They are the hoped-for usurpers, these Pauls. Two performers in wildly disparate climates that are attempting to unseat the old guard in either conference (Miami, San Antonio) while holding off two other franchises that were long expected to be the top contender to topple the champs in Oklahoma City and Chicago. Both Chris Paul and Paul George have championship-level rosters, heaps of potential, three first names between them … and most importantly, no more excuses.
For George, his upstart Pacers seemed like a “wait ‘til next year”-proposition up until the final buzzer on June 3rd, a buzzer that told him that Indiana, indeed, would not be making the Finals last season. Indiana admirably built on a strong second round showing against Miami in 2012 to give the eventual champs all they could handle in a seven-game series, but for the entire run the Pacers were playing with found money.
Because they had excuses. Not that this is what did Indiana in, and it’s not as if they used it as a crutch, but the Pacers’ crippling’ lack of bench depth was a glaring feature of a squad that needed to play a perfect game in order to down the two-time champs. And any time any significant percentage of the Pacer starting lineup had to sit, for whatever reason, the game shifted. It’s why the Atlanta Hawks, a team that knew it was seconds away from being broken up, gave the Pacers a go in the first round. It’s why Indiana was so worried about the prospects of a seventh game in New York against a flighty and underperforming Knicks team. It’s why they couldn’t seal the deal against Miami.
Now, thanks to Larry Bird, Indiana has a proper bench. And a third star, health-willing, in the returning Danny Granger. And an alpha dog, apparently, in Paul George. From the Indianapolis Star, on Friday:
George looks forward to Granger’s return, but he understands this is his team after leading the Pacers within one game of the NBA Finals.
“A lot comes with that,” George said. “This whole summer, I really trained being the go-to guy and the lead guy for our team. Last year, we still had Danny and did not know the results (of Granger’s injury) coming into the year. I had a role that I had kind of prepared for and trained for. This year, it was more about training to be the No. 1 guy and lead this team.”
This doesn’t just mean George’s voice is going to act as the clarion call in the locker room. This means George is going to have to take on LeBron James-type angles. Better ball-handling on isolation plays, go-to pet moves, and the ability to be the man when a play breaks down in ways that go beyond desperation three-pointers. Not that such heaves are George’s only weapon at this point, but his game still has a lot of rounding out to do.
Chris Paul has no such development days ahead. The man is 28, he’s in his prime, and the bugaboo that seemed to haunt him in years’ past (nagging injuries) seems to be behind him, as Paul has missed just 18 games over the last two seasons. Paul’s game remains the model of efficiency, and though he doesn’t put up gaudy box score stats like his Hall of Fame predecessors, CP3 routinely ranks at the top of several advanced metrics just because of his pound-for-pound greatness.
The Clippers have had their own “wait ‘til next year”-quibbles, though, because each and every second of the Vinny Del Negro era felt like a holding period for Los Angeles, like a trial run before the franchise got serious about things. Just as it was in Chicago, when Del Negro was coach, the simplistic play-calling and strange rotation choices kept Los Angeles an arm’s length away from the contenders, and though the players never used him as an excuse publicly, they gave off the impression of a team that was just twirling its thumbs.
Doc Rivers is in, now. And while Doc has his own detractors when it comes to offensive play-calling and rotation choices, the man does know how to coach a great defense. The Clippers are filled with bad defenders, so Rivers will be doing the best he can build upon last year’s eighth-ranked defense; while banking on Paul to crank up the team’s defense to a level beyond last year’s fourth-place showing.
It’s true that star forward Blake Griffin has to round off his game on both ends if the Clippers are to compete, and make it to the third round for the first time in franchise history, but Chris Paul remains the object that could send the Clippers to the Finals, or leave Billy Crystal with a Billy Crystal Sad Face.
One dodgy knee bend could cut 15 games from his 82-game routine, or leave him sort of playing out the string for three quarters in contests (as he sometimes does) in order to save himself for the pivotal fourth quarter and those series of #PointGod tweets. And though the Clippers’ depth, offensively at least, has improved as well; any dip in the MVP-level 26.4 Player Efficiency Rating for Paul from last year could cost the team wins, home court advantage, or the ability to have their Ubuntu-game on point by May.
This is Chris Paul we’re talking about. It ain’t likely to happen. Still, for all the good vibes and harsh focus on Griffin, it bears repeating that we’re still banking Clipper championship ambitions on Chris Paul having yet another legendary year, at 70-plus games, at the point guard position. Lots of work to do between now and May, y’know? And these things aren’t done on paper.
The Pacers and Clippers are loaded, though. And I’d be just fine in watching these two go at it in the final round, come June.