When Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury in early January, it appeared to be a brutal blow to a Los Angeles Clippers team with championship aspirations. While the Clippers not only survived without Paul but excelled, that was mainly a testament to the vast improvement made by Blake Griffin. Because make no mistake, Paul remains the best point guard in the world. And with Paul back in the lineup and Griffin playing the best basketball of his life, the Clippers look like a legitimate title contender.
Paul was performing at his highest level as a Clipper and possibly even since his MVP-worthy 2008-09 campaign prior to his shoulder injury. He was averaging a double-double for the first time since joining the franchise, notching 19.6 points and 11.2 assists per game. His guaranteed excellence has become the death and taxes of point guards.
The early playoff exits have been jarring, though. The minimal playoff success -- he's never played in a Conference finals series -- is the only stain on Paul's resume, and the franchise went all-in to fix it. They flipped the young and talented Eric Bledsoe for role players to fit next to Paul. They replaced Vinny Del Negro with Doc Rivers. They've continued to tweak the roster throughout the season using veteran's minimum contracts and 10-day offerings.
This all has to amount to something in Los Angeles this time around. There can't be another playoff fallout, another excuse and another finger being pointed. Griffin is playing extraordinary basketball, they have a proven coach to work through the X's and O's and they have a roster that's been tailored for systematic success. The 12-4 record the team put together in his absence is proof the Clippers have made strides as a team.
Will this be the year it all comes together for CP3?
It's fascinating that he wasn't voted in as an All-Star starter this year. Stephen Curry earned the fan nod, working his way into the hearts of the masses one pull-up three-pointer at a time. Sure, it doesn't matter all that much if a larger quantity of people put in a vote for Curry, but it's fascinating that Paul didn't have the vote locked in. He's still widely-considered the best floor general in the NBA and is playing at peak levels. Let's just chalk that up to injuries, but these individual accolades don't matter all that much to Paul anymore anyway.
What matters is a chance at a title, and that window of opportunity could be getting slimmer by the season.
He's not only having to chase the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant in his quest for an NBA championship, but the younger talent is catching up. Paul George and the Indiana Pacers are a new threat out East. The Portland Trail Blazers have turned their franchise around since drafting Damian Lillard and are a new challenge to overcome. The Houston Rockets have one of the most dynamic one-two punches in James Harden and Dwight Howard, and there's no telling how Daryl Morey might round out the roster.
The NBA landscape is shifting, and Chris Paul stands somewhere in the middle. Which way he goes through the remainder of his contract with the Clippers -- a deal that he can opt-out of after the 2016-2017 seasons -- will likely put the final touches on his career. Will he finally break away from being considered one of the best individual players instead of one of the great champions? Can he strike while the window is still open?
The Clippers have provided their franchise player with all the tools necessary for success. Now there is no try, only do.