Remember Cars? Yesterday was the movie’s 15-year anniversary. In the 2006 film, after a full season of third-place finishes, a racer — Chick Hicks — is asked to compete with the top two racers for a chance to win the championship. That’s a plot hole that has bugged me for the last fifteen years. Why on Earth would someone who consistently lost be treated the same way as the ones who beat them all season long?
Chris Paul is the Chick Hicks of the NBA. Paul is a guy whose teams have consistently underperformed in the playoffs. He’s never won a championship. He’s never even had a Finals appearance, yet still, most of the NBA world considers Chris Paul one of the true “winners” in the league.
“He wins games,” they mutter.
“Look at where the Suns and Thunder were before he arrived compared to what they accomplished with him!” they shout from the mountaintops.
“His value can’t be explained with stats! He adds more than a box score could indicate!” they scream at the top of their lungs.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all. I’ve watched his games. I like to think I know what he brings to the table when he suits up. And the answer is...a lot — a whole hell of a lot in fact. Chris Paul was (and still is) incredibly valuable for every team he’s played for. He’s had a remarkable and illustrious career, but he is not a winner.
Okay, so what determines a winner? Do you have to win a championship? No. I wouldn’t go that far, but you have to at least be capable of winning a championship as the face of your franchise. That’s what I call a winner. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, and Luka Dončić are all players who have shown enough that — with the right pieces supporting them — as the face of their respective franchises to win a title with them at the reins. Throughout his 16-year career, Chris Paul has never been that. More often than not, he’s been the supporting piece propping up other players. He’s only been the face of his franchise with the Hornets and Thunder (maybe the Suns too, but I’ll get back to that later). Paul never made it past the second round with that first team. He didn’t survive the first round in his lone season with the second team, but that team certainly didn’t help Paul at all.
The times when Paul has taken a back seat to other elite players have been the times his teams have been consistently solid. When Blake Griffin was the face of the Clippers with Chris Paul playing the role of distributor, the Clippers were championship contenders — even if they choked in the playoffs every year without fail. When Paul played the role of distributor for James Harden in Houston, the Rockets became the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors dynasty since Oklahoma City. Now with the Phoenix Suns, Paul has taken a back seat as the distributor for Devin Booker, and Paul’s team is formidable once again.
You could argue that Paul is the face of the franchise, but I would argue that role has been forced upon him because of his legacy rather than because of how the Phoenix Suns operate. The narrative surrounding Paul is that he is a great player, first-ballot Hall of Famer, but has never won a title, and that’s unfortunate. It is. Paul has been an elite player for pretty much his entire career and the fact that he’s never had the opportunity to play on the game’s biggest stage is a crying shame.
After the Suns went 9-0 in the bubble last year, Phoenix already had a ton of hype heading into the 2021 season. Throw CP3 into the mix? Now, we’re talking. This is a championship-caliber team. We saw how Paul turned OKC around in a single season. Imagine what he’ll bring to the Suns. Never mind that Booker bettered his field goal percentage and points per game each of his first five seasons in the league. This is Paul’s team now. Until he wins a championship, this is Paul’s team.
I’m not denying that Paul’s impact has been substantial and meaningful. I’m just pointing out that it’s Devin Booker’s incredible scoring ability that puts Phoenix in the “championship contender” category, and that’s what makes Booker the face of the Suns.
Chris Paul is a fantastic player, and I’ve loved watching him this year. Despite his age, he continues to outperform the young stars and help his teams exceed expectations. However, Paul has not proven that he can carry a team to a championship, which should be the goal for any player with as long a resume as Paul’s. When his career ends Paul may, unfortunately, go down as this generation’s John Stockton — someone who was always great but despite the talent around him was never great enough to compete with the best teams in the league. Hopefully this year’s Suns squad can change that. If they win the Larry O’Brien trophy this year, I’d be happy to post a full-length apology while I waddle home with my head tucked between my legs and egg on my face. I really hope Paul’s Suns win the title. That being said, when the Suns reach the Western Conference Finals... Clippers in 6.