Examining why OKC Thunder captain Chris Paul has never made it to the ultimate stage.
You can picture it with your eyes closed: the OKC Thunder is making another comeback. Chris Paul yo-yos his dribble through defenders to get a switch. He’s isolated at the free-throw line with a big on him. Mismatch. He dips his shoulders, pulls back, giving fake after fake to make his defender take away the drive.
The big man knows what’s coming. So does everyone in the building. So does everyone on their couches hundreds of miles away. But he can’t help himself. He flinches by a deadly inch. Paul fades away and lofts the ball over the giant and into the hoop 18 feet away. It splashes like a rock in a lake.
This patented fadeaway is one of the most unstoppable shots in basketball. But the player himself is stoppable. Somehow, the artist currently known as Chris Paul has never won an NBA title. In fact, he’s never even made the Finals.
The OKC Thunder Point God is not omnipotent
Why is this? Paul is widely considered the ideal point guard. He is always top-five in assists, plays elite defense, obviously makes his teammates better, and possesses an unstoppable shot. How has a player this good never reached the pinnacle of his sport? He has gotten close a few times, but his playoffs record is checkered with head-scratching failures.
His first trip to the postseason was with a well-built Hornets team that won 56 games and earned the #2 seed. They lost to San Antonio in the Semis, but that was respectable. The Spurs were defending champions.
The Hornets languished on the NBA’s mediocrity treadmill after that, and Paul moved on to Los Angeles to become the mayor of Lob City.
With Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan in co-starring roles, Paul’s Clippers looked the part of a contender. The first two seasons ended in disappointment, with the team only winning one playoff series. In 2014, though, the Clippers dismissed an ascendant Warriors team in the first round and met OKC in the Semis.
The team looked poised to fulfill its potential. This was the best Paul-era Clippers squad on paper, winning 57 games and earning the 3rd seed in the West. In Game 5, a Chris Paul midrange put them up by seven with :50 left. The Clips seemed sure to take a 3-2 lead back to Los Angeles.
And then it all went to hell.
Chris Paul committed two costly turnovers and a shooting foul in the final :15. It started after a Kevin Durant layup brought the Thunder within two. The Clippers inbounded to Paul, who, with his team up two and the shot clock off, expected a foul. He did not expect a Russell Westbrook. He probably should have.
Westbrook blitzed Paul and forced a turnover. On the ensuing possession, Paul was whistled for a foul on a Westbrook three with six ticks left. All three foul shots dropped, putting the Clippers down one. Paul fumbled the ball away as the clock rolled to zeroes, unable to loft a shot over Serge Ibaka at the elbow or at the rim. It was a meltdown.
The next year saw the Clippers meet the Spurs in the first round. The Spurs were defending champs, and it was a brutal series that went seven games. In that final game, there were 31 lead changes and 19 ties. The teams just kept trading punch for punch. But this time, Paul landed the final blow.
Down one, Paul drove right on Danny Green, who stands 6’7”. Paul was seeking a layup, but Green crowded him out of the paint. As Paul fell away, he flung a shot over Green and Tim Duncan’s fingertips. Somehow, the shot dropped as time expired. Chris Paul had walked off the Spurs.
The Clippers bullied the Rockets in the next round, winning three of the first four games by an average of 25 points. With the Clippers up 19 in Game 6, Chris Paul appeared destined to break through to the conference finals at last. But destiny had another meltdown in mind. If the Game 5 against the OKC Thunder was Three Mile Island, Game 6 against the Rockets was Chernobyl.
Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, both 28.5 percent career three-point shooters, put up an Oswaldian shooting performance in leading the Rockets to a shocking comeback. The Clippers clanked fourteen shots in a row as Houston went on a 49-18 run to end the game. After a collapse like that, game seven wrote itself.
The rest of Paul’s time in LA was forgettable. 2016 saw the Clippers lose 4-2 to Portland in the first round after Paul broke his hand. The next year, it was Griffin’s turn to wear a cast, and the Clippers were dismissed in seven games by the Jazz.
