Player Capsule (Plus): The Egoism of Chris Paul

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? We’re going with philosophy. Let’s discuss the beautiful, terrible egoism of Chris Paul’s game.

I hate Ayn Rand. As a somewhat libertarian-leaning person, I find a limited amount of common ground with her. But I find her an odious messenger of her cause, even when she’s putting to words things I agree with. She takes a universally accepted vice of rash, careless selfishness and turns it into a virtue. Not only that, she words it as a vice and makes it out as though the many who think of it that way are fools. It’s not the responsibility of an author’s audience to redefine words to fit your philosophy, it’s the responsibility of the author to act as an effective communicator and to work with their reader’s understanding. To think otherwise has always struck me as disrespectful of your audience, and that fits Rand to a T. She’s a very polarizing writer, and if you disagree with her on any of her points or any of her presentation, her novels and characters will come across as abjectly awful. She will make excuse after excuse for idealized proponents of her ideology without letting any opposing thought get a word in edgewise. It’s really aggravating.

Sort of like Chris Paul. Wait, what?

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I realize that comparing a much-beloved player like Paul to an Ayn Rand ideal is something most people would instinctively cringe at. I understand that. As I said, I don’t like Ayn Rand. The difference between me and most people, I suppose, is that I’m also not incredibly fond of Paul as a basketball player even though I have the utmost respect for Paul as a person. I’ve always gotten a sense of off-putting gamesmanship from Paul, and this sense that even in his remarkable talents, there’s a thread of distasteful separation between Chris Paul and the mortal man. The NBA’s very own Dr. Manhattan, if you will. An all-world, all-universe genius whose play and demeanor coldly separates him from the game and his fans. To approach the general thread of my Chris Paul thoughts, I’ll turn to the character Paul most reminds me of — Howard Roark, the architect who stars in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead.

In a literal sense, the comparison is sensible. Just as Paul is an architect of distilled possessions of brilliance and mortal might, Roark is a literal architect, and a brilliant one at that. In the novel, Roark’s only real limiting factors are that of society — his ability to form complex and groundbreaking structures makes him (according to Rand) the greatest architect on the planet. Paul has that as well. His talents are well developed and sharpened to a point, hard to find fault with and harder still to summarize. He’s an all-time passing talent, an all-world shooting talent, and an all-league defensive talent. In a pure basketball sense, you can’t put together a much better player than Paul. And at the same time, if that was ALL Chris Paul was, I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with him. But with Paul, as with Roark, every upside has its own somewhat hidden downside on a personal level. With his incredible skills, Paul brings a pathological competitive nature that includes a moral hazard of sorts.

It’s best posed as a question: at what point does merely advocating for yourself become dirty? Paul games the refs, flops on a dime, and can play incredibly dirty defense. He doesn’t do this because he’s a bad person, per se, or dirty in any way other than his game. He does this because he is pathologically competitive and obsessive about the concept of winning. In a broader sense, he forced his way out of New Orleans in a way that was (while more classy than the horror show Dwight Howard’s putting on) an extreme of advocating for oneself to help feed his need for competition. Roark has no problem doing insane things for exaltation of his own person — in the book’s main dramatic peak, Roark is arrested after literally exploding a building he had a part in simply because someone else changed some of his design choices. Nor does he have a problem rejecting projects and challenges in favor of the challenges he appreciates. Roark is so deliberate in his constructions that he refuses to do anything that doesn’t result in an architectural form exalting his own genius. Like Paul’s obsession with competition and winning, Roark holds an obsession with his ideals and his warped view of personal integrity.

