Chris Paul, Deep Purple, And Writing

Photo from zamburak via Flickr

Tuesday night, as twitter slowly emptied itself from antsy frustrated bored and sleep deprived NBA followers waiting for a resolution from a 16 hour mediation session between the NBA and the NBPA dwindled down in numbers, there were two things going through my mind.

The first was Deep Purple’s April, a musical masterpiece of epic proportions, one that is so unique, so thrilling in such a versatile way, that even after investing a full 12 minutes of one’s life in order to hear it, one must hear it again.

The second was the need to write something about Chris Paul.

Paul had just recently been declared the 4th best player in the NBA by a 91 man ESPN panel that I was very fortunate to be a part of, and yet, between “LEBRICK BE THE CHOKEZ” exclamations and “KOBE AT #7?!?! WHAT??!!” cries,  he somehow slipped beneath the internet radar. Meanwhile, I was but one day removed from my first live basketball game in approximately 5 months, where my one true love, Hapoel Jerusalem, prevailed over Bnei HaSharon/Herzelia in overtime. I had too many basketball feelings running through my veins, and too little basketball feelings running between my fingertips and my keyboard; at the same time, the world had too little Chris Paul in it. I had to rise to the challenge.

I then proceeded to stare at a blank Word document for what I hope but cannot promise was less than 5 hours. In the meantime, April’s 8 minute instrumental prefix bombarded my ear drums in the same way Paul’s dribbles bombard a parquet – deliberately, purposefully, waiting for me to break down so the final blow – the 4 minute lyrical portion – could land just in the right place.

Chris Paul And You

Never one to gloss over the less interesting bits of the human psyche (why do I love ice cream so much? Why did the 05-06 Nuggets appear in my dream last night? Do I really enjoy staying up until 8 A.M. to watch basketball during regular seasons or am I just a deeply disturbed human being?), and with an immense lump of writer’s block obstructing my view, my hopeful analysis of Chris Paul quickly turned into an analysis of the point guard through the lens of my failed writing. What makes Paul so hard to define? What is it about Paul’s dominance on the court that makes it impossible for me to get past my introduction? Will I be able to complete a third question without driving away my readers?

It’s impossible to isolate just what it is that makes Paul so special as a player, but if I had to start, it would be his physique. Old time purists and/or internet trolls will tell you that the ultimate basketball is built first and foremost on his skill – which Paul certainly has in bundles – but in a vertically defined game where the objective is to place things in a 10 foot hoop, the ability to use one’s body to reach said 10 foot hoop and prevent other people from doing so will always matter.

Of course, the last thing one can say about Paul is that he is vertically defined. Generously listed at an already miniscule 6’0″, with a body that I would probably declare pudgy if I hadn’t seen it produce some of the fastest sprints and direction changes that basketball can offer, to the untrained eye Paul looks like his place in the NBA is with me, behind a laptop, not on the court. And it is this similarity between Paul and Viewer Joe that makes him so easy to bond with.

Athletics are often designed as a display of superhumans with human emotions, offering us a way to live vicariously through them. Nowhere is this stronger than with Chris Paul. When LeBron James and Dwyane Wade trade blows as they abolish the big bad Celtics, we are entertained; when Chris Paul darts between Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for yet another impossible jumper amongst giants, we believe we can too. When we see Dirk Nowitzki rush off the court in tears, victorious at last, we are touched, but it’s hard for us to see ourselves in the shoes of a 7 foot German; when Paul intentionally misses a free throw in a high school game so he can finish the evening with 61 points – in honor of his 61 year old grandfather, brutally murdered only a few days before – we see ourselves in him, and we see our pain in his pain.

Chris Paul And Inspiration

The great thing about Chris Paul is that if indeed you try to play basketball vicariously through him, you will vicariously be really awesome at basketball. Because the second he steps on a basketball court, one understands just how athletic, how abnormal Chris Paul truly is, as the unimpressive build immediately transforms into a whirling daredevil of brilliance.

Paul’s athleticism is different from the James/Howard/Griffin/Rose oh-what’s-this-you-call-it-gravity-I-will-ignore-it-now-boom sort of jumpitude, but on a 2 dimensional plane, Paul is virtually unmatched. Already among the fastest players in the league end-to-end in an honest sprint, Paul adds a superhuman ability to change pace on the spot, to go with a low center of gravity that makes it virtually impossible for him to lose the ball or his balance. Keeping your dribble for 20 seconds despite being guarded by 3 people doesn’t get you into highlight reels, but it does lead to a wide open Willie Green, and even though he misses the layup that you perfectly placed in his lap, if he were to ever make it, the 2 points count just the same.

But Paul takes it a step further, exhibiting not only mind-blowing ability, but an extra-terrestrial brand of patience. Instinctively, if you have an elite point guard with unmatched speed, you would want to play a fast style of basketball that will enhance those advantages; and yet, the Hornets routinely play at an incredibly slow pace, because no matter how much Paul can squeeze out of a fastbreak, he can do that much more in a halfcourt game.

