one year removed from finishing second in MVP voting, above LeBron, Paul (18.3 win shares) finished fifth in 2009 behind Bryant (second-place, 12.7 win shares), Dwyane Wade (third-place, 14.7) and Dwight Howard (fourth-place, 13.8).
Nobody should have beaten LeBron that season, and perhaps the order of the also-rans doesn’t matter — but doesn’t it? Paul pushed the Hornets to 49 wins with David West as his best teammate and Byron Scott as his head coach. I’m just confused what happened between 2008 and 2009, where Paul went from the biggest casualty of the “Redeem Kobe Bryant” MVP campaign to an afterthought for the award a year later.
After an injury-plagued 2010 and subpar — for his standards — 2011, Paul jettisoned back into the MVP race in 2012 in his first season with the Clippers. The result didn’t break his way — Paul finished behind Kevin Durant and then three-time winner LeBron — but being recognized as a Top 3 player that season was accurate. Paul finished the job Blake Griffin started in Los Angeles, making the Clippers relevant in a loaded West, bringing the “Lob City” phenomenon to the NBA in the process.
This is an important marker in history: in 2012, the Clippers were the most fun team in the NBA. Just a few years later and they are essentially villains — “a contentious pack of loud-mouthed bullies and referee abusers,” many would say. And as the Clippers’ national fandom faded, no Clipper saw their general perception decompose as much as Paul’s did. His antics, his constant clamoring for calls, this thing that happened between he and teammate DeAndre Jordan —
— I think Paul has just worn most people out. In 2013, Paul finished behind Carmelo Anthony for MVP — mostly because one rogue first-place vote ended up with Melo. Again, Paul was not going to win the top prize, and even second place was a lost cause after the year Durant had. But consider that Durant and Paul had nearly identical win shares per 48 minutes, or that Carmelo played only 67 games that season, and Paul was clearly the NBA’s third-best player in 2013.
Last season was a fluke year for Paul, who missed too much time (played 62 games) to be considered for the award. Making things doubly interesting was Griffin, who had the best year of his career, and was voted as the third-best player in the league. Griffin was outstanding, and the Clippers were 56-24 in 80 games with him on the floor,
On the other hand, when Paul was on the floor, he was as great as ever, and so were the Clippers. In 62 games, Los Angeles was 44-18 when Paul played, a winning percentage that projects out to a 58-win season. Amongst MVP candidates, Paul was second in win shares per 48 minutes (behind Durant), and finished with the same number of win shares as Griffin (12.2).
If you’ve made it this far, you probably understand my point, but I’ll spell it out — my issue isn’t that Paul hasn’t won MVP any of these seasons, but rather that he doesn’t ever seem to be taken seriously as a candidate. With the exception of 2008, he’s never come close to winning, accruing just 36 first-place votes in his career. In a season celebrated for its long list of MVP hopefuls, Paul is one of six strong candidates, and maybe even more will garnish significant results. His chances of winning are slim, and maybe someone will tell me why.
He’s in a virtual tie with Harden for offensive win shares, as the Clippers tossle back-and-forth with the Warriors for the NBA’s best offense. This year was Blake’s turn to miss time, as Griffin missed 15 games in February and March, and yet the Clippers managed a 9-6 record.
This is because Paul is a factory of buckets. The Clippers are scoring 114.6 points per 100 and outscoring opponents by 11.4 when Paul is on the floor, per NBA.com. That becomes 116.1 and 13.5 in about 2,300 minutes shared between Paul and Jordan.
Paul is the best mid-range shooter in the NBA, and conveniently he is enjoying the best 3-point year of his career. He’s about to average 10 assists and less than three turnovers for the fifth time — and only Muggsy Bogues has done that more than once. (Stockton and Kidd each did it once. Magic and Nash never did.)
Now, there are plenty of numbers that benefit other candidates — some less complicated than others. Paul is third behind Harden and Curry in total win shares, and he’s seventh in PER behind all five primary MVP candidates. Curry, Westbrook and Harden are ahead of Paul in offensive box plus/minus and total box plus/minus. Routinely in the Top 3 in steals, Paul is down to seventh, and behind Westbrook, Curry and Harden.
