Los Angeles ClippersIs It Time for the Clippers and Chris Paul to Part Ways?Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterMay 1, 2017Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul didn't want to analyze anything Sunday.
His free agency, the Game 7 first-round loss to the Utah Jazz, or whether what he has done with the Los Angeles Clippers in six fine yet futile seasons really matters.
The cop-out answer from afar is that it doesn't matter.
In a society increasingly of the championship-or-bust mentality, Paul's inability to get the Clippers out of the second round hasn't resonated or inspired. Outside of the Clippers diehards, this year's playoff exit was met more with a shrug than surprise. That lack of influence would've shocked Steve Ballmer back when he was buying what he projected to be America's team. (All Clippers jerseys Sunday at Staples Center were on sale for 40 percent off, by the way!)
To discount Paul's impact entirely, however, is like saying treading water doesn't matter.
It's a heck of a lot better than sinking.
And that's the only way to look at Paul's taking the Clippers from laughingstock to playoff regular, joining the San Antonio Spurs as the only teams to win at least 50 regular-season games each of the past five years.
This is one truly great player who has done an incredible amount for one truly not-great organization.
It's admittedly difficult to stay on that point, maybe even harder than it is for Blake Griffin to stay healthy. The arguments that Paul hasn't made his teammates better or happier are valid—and the argument that Paul hasn't gotten his teammates to trust him more completely is undeniable.
Yet the key point is the one that will drive Ballmer, Doc Rivers and Paul to want to stay together this summer: Respectability has value, even when tinged with disappointment. Paul will keep doing his best, because that's just what he does. That's what he meant when he said Sunday: "You just sort of, like, fall in love with the process. At the end of the day, it's a game, and we all love it, know what I mean? Like, you just keep pushing until it happens. That [part] is not going to change."
Some might ask that if Paul doesn't want to try winning somewhere else, shouldn't Ballmer want to try winning with someone else?
It's easy to say the Clippers have to shake it up to get better, but with limited options to acquire any sort of talent, it's going to be a challenge just staying as good as they have been. Griffin, Paul and J.J. Redick have the power this summer to leave the Clippers with nothing. DeAndre Jordan can't just be traded easily either in a roster makeover, as he holds a player option for 2018 that makes any team acquiring him unlikely to give equal value.
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Indeed, there's a lot of value in holding onto a nine-time All-Star point guard. Anyone who gets the subtleties of this game will tell you how special Paul is. He is a puppet master in the pick-and-roll, and as Jazz coach Quin Snyder puts it, "The game's in slow motion for him."
In a league with so many talented players just pretending to care about winning, Paul is the guy who wants to beat himself up, or someone else on his team, on any rare occasion he just commits a turnover. He probably believes he could outrace Russell Westbrook or kick twice as hard as Draymond Green if a title were actually ever within his grasp.
So, how is it that the aura emanating from Paul on Sunday was that this latest failure—in some ways the most disappointing after so many years of buildup and with so much in flux this summer—was understandable?
It's not as if he lingered to offer some detailed analysis of all that went wrong. He was far quicker than usual in getting out of Staples for the last time this season, albeit with no indication it would be his last time ever as a Clipper.
Paul seemed to take the loss better than anyone else.
Ballmer, aggrieved look on his big eyes and the ineffective free-giveaway T-shirt still covering his well-sewn collared oxford, shuffled along in his usual feet-pointed-out duck walk to get out first.
J.J. Redick, from under the low brim of a blue Dodgers cap, emotionally struggled to explain his playoff futility and discuss his uncertain free-agent future.
Griffin wasn't even there—injured again and out of town to address his personal medical future rather than show up and support the only team he's ever played for before his potential free agency arrives.
Paul, though clearly urgent to leave and put some distance on the pain of losing, had no choice but to stand and wait eight minutes for Snyder to finish explaining his Game 7 road victory in the Clippers' press room before Paul could tend to his media business.
When he did, whether it was because of simple fatigue or outright resignation, the emotion wasn't as obvious from Paul as from Ballmer or other teammates.
Maybe it's just that Paul is too familiar with the pain by now, performing mostly brilliantly while losing early in the playoffs every season of his splendid career.
Shane Young @YoungNBA
Chris Paul is now 33-43 in the Playoffs, but here’s where he ranks all-time in a few Playoff efficiency areas: https://t.co/LbSUhAbYp0
4/30/2017, 10:49:03 PM
For certain, he knew better than anyone around him how tough it was for him to be so terrific in pushing the series to the limit, with Game 7 Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles leaving him scarcely any recovery time after a great Game 6 Friday night in Utah.
This team that was 43-18 with him but 8-13 without him in the regular season got incredible output from Paul in the playoffs. His six-game averages of 27.3 points, 10.0 assists and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 52.6 percent from the field, 41.9 percent on threes and 90.6 percent on free throws were a combination of 25/10/5 on 50/40/90 marks that no player in NBA history has averaged in a postseason.
Paul wouldn't average them either, as the Jazz aggressively shrunk the court on him in Game 7 and dared other Clippers to beat them by bringing big men up to trap Paul far from his favorite spots. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting with four rebounds and nine assists.
Only he knew how his knees were feeling under those heating pads and wraps as he sat on the bench, hunched over…or when he had to pause at one point on the court to stop and flex those knees a few times to make sure he was still good to go on…or when every shot he took during the latter part of the game came up short.
Paul knew better than anyone how dead-end the Clippers offense was without Griffin considering how many times Paul pushed, probed and passed to break down the defense only to get the ball dumped back on him again instead of someone building off what he'd just created.
Should Griffin choose to make his absence from the Clippers permanent, the future shifts from respectable to risky in L.A.
A new max contract for Paul would be a long-term albatross for the franchise. Small point guards with injury histories and high usage rates do not get better after turning 32, as Paul does next week.
That's why it's imperative for both Paul and the Clippers to agree on his value to the team. Even if he's not delivering a championship, he has provided, and still does, a certain greatness for this franchise that he knows doesn't offer anything like the sort of home-court advantage other clubs get.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Remember how Paul enviously referred to Jazz fans as "homers" and was so appreciative that he sought out that one kid wearing a CP3 jersey in Salt Lake City to offer the shirt off back? Paul knows full well there are limitations for his team. All the Clippers know.
As bad as it felt to fail at home Sunday, it might not be getting any better.
Which brings us to the reality that when you're tight with both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, it's easy to gain perspective that the grass can be greener or barren.
When you play for or run the Clippers, you know that respectability isn't to be taken for granted, even if it doesn't bring a title.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.