And that’s the thing. With Chris Paul, I get the sense that Paul’s basketball genius exists on two planes. One is the brightest of American ideals — a self-made genius with glorious talents whose abilities have been realized to their greatest extent and whose powers are limited only by those around him. The other is the lowest of American stereotypes — the man whose work ends up taking credit for all success they’ve ever accomplished all the while finding a way to avoid all culpability for failure. Which is to say… Paul lends himself well to excuses. “His supporting cast has been terrible, therefore, he is not at fault for his poor playoff record. His teammates can’t handle a pass, therefore, he is not at fault for being on an average to sub-par team. His genius must be constrained to the confines of a 24-second shot clock, therefore, he is not at fault for overdribbling or trying too hard to make the beautiful play.” In the same way, Rand sets Roark up to be a man without failure. Every failure that Roark suffers isn’t his own, it’s a societal flaw or an inability of the people around Roark to appreciate him utterly. If Roark lets us down, it’s because of those blasted conventions. Or the people around him. Or the inability of others to recognize his genius. If Paul lets us down, it’s the same story — outmoded convention, awful teammates, or inadequate appreciation.

In that sense, while he’s never won a title (or even seriously competed for one, yet), he’s never really had the culpability that usually comes with that. After all, he’s never made a conference finals. How crazy is that? How many people even realize that? This isn’t to say that Paul is a bad player, or that we need to be harder on him. Just as Roark is actually a redefining genius of the architectural profession, Paul is actually a redefining genius of the basketball profession. And unlike Roark, Paul’s on-court obsessions don’t reflect in his off-court persona. Roark is on a personal level a detestable, self-obsessed jerk who we’re only supposed to like because Rand herself loved people like that. Paul isn’t. In fact, by all accounts, he’s the opposite — a wonderful father and a fantastic person. My dislike for Paul doesn’t at all extend to a dislike of Paul as a person. He’s wonderful. But I’m not saying Paul is some kind of Randian ideal in the personal sense — I’m trying to isolate his game.

And there’s something about it that strikes me as a mite bit dishonest, if you will. Something about Paul’s ability to play dirty without anyone really calling him on it. Something about his ability to force his way out of a city and escape all criticism for it. Something about how any criticism of Chris Paul — however slight — turns into a gigantic row over Twitter or the blogosphere and inspires enormous blowback. This isn’t to lessen his brilliance. Paul is one of the greatest full-package point guards ever. He’s as tenacious a defender at the point as we’ve seen since Payton, his passing genius is as close to all-time brilliant as a John Stockton or a Magic Johnson, and his shooting is among the best in the league despite being person to countless double teams. Paul is a marvel of the modern league, a stand-up father, and a pathologically competitive superstar whose marketability comes second only to his seething hatred of losing. He’s a treasure, and in a lot of ways, we should treasure him.

But in his game, he takes every possible opportunity to show the world what a great player he is, and in some ways the quality of his play makes the world look past the more unsavory parts of his game. Paul has gotten less flack for his resume than LeBron James has, even though Paul is similarly incredible talent-wise compared to his all-time contemporaries and arguably has had — in 2008 and 2012 — far better casts than the 2007 group that LeBron dragged to an NBA Finals berth. There’s a point at which a player has managed to dazzle you into making excuses for them. They don’t really need to say anything — you’ll excuse any action, any unsavory moment, anything that doesn’t fit in your idealized perspective of the player.

Paul has reached that point. And for that alone, he uncomfortably reminds me of Howard Roark. It didn’t really matter what low depths Roark sunk to — Rand would make excuse after excuse, and blame everyone else before giving an iota of criticism to her golden child. In that same way, the blogosphere and the analysts who cover Paul have managed to separate him from the mortal sphere. He no longer makes mistakes, he no longer bleeds. He is Chris Paul, and nothing is a failure of Chris Paul’s genius. It’s a failure of society’s inability to elevate his genius and enact it on the world.

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Quick shout-out to my colleague Alex Dewey, who helped talk through this comparison before I wrote it and came up with many of the better turns of phrase here. For more player capsules, check out more of the project on Gothic Ginobili. We’re going to be 30 players in at the end of the day — hope you’ll join us for a few! It’s a long project, but someone has to do it. (Nobody has to do it. [I’m crazy.]) I’ll be back at Hardwood Paroxysm on July 30th, with a player Matt Moore once called his favorite. See you then.

Seth Carstens