Chris Paul and the Clippers failed in the NBA Playoffs again. In the most critical game of his season, Paul had his worst performance of the series. There was no fight, no argument of bad luck, and no moral victory to be had. Paul was simply bad, and as it usually goes when he doesn’t play well, the Clippers followed suit.
Despite making the playoffs nine times in his 12 NBA seasons, Paul has famously never advanced past the second round. The Clippers as a team, with and without Paul, have never done that either.
It’s inexplicable that one of the best point guards to ever play the game has such a ridiculous failure attached to his name. By all measures, he should be successful in postseasons. Though his numbers tend to drop relative to his prolific regular-season performances, they are still very good.
It’s not as if Paul’s teams have been overmatched, either. The Clippers had series leads against the Jazz, Blazers, Rockets, Thunder, and Grizzlies in the last five years. They have collapsed every time.
Paul will bear the brunt of the blame, because it’s his career narrative dating back to his time with the Hornets. He’s also the best player, and we tend to blame the total shortcomings of a team on its superstar. It’s easier to reason that the star should and could do more rather than arguing that the rest of the team should respectively raise their game or at least give some good support.
But it’s not just Paul’s teammates that constantly fail him. It’s his general managers, too.
This was one reason for his frustration with New Orleans. After leading the Hornets to a 56-win season in 2007-2008, Paul never got the financial or creative investment necessary from those in charge to build on that success. Paul needed better players in order to get the Hornets over the hump. He was rewarded with bloated contracts for role players (James Posey, Morris Peterson), draft busts (Cedric Simmons, Hilton Armstrong, Julian Wright), and cost-cutting moves around the margins. Three years after their breakthrough, the Hornets started the postseason with a five-man unit of of Paul, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry, Marco Belinelli, and Emeka Okafor.
The Clippers were supposed to be better than that, but instead Paul has just faced a more glamorized version of the same problems he had with his old team. The Clippers are fatally top heavy by design, with Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Jamal Crawford alongside Paul. But the journey to create a deep team around them has been a satirical adventure.
Doc Rivers, acting as both coach and general manager, has made moves that were laughable at the time and can be looked at as him purposely sabotaging Paul in retrospect. Hedo Turkoglu, Spencer Hawes, Glen Davis, Austin Rivers (until he improved), Byron Mullens, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, trading Jared Dudley and a first-round pick to the Bucks, Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Lance Stephenson, Cole Aldrich, Jeff Green for a first-rounder, Danny Granger ... the list goes on and on. No draft hits. No two-way small forward. No quality bench players outside of Crawford and his one-dimensional game.
When Griffin went out after Game 3, there was no one to even fill in as a viable starting option. Marreese Speights failed at the job and was benched. Starting small forward Luc Mbah a Moute swung up a position, but managed a grand two points in 14 starting minutes in Game 7.
That stood in stark contrast to the Clippers’ first-round opponent. When Rudy Gobert struggled with a serious knee injury, everyone from Derrick Favors to Boris Diaw to Joe Johnson stepped forward to mitigate the loss. Where Mbah a Moute had two points in Game 7, Favors had 17 and 11 rebounds. Plus, it was Johnson who won Game 1 with a buzzer-beater and scored 28 points to win Game 5.
The Jazz have stars in Gobert and Gordon Hayward, but their front office put good players around them and then terrific backups beyond that. The Clippers’ front office forced Paul’s team to play Raymond Felton at small forward for key stretches.
It’s true that Paul is the common denominator between his two teams. The argument that his teams can’t go far in the playoffs is undeniable, if obtuse. Paul’s also had his fair share of personal disasters at the biggest moments, including his two turnovers in the last 17 seconds of Game 5 against the Thunder in 2014 and this last performance against the Jazz.
But beyond the mystic Clippers Curse and the personal blame automatically placed on Paul, the fact is that the Clippers, like the Hornets before them, failed to build a roster worth its salt for a generational talent like Paul.
Getting a superstar in the NBA is the hard part. It’s like hitting the lottery — or in the Clippers’ case, benefiting from an unprecedented David Stern veto. The Hornets and Clippers are proof that a player like Paul can change the entire outlook of a franchise by himself. But that’s not an excuse to force him to always have to do that.
Sometimes, Paul will run into opposing guards who are much more prolific than him. (Stephen Curry, for example). But against teams like the Jazz, where he plays brilliantly for six out of seven games and is the best player on the floor for most of the series, we cannot ignore the Clippers’ shallow supporting cast. It’s not Chris Paul’s fault that his coach (and GM) had to play a 39-year-old Paul Pierce 21 minutes in an elimination game.
It’s easy to burden Paul alone with his team’s constant postseason failures, but the game is much more than one lone star or a “Big Three.” When a player as great as Paul keeps falling short with different versions of the same problem, it’s fair to criticize his front offices for constantly failing to surround a great player that makes everyone better with enough supplementary talent. It shouldn’t be this hard to do, and yet, it has been for the Hornets and then the Clippers.
Paul’s lack of success will haunt his legacy, but his own front offices have also failed him in spectacular ways. Paul knows it, too.
When asked about the #Clippers future and who will be on the roster next year, Chris Paul says "luckily that's not my job."— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 30, 2017
Look at Paul’s history with a wider lens, and you can understand his frustration.