What does Chris Paul's lack of postseason success say about him as a player?
So, what do we do with Chris Paul's career so far?
Let's take a look at his rsum.
Nine brilliant regular seasons at point guard. Seven All-Star appearances. Finished top-5 in MVP voting four times and top-10 five times.
Led the league in assist rate four times. Is one of three players to average at least 18 points, nine assists and four rebounds in his career (Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson are the other two).
Named to five All-Defensive teams and a sixth likely on the way. Has led the NBA in steals per game six times.
Owns the second-highest career player efficiency rating (25.6) among active players behind LeBron James. Ranks No.1 in career win shares per minute among active players and fourth all-time.
On these individual merits, he's destined to be one of the best point guards to ever play the game. Heck, advanced metrics have placed him on target to be one of the best ever, regardless of position.
But then there's this staggering fact that on Friday seems to hang above all:
Six postseasons, zero trips past the second round.
Paul's season ended on Thursday just like all eight that came before it: without a trip to the NBA's final four. Paul's postseason disappointments are not limited to his professional career. In two years at Wake Forest, Paul never made it out of the Sweet 16 despite his team being seeded at No. 2 and No. 4 in his regions.
This does not compute. How can a player so good have such a shallow playoff career?
Faced with this incongruous information, we reflexively send a search party for tidy explanations. Elite point guards don't win titles! Well, tell that to Paul's most frequent comparable, Isiah Thomas. Paul's not a leader! Seems like an odd charge to throw at someone who was elected president of NBA players union. Paul doesn't have "it!" Doesn't get lazier than that.
What makes Paul's case so fascinating is that he checks off just about every box on championship checklist. He's widely known as a ruthless competitor. He pairs incredible basketball IQ with freakish skill. He plays both ends of the floor. He is a team-first player who gets his players involved, sometimes to a fault. And with the obvious exception of Game 5 on Tuesday, he's an assassin in crunch time.
And yet, nothing much to show for it on the team side.
This is where it gets tricky. Measuring player greatness solely through the lens of a player's teams can warp our judgment. If championship rings are the true measuring stick, then Robert Horry (seven titles) is better than Michael Jordan (six). Beno Udrih (two) is greater than championship one-and-dones Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Moses Malone. Adam Morrison is superior to Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Elgin Baylor.
Of course, we're smarter than that. Pinning a player's place in history through his team accomplishments can be a futile exercise. And that's especially the case when we do it in the middle of a player's career. James was considered an all-time talent who was fatally flawed until he landed some Hall of Fame teammates. Jordan was considered a me-first, selfish scorer at 26 years old until Phil Jackson came onto the scene. Untimely injuries to key teammates didn't allow Jerry West to win a title until he was 33 years old and now he's the Logo.
Paul deserves similar perspective. And believe it or not, Paul's conference final drought isn't unprecedented. There have been plenty of great players who endured conference finals drought like Paul. Dominique Wilkins is a Hall of Famer and never made it there. Fellow Hall of Famer Bob Lanier played in 13 seasons and eight All-Star games before he reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1983. Vince Carter never got there until 2010.
The Long Road
Most All-Stars before first conference final -- stats from Elias
Dominique Wilkins 9*
Vince Carter 8
Bob Lanier 8
Yao Ming 8*
Chris Paul (and many others) 7
Paul is probably better than all of them. Look, Paul's lack of team success is at the very least meaningful. Greats tend to go far in the playoffs. But it shouldn't be his defining trait. The Clippers were plus-76 with Paul on the floor this postseason and minus-50 with him on the bench and we're going to blame him for missing out on the conference finals?
As I pointed out in November, Paul has been woefully underserved in supporting cast department. To illustrate, contrast Magic Johnson and Paul's surroundings as they began their respective careers. As he entered the league Johnson was gifted with Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes then later with James Worthy. Furthermore, Johnson shared the court with an All-Star 13 times in his first eight seasons of his career. Paul? Try just four (David West and Blake Griffin each twice).
Teammates matter. And it's true, Paul has never had a better supporting cast than he did this season and he still couldn't get out of the second round. But it's not as if the Clippers were expected to get there anyway. The Clippers were the third seed in a stacked Western Conference, and both Vegas and ESPN Forecast called the Oklahoma City Thunder to win this series. Considering the odds and the Donald Sterling drama, how much of a letdown is the Clippers' exit, really?
Paul remains a great player who has yet to have great fortune in the postseason. Thursday's loss doesn't change that. As the all-time greats like Jordan, James and West have taught us, if you're going to write Paul's legacy now, you'd better write it in pencil.