Back when Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson were playing, their high assist numbers were often dismissed as byproducts of the two dribbling for 20 seconds, then either shooting or passing off. In Paul’s case, his 20 second dribbles are enhancers not for his own stats, but for those of his teammate’s. His control over the game is intrinsic, his steady hand all-encompassing. By being much faster than everyone else, somehow, Paul’s mind slows down. The Hornets’ continued brilliance in late game situations is the best possible example of this – at the time of utmost pressure, where even the greatest can lose their heads, Paul stays the course, leading to marvelous results. Chris Paul was put on this planet to run an offense, and nobody does it better.

Chris Paul And Knees

“Gray sky where it should be blue

Gray sky where I should see you”

Perhaps this section should have started this piece. Perhaps it should have ended this piece. Not knowing where to go, I stuck it smack-dab in the middle. But know that with Chris Paul, it all begins and it all ends with the knees. Those damn, meniscus-less knees.

Because when that knee acts up, the complete and total control supplied by the Wake Forest product’s mind can no longer be matched by his limbs, and the commands that shoot up his nervous system are either ignored or anticipated by an opposing player. Perhaps this is inevitable when you try to combine a body that is so normal with athletic qualities that are so great, but it pains the viewer no less.

Of course, even with his knee at its worst possible shape, Paul is still magnificent. But the difference is large enough to place Paul within striking range. And today’s NBA has enough players for whom allowing close range access is akin to suicide.

One of them is Derrick Rose, as  described here by John Hollinger:

This could just be random, but given that (A) Paul has a bad knee, and (B) he visibly appeared to run out of gas as the grind of the regular season wore down, only to suddenly revive once he got some rest in the most spread-out playoff schedule, I think it’s pertinent. Paul played his best basketball in November and his PER steadily dropped from there; check out his splits. Most notable were the two late-season games against Memphis, which were crucial for playoff seeding but saw Paul muster only five points over the two games, including a bagel in the second one. Again, if you’re trying to decipher who’s better in October, six months after either played his last game, I think this is pertinent information in Rose’s favor.

via NBA — Derrick Rose better than Chris Paul? – ESPN.

If this Paul is the Paul you judge, then #4 is ridiculously high. But just as the low end of his splits condemn him, so is he elevated by numbers to begin the season – the Paul who refused to misplace a single shot or a single pass as the Hornets started the season on a ridiculous 11-1 rampage could stake his claim as better than #3 Dwyane Wade, perhaps even higher than the Dwights and the LeBrons. Basically, it’s a leap of faith – if you give his knees the benefit of the doubt, he really is that good, or even better.

After the Laker series? I’m willing to give him every benefit he wants.

Chris Paul And The Lakers

These playoffs were the year of Dirk Nowitzki’s triumph, of LeBron James’s defeat, of Dwyane Wade returning to front stage, of Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant breaking out, of the Memphis Grizzlies staking their claim. But what Chris Paul did way back in April was unparalleled in its force, ultimate proof that he who looks only for the end result will inevitably lose something on the way.

Ignore the fact that Trevor Ariza was his second best player, that Jarrett Jack and Willie Green played crunch time, that he somehow transformed Aaron Gray into a center that can hang with the Bynum-Gasol-Odom triumvirate. Ignore how a should-be sweep became a contested 6 game series. Ignore the 33-7-14-4 Game 1, the 27-13-15 Game 4, the 22-6.7-11.5 series averages, the 54.5-47.4-79.6 percentages. Ignore it all, and just look at every single link in this list. Or, if that’s too much for you, sum it up here:

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFUCZFKu4QI]

I know. I know. It happened to me too. And I wondered why this was hard for me to verbalize.

Chris Paul And April

“Maybe once in a while

I’ll forget and I’ll smile

But then the feeling comes again

Of an April without end

Of an April as lonely as they come”

For Chris Paul, April is probably a sore subject. One of the most competitive players alive, Paul has played 4 playoff series in a 6 year career, winning only one. But in a team sport, we know better as to hold it against him. For Paul, April truly is as lonely as they come. The one year he was supplied with the tools to go far, he desecrated Dallas and just nearly got by the defending champion Spurs before they were just too much. Otherwise, it’s been pain and sadness.

And the worst part is, we may never see that version of Paul truly realized. Performances such as his Laker games come by few times in one’s life, and Paul got two of them in one series last year. Probability dictates that it will be a while before we see any living point guard produce an identical gem, be it Paul or anyone else, functional knees and everything.

But the insecurity around what should be one of the brightest futures in the basketball world shouldn’t diminish from what Paul has given us so far. Things that, in a perfect world, would end up being the first 6 years in the career of the best pure point guard ever, but in this flawed version, might just end up being the best 6 years in the career of one of the best pure point guards ever. Remember: it doesn’t take much for something to be good enough to hear again and again and again. Chris Paul has long passed that arbitrary threshold. Just rewind and re-watch.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-EJ9dQ5BmA]

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.