MIAMI -- As he walked out of American Airlines Arena on Thursday night after his worst performance of the young season, Chris Paul had to walk past countless images of the Larry O'Brien Trophy plastered on the walls and doors of the arena.
Before the season began, many predicted the Los Angeles Clippers would play the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. If the beginning of the season and Thursday night's 102-97 loss to the Heat are any indication, the Clippers have a long way to go before they can think about returning to South Beach this season.
Paul put the loss on his shoulders after finishing with 11 points and 12 assists but just 3-of-11 shooting with five turnovers.
"That's on me," Paul said. "I have to find my spots to be a little bit aggressive. ... It was me making bad decisions. I have to trust my teammates. I have to pass the ball and get rid of it."
Paul was frustrated throughout the night, picking up a technical after complaining about a call and trying to force the issue himself instead of moving the ball.
"I thought he got a little defiant," coach Doc Rivers said. "He wanted to beat the traps tonight. That's just a lesson learned for all of us. We told him before the game that at some point they were going to blame Chris. We had to swing it to the other side and trust. He'll be better. I'm not worried about that."
Paul is the least of the Clippers' worries after the team has opened the season 3-3 and suffered back-to-back losses on the road. While there is often talk about DeAndre Jordan being the team's X factor or the Clippers going only as far as Blake Griffin's game evolves, the truth is the Clippers will go only as far as Paul takes them.
In this respect, the Clippers are trying to do something no team has done in over two decades. They're trying to win a championship with the point guard as the undisputed best player on the court.
Sure, Chauncey Billups won an NBA Finals MVP in 2004 and Tony Parker won a Finals MVP in 2007, but you could easily make the argument they weren't the best players on their respective teams those two seasons and the statistics would certainly back that up.
Not since Magic Johnson won five titles in the 1980s and Isiah Thomas won back-to-back titles to finish the decade and usher in the 1990s has a point guard led his team to a title as the undoubted best player on the court.
There have been elite shooting guards (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade), small forwards (LeBron James and Paul Pierce), power forwards (Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki) and centers (Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon), but the point guard position has been relegated to a supporting role many times on championship teams.
Championship starting point guards since 1990 have included John Paxson, Kenny Smith, Ron Harper, Avery Johnson, Jason Williams, Derek Fisher and Mario Chalmers. All are solid players, but none is a Hall of Fame player, nor would they be confused with the best player on the floor during the Finals.
"I don't know the reason why," Rivers said. "It has to be what's on his team because if you are a great point guard and you have great players around you, you're probably going to be a really good basketball team."
It has been so long since a point guard was the best player on a championship team that even someone who played during 1980s when that was routine has forgotten that it's possible. Before Thursday's game, Charles Barkley said on TNT that one of the biggest issues with the Clippers is that Paul is the toughest player on the team.
"The Clippers are softer than tissue paper, they've got the toughness of a flea and the toughest guy on their team is 5-7," Barkley said. "They are soft and they're only going to go as far as Blake and DeAndre take them."
There is no question the development of Griffin and Jordan is important to the Clippers' success, but this team will go only as far as Paul can take it, and the truth is for all his accolades, he has yet to get past the second round of the playoffs.
Being touted as the best point guard in the NBA offers little solace to a competitor who simply wants to win.
"Wins and losses are the only things I focus on," Paul said. "I just want to win. I've been fortunate enough to lead the league in steals, assists and all the stuff for a few years. I'm over that. I just want to win. I could care less about the rest of it."