On Thursday night, Chris Paul put up his usually great stat line. Seventeen points, 12 assists and five rebounds with a stellar shooting percentage and a low turnover rate. It's the aspirational stat line for what we want in our prototypical elite point guard. This is what we want in our floor general.
There's usually little to critique with Paul, as he's one of the best players in the league. Yet when the Clippers lose, what happens?
"Man, the supporting cast has to step their game up."
"Man, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan need to be better."
"Man, the coach needs to step his game up."
"Man, it's the Clippers." (Fair.)
It's much rarer to hear criticism come Paul's way, which is the reason he's the reigning Teflon Don of the NBA. One could argue that Chris Paul receives less criticism than the two best players in the NBA, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. (Is KD strong enough? Where is LeBron's post game? Etc.).
Why is this? A theory: We are enamored by the prototype. We give players like Chris Paul (or Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, etc.) a pass because not only do they pass the eye test, but you'd probably teach your kid to play the way they do.
Here's a question for you: Name the last elite NBA point guard who was also the best player on his team that won a title.
If you came up with Isiah Thomas back in 1990 with the Detroit Pistons, you would be correct. If you also said Tony Parker in 2007, I'll let that ride. Chauncey Billups in 2004 with the Pistons? I'll let you make the case. That's three point guards in 23 years who were the best player on their team.
Two of them, Parker and Billups, were hardly conventional in their craft. Both were viewed as "scoring point guards." One, Billups, was miscast in the wrong roles for many teams, while the other, Parker, was an overlooked young prospect who was passed over by 27 teams in the 2001 NBA Draft. Yet both players eventually found their ideal role and both netted rings for their teams in a uniquely unconventional fashion.
And then there's Isiah. You know, the guy to whom everyone loves to compare Chris Paul.
Even his journey was not so smooth. Isiah had a four-year stretch where he averaged 20 points and 10 assists between the age of 22-25. It was at this time that Zeke began to challenge Magic Johnson for the crown of "Best Point God in the Association." But for the first three years of this stretch, despite the Pistons' own scoring prowess, they were mired in first- and second-round exits.
Then, head coach Chuck Daly made some changes. Roster moves were made. Philosophies were questioned. Like Sam Cooke said, a change was gonna come. Suddenly, the Pistons became the defensive juggernaut we all remember watching on ESPN Classic. Instead of running up and down the court to try and push the pace, Detroit would be more methodical. They beat up the other opponent on the defensive side and asked Isiah to assert himself fully when they needed him most rather than all the time.
Isiah then turned into Mariano Rivera before Mariano was ever wearing No. 42. His prime years (age 26-28) saw a decline in his numbers, but they also coincided with the Pistons making three NBA Finals appearances, winning two titles in the process. As he did less, the Pistons as a team did more.
Let's bring this back full circle.
We have regularly criticized Parker, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook for what they can't do on the court. Their skill sets don't fit the prototype of what we want in a "point guard," regardless of how archaic our preconceived positional definitions might be. At various times, we've wanted these players to change their game to be more like a traditional point guard. Distribute more. Be a leader. Essentially, be more like Chris Paul.
Yet, these players have all matriculated farther in the quest of a title than Paul has. All three of them have a unique ability to assert themselves in critical times for their teams. Yes, it's unconventional, but it works for them and their teams. The Spurs, Bulls and Thunder are all championship contenders, while it still feels like the Clippers aren't quite there yet.
That's for a variety of reasons, of course. Still, there will come a point where the traditional approach will only get Paul so far and an alteration will be needed. Thomas needed to blend his old style with a new one to fully reach the height of his superpowers. When he did adjust his game, the team benefited and the Pistons made their championship run.
Players like Parker, Rose and Westbrook have optimized their strengths as scorers and athletes, while Paul may be handcuffed due to his desire to play the game "the right way." Whatever that means.
A Happy Hour drink recommendation: Rye Whiskey and Ginger Ale - Here's a fun fact from the folks at Esquire:
Babe Ruth used to drink a quart of it (!!!!) with his breakfast (how else to wash down a 16-ounce porterhouse, six fried eggs, and a half-acre of homefries?). Good enough for us.
If it's good enough for the Babe, then it's good enough for you. TGIF.