For almost 30 years, Los Angeles Clippers seasons have felt like classic horror movies: You don't know exactly what's going to happen to that panicked girl fleeing up the stairs, but you know it won't end well. Ineptitude, freak injuries, gross mismanagement, and a toxic culture have defined the team Sports Illustrated once dubbed "The Worst Franchise in Sports History."
Chris Paul flipped the script.
"Quick Controls Chaos" is the slogan Nike uses to sell Paul's CP3 basketball sneakers; it's also a concise summation of Paul's value to the Clippers. Remember that middle school science experiment where a magnet rearranges a desktop of scattered iron filings into a single line? Chris Paul has been that magnet for the Clippers all year, the force transforming randomness into order.
With Paul at the helm, the Clippers have had a historic season. They've sold out every home game, and lead the league in road attendance. Blake Griffin and Paul became the first two Clippers to start an All-Star Game. Their .607 winning percentage, best in franchise history, has them a mere half-game behind the Lakers in the race for the Pacific Division title they've never captured.
You can make a strong case for Paul's MVP candidacy with numbers alone, particularly if you look at the advanced stats. He trails only LeBron James in pace-adjusted PER, Win Shares, and 82games.com's cumulative "Simple Rating." He leads the league in steals and is third in assists. Last year the Clippers led the league in turnovers; this year they have the third fewest. In other words, he has had an amazing season.
But although it's the hoariest cliché in the MVP-debate column template, numbers alone can't measure Paul's value to the Clippers. The Heat would still be a top-4 team in the East without LeBron James; remove Paul from the Clippers, and they'd be the Kings. Or, more accurately, they'd be last year's Clippers. Three though 12, the roster is an ill-fitting assortment of streaky gunners, one-dimensional role players, and DeAndre Jordan -- an arguably overpaid "defensive specialist" routinely manhandled by the league's elite big men.
Although the preseason hope was that Paul and Griffin would morph into a high-flying John Stockton/Karl Malone with baggier shorts, they've struggled to develop on-court chemistry. Actually, it's hard to think of an elite power forward who would benefit less from Paul's halfcourt mastery than Griffin, who doesn't roll hard to the basket and has difficulty consistently making a midrange jumper off the pick-and-pop. (Imagine, for instance, what Chris Bosh could do with five wide-open looks from the elbow each game).
In fact, the closer you look at these "new" Clippers, the more they look like the old ones. Their porous defense has been mired all season in the league's bottom third statistically. Coach Vinny Del Negro has admitted that the fourth-quarter offense is predictable and disorganized. And GM Neil Olshey's tepid support for Del Negro -- "The good always outweighs the bad with Vinny" -- hasn't exactly quelled rumors of an imminent coaching change (neither man has a guaranteed contract for next season).
Unlike previous seasons, when the team was inevitably derailed by front-office distractions or key injuries (remember when everyone agreed that the Clippers would fall apart without Chauncey Billups' veteran leadership?), Paul has kept this year's Clippers consistently among the Western Conference elite.
At times, Paul has frustrated Clippers fans with his passivity through the first three quarters of a ballgame, deferring to teammates and rarely looking for his own shot. But Paul knows he needs to save himself for the fourth, when the game's balance will be tipped by his creativity and improvisation. The numbers back this up: in crunch time, Paul's shots per minute double, and his free throw attempts nearly triple.
There's a fractal element to Paul's approach, in which the pattern of each piece reflects the character of the whole: controlled possessions strung together into controlled quarters and games, in service of a controlled season. No, Paul doesn't go all out all the time -- he can't afford to. Del Negro's hands-off approach translates, particularly in crunch time, to "Chris -- go do something." More often than not, he has.
Even if Paul had a more innovative coach or a better defense, one suspects that his approach would still be deliberate. Unlike Kobe Bryant, or a young Michael Jordan -- killers with an almost pathological need to exert their will on every play -- Paul is both tactical and strategic. He knows the difference between the best play right now and the best play for the future.
Paul knows that Griffin's mid-range jumper is rarely the Clippers' best offensive outcome on any given possession. But he constantly exhorts Griffin to shoot it, because he understands that forcing defenses to step out on Blake is the only way to open up the paint. Perhaps not coincidentally, Blake's mid-range shooting percentage has climbed steadily since the All-Star break.
Even his postgame comments are tactical. When Paul recently told Clipper broadcaster Mike Smith that "Randy Foye is better than he thinks he is," was it because Paul really believes Foye undervalues himself? Maybe. More likely, Paul has his eye on the long game. There's a playoff game coming when Foye will be asked to take a big shot without hesitation, without wondering -- as role players so often must -- if he's the right man for the moment.
And yet, ironically, Paul must know that even the savviest motivational tricks can't bridge the chasm of talent between him and the rest of the team. In the end, when that big moment comes, it will almost certainly be his alone. Though he is a willing distributor and a reluctant hero, on this team the role is his both by rights and by default.
And so, once again, the season's end will seem like a movie we've seen before. The clock will tick towards zero. The ball will be in his hands. Everyone in the building will know what's coming: Chris Paul will come hard off a screen or a switched pick and roll, dash into the lane, and launch a shot over the outstretched hand of a late-closing big man. But for once, we don't know how it will end.