The Paul-Griffin-Jordan big three was blown up. Paul was shipped to Houston. Alongside James Harden, Paul and the Rockets soared to a league-best 65 wins and cruised to the 2018 West Finals, losing only twice before entering the octagon with Golden State.
Paul proved instrumental in Houston’s taking a 3-2 lead, but he injured his hamstring in Game 5. Without him, the Rockets dropped the final two games. Last year, Houston won only 53 games, but still pushed the Warriors, with all six games decided by six points or less.
So Paul has seen his postseasons end almost every way they could: with his best efforts, with epic team collapses, with injuries… basically every possible ending except the ultimate one.
Looking at his efforts, it’s hard to blame his performance. The Hornets didn’t have the talent. The Clippers didn’t have the luck. And the Rockets were good at the wrong time. But still, great players are supposed to find a way through. And Paul hasn’t.
Maybe Chris Paul just isn’t good enough. Maybe he’s not great. But if a point guard of his skills, one of the greatest to ever play the position, isn’t good enough to win it all, does that tell us something about Paul? Or about point guards?
Basketball is a game with a ten-foot goal. It is not the domain of the vertically challenged. The average height of an NBA player has been 6’6” or 6’7” every year since 1962 before the first Beatles album came out.
In the deepest rounds of the playoffs, offenses break down. Choreography turns to chaos as defenses crank their dials to 11. When that happens, you just need a guy who can get a bucket.
Shots are much easier to create when you’re not giving up half a foot to your defender. This is why almost every championship team has featured a player between 6’4” and 6’8” as the first or second option.
When skills are equal, height wins.
Remember Paul’s fling over Duncan and Green that won the series for the Clippers in 2015? That was a nearly impossible shot. It was unnatural. Players don’t choose to shoot shots like that. It was basically a miracle, and a diet of miracles is not a recipe for championships.
Contrast the shot that beat the Spurs with Game 5 against the Thunder, when Paul was tasked with finding a shot to win the game over Ibaka. Against an athletic shot blocker that stands 6’9”, Paul couldn’t shoot the elbow jumper, and he couldn’t shoot the layup. There was nothing he could do.
For a six-foot player, carrying his team to victory against a squad of giants is an undoable task. David only has so many stones.
Among the top 12 players all-time in assists (Paul is 7th), only five of them have won championships. Two of these, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton, won at age 37 as role players, leaving only three who won it all in their primes. Two of those three are LeBron and Magic, who are taller than the average NBA player.
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The only short top-12 assister to win it all in his prime was Isiah Thomas. He and Stephen Curry are the only players shorter than 6’4” to be the best player on a championship-winning team since well before the merger.
Curry’s shooting broke basketball, and height matters less 30 feet from the hoop. As the greatest shooter of all time, Curry is an exception. Thomas, on the other hand, seems to break the rule.
His Pistons won two titles back-to-back as the Lakers and Celtics dynasties faded and before Jordan’s Bulls began their rampage. Those Pistons were the gatekeepers that held Jordan at bay. MJ was 27 when he finally beat them.
There’s nothing obvious about what made Thomas different. His usage percentage was pretty moderate at 26 percent in those two title runs. His numbers don’t jump off the screen. And yet his team swept the Showtime Lakers in 89 and yielded only one game to Drexler’s Blazers in 90.
The verdict on Thomas seems to be that his full impact, his leadership, and his effect on his teammates’ effectiveness on the court is just not captured by the stat sheet. It’s the only conclusion that makes sense because Thomas accomplished a feat no one else has: he led his team to a title as a pass-first point guard.
So Chris Paul is not Isiah Thomas. But neither were John Stockton, Allen Iverson, or Steve Nash. All of them tried and failed. Does that mean they weren’t great? No. Paul may never have led a team to the Finals, but that was never in the cards. It’s simply a goal too high for him to reach.