There’s also the standings, where the Clippers are behind Golden State and Houston. While MVP is an individual award, it does work against Paul that Curry and Harden are leading the two best teams in the West.
Tom Ziller wrote a fantastic piece on Paul and his MVP odds last month. His key points include debunking the myth that the best player on the best team has to win, that the Clippers are a title contender regardless of their seed, and that Paul is a good defender stuck on an average defense — unlike Curry and Harden, lame defenders on good defensive teams.
But I’ll come back full circle with my favorite point that Ziller made: “Being particularly memorable isn’t a great criteria.” That’s what we saw play out Tuesday night: Curry made the play of the game, and so win or lose Curry is the talk of the town. This plays out in Russell Westbrook’s favor every night the Thunder run him into the ground to remain in the playoff picture. Paul has become so reliably incredible that the combination of his predictable numbers and behavior make him less dazzling as an MVP candidate. Simply, highlights shouldn’t supersede yearly production.
Look, the real debate with this season’s MVP award is between Curry and Harden. Golden State is a historically great regular season team on both ends, the most dominant two-way team since the mid-2000s Spurs. It’s Curry that makes the engine run, keeping multiple defenders on their toes at all times, and enough of a presence on ball for Golden State’s defense to shellack its opponent each night. Harden, meanwhile, is a wrecking ball, an undeniable offensive weapon who has carried the Rockets, improbably, to a remarkable place in the Western Conference playoff picture.
One of these two guards will win the MVP, and the other will join him as a First-Team All-NBA selection. As for Paul, he might be the immediate hard-luck loser in both cases or worse — a Second-Team selection and third-place finish for MVP would be optimistic for Paul. There is a better chance he finishes fifth for MVP — behind LeBron and Westbrook — than third. (Paul might even finish behind Anthony Davis.) And Westbrook and Klay Thompson are as worthy as anybody for a Second-Team selection. The only guarantee I’ll make? Nobody will shed a tear for Paul after it all plays out.
Enjoy deep dives on Basketball Reference? Me too!! So you’ll enjoy how I crash-land this column. According to B-R, Paul already has the third-most MVP shares of any player who hasn’t won the award behind Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Let’s put this in context. Paul is seventh among active players in MVP shares — all six ahead of him have MVPs, as well as Derrick Rose, who is ninth. Let’s assume Howard and Wade never finish in the Top 5 in voting again — a safe bet. This means Howard and Wade are permanently behind Paul, and there are no other foreseeable non-MVPs who will catch Paul. Now let’s compare Paul with West and Baylor more closely:
Paul/26th/1.459 shares/four Top 5 finishes/one Top 3 finish/one Top 2 finish
Baylor/23rd/1.659 shares/seven Top 5 finishes/four Top 3 finishes/one Top 2 finish
West/21st/2.090 shares/eight Top 5 finishes/five Top 3 finishes/four Top 2 finishes
West and Baylor can claim to be the greatest basketball players never to win MVP, with West clearly having the stronger argument. Playing in a big man’s era, West lost MVP trophies to Wilt Chamberlin, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Baylor’s greatest season resulted in being a runner-up to Russell too.
Paul could statistically pass Baylor as early as this spring, depending on where he finishes and how many votes he pulls in. The safer bet would be for Paul to pass Baylor in 2016 after a pair of Top 5 finishes. As for West? It would be really tough: Paul would likely have to secure another three Top 3 finishes or four Top 4 finishes to surpass him. But before Paul walks away from the game, it is probable we will be talking about him in the same breath as West: one of the greatest individual players of all-time, who just never happened to be the best player in the league.
On Monday’s episode of Bill Don’t Lie, Joe House told Bill Simmons he’d love to see a Dirk-like run from Paul — a postseason where Paul owns his competition and leads his team to a title. That would seem to be his ceiling as a player, to become one of the handful of great players drafted in the ’00s with at least one ring. I’m positive Paul would prefer a ring to an MVP trophy — it’s not necessarily a difficult choice for a person like him. The truth is, however, he likely doesn’t have any say in the matter. I just hope, no matter how it plays out, we appreciate him while he’s here.