CHICAGO — The last time Chris Paul played in an NBA All-Star Game was during his second to last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, which feels like an eternity ago. In reality it was “only” 2016. Paul was 30 years old, smack dab in the middle of what could ostensibly be called the prime of his career. He finished with 14 points, a personal-best 16 assists, and the feeling that his nine straight All-Star Game appearances would stretch to 10, 11, and beyond.
Instead, life happened. Injuries came. Age seemingly restricted his statistical production. Paul forced a trade to the Houston Rockets and was no longer the best player on his own team, in a Western Conference that’s consistently littered with worthy and eager candidates.
But this weekend, as he coasted into Chicago as the face of this NBA season’s most delightful Cinderella story, Paul shattered all the precedent-fueled doubt that typically accompanies 34-year-old basketball players who are no taller than 6’. Sunday night, he reaffirmed his own narrative as one that’s joyfully nonlinear. Paul should be on his way out, but instead seems ready to embark on another half-decade of brilliance.
Paul wore many hats over the past few days. He was an ambassador, innovator (no player pushed the NBA harder to experiment with the Elam ending, which was an undeniable success), and revered torch bearer. The only all-star older than Paul was LeBron James.
His most defining characteristic, though, is forever as a blood-thirsty competitor. If you were a screaming teenager wearing a blue Team LeBron T-shirt throughout the game, Paul is the one player you wanted in your corner. He was in his element, licking his lips when he had to switch onto Giannis Antetokounmpo late in the game, drilling several kick-out threes that helped his team mount their comeback.
“Chris Paul is a big reason for the win,” Frank Vogel said after the game. “He told me early in the day that he wasn’t one of those vets that just likes to take a rest in a game like this, that he wants to come in and win a game and help our guys win a game. All the young guys throughout the course of the game, every time they made a mistake or didn’t play defense, he was yelling at them. So he got us — not only got us to the finish line but also provided great leadership and some big plays in that fourth quarter down the stretch.”
Paul was a game-high +13, with a game-high offensive rating of 192.5. He finished with 23 points and six assists, giving him 112 for his career, just 15 below Magic Johnson — who played nearly 100 more minutes — for the all-time All-Star Game lead. Throughout the game, he looked like a wizard staring into a smokey black cauldron.
Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, and Luka Doncic closed the game on the bench because Vogel didn’t think twice about who he wanted steering the wheel as his crunch-time point guard. (Those first two were subbed out down the stretch when James, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard reentered together, down five with 21 points needed to win.)
Aside from Johnson and Jason Kidd, Paul proved why he might be the best ever at riding and conducting the rhythm of an All-Star Game at the exact same time. He’s calm, focused, and selfless, never picking up his dribble or shooting just because he’s wide open. It’s unreachable confidence to know that when facing off against the very best of the very best, your patience will be rewarded.
In case you missed it, Paul is 34. He also crammed home a lob. This isn’t supposed to happen, but a vegan diet and relatively new off-season training regimen has granted sips from the fountain of youth.
“I think I’m my hardest critic,” Paul said afterwards. “I push myself more than anybody in here could ever do. So for me, it’s always about the journey. It’s about working hard, and it’s the analytics and the statistics that say at this age you can do this or you can do that. Look at my brother Bron. Every year they say he’s going to slow down, right? And then what?”
It feels trite to write “Paul forever,” but whenever he does actually succumb to the encroachment of Father Time, there will be no greater loser than the All-Star Game. That isn’t to say the exhibition can’t be memorable without him, but it won’t ever toggle between crowd-pleasing thrill ride and reputation-solidifying war the way it does when he presides over all activity.
Some can’t harness their best traits in an All-Star Game. It’s not designed for them. Harden (because his game has been so harshly molded by a system that props up his own individual greatness) and Embiid (who, no matter what he says or does, is a low-post leviathan who requires a set-up man) are two glaring examples. At this stage in his life Paul is not better than either, but in that environment all his most special qualities stand out, above everybody else.
Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against Paul ever making an 11th appearance. NBA infants (like Ja Morant and several guys who made their first appearance in Chicago) are nipping at his heels, while several superstars (Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, etc.) that had to sit this one out should be back in the mix next season.
If Sunday night was Paul’s swan song, he went out as legendarily as he came in, the people’s MVP, the point god, the one player who takes it just seriously enough to force even the most cynical observer to raise an eyebrow and mutter Damn under their breath. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
All-Star games need players like Paul, and players like Paul are generational. Cherish him, because once he’s gone the weekend just won’t feel the same.