Mar 31, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) looks on during the first half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul And The Pressures Of Leadership

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The majority of NBA players spend their entire careers desperately striving to win a championship. To raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy, to put on a championship ring, and to enjoy the general adulation and back slapping that accompanies the NBA’s ultimate success. Before any of that stuff can become a reality though, they’ve got to get to the postseason, and be able to look around them and genuinely believe that they are part of a contender. This year, possibly for the first time in his nine-year pro career, Chris Paul was able to do this.

With Doc Rivers at the helm, the 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers were more talented than many teams that have perhaps experienced greater success down the years. On paper, their roster seemed to have the perfect balance of talent, experience and promise. Blake Griffin was the young, developing superstar; DeAndre Jordan, the improved defensive stopper; Jamal Crawford, the explosive bench scorer; and in the thick of it all, pulling the strings, we found Paul.

With guys like Darren Collison, J.J. Redick, Danny Granger and Matt Barnes padding the roster, it was hard to find reasons why the Clippers couldn’t win it all. They just needed to focus on basketball, play their own game, and let their abilities take them as far as they could go.

And then it happened.

From within the organization, the team’s owner and his prehistoric philosophies reared their ugly head. When the team should have been focusing on basketball, and possibly even destiny, it was Donald Sterling who presented himself as an immovable road block.

This was the sort of inflammatory situation that caused the Clippers players to question what the organization, and the name they wear across their chests stands for. It threw them into the heart of one of the largest media storms the NBA has seen in recent years, all while the Golden State Warriors, a 51-win regular season team, required their full attention on the court. It was the type of situation where it would almost have been easier for the team to crumble, but instead their leader came to the fore.

Chris Paul isn’t your average NBA player, or I suppose even your every day guy. It’s his instinct to lead, it’s in his nature to win. He was the student body president during his time in high school, and in sports he’s captained almost every team he has played on. Since he came into the league as the fourth overall pick from Wake Forest, Paul has shown himself to be both the first guy to put a supportive arm around a teammate who needs it, and the guy who won’t mince words with them if they are underachieving. Paul’s skills and his game speak for itself, but it’s his single-mindedness that’s brought him to where he is today.

When the Sterling fiasco first came to light, Paul was likely preoccupied with matching up against Stephen Curry, one of the leagues most skilled point guards, but that would soon become only one part of his juggling act.

As not only the leader within his own team, but the president of the players union, the NBPA, Paul became the sounding board for every possible action the players as a whole could take. While he’d spend his day studying tape, and working on the practice court, his night’s were dominated by calls with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and acting union executive director Kevin Johnson.

That sounds draining enough to push any mere mortal to the brink of exhaustion, yet somehow Paul kept going. When the news about Sterling broke, the Clippers led 2-1 in a series that would eventually go seven games. In the first game following the news, the Warriors thumped the Clippers by a resounding 21 point margin. From that point on, Paul’s demeanor was different though. He seemed more driven than ever, and almost angry. Although he wasn’t necessarily playing his best basketball, he was a man on a mission looking to ensure that his team would be the ones to advance.

To Paul and his teammates’ credit, they achieved that goal. Only 12 days later, their championship dream was dead, though. Beaten by the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, many laid the blame at Paul’s feet for not getting the job done, particularly after some costly errors in Game 5. Nobody wanted to win more than Paul though, and as the series came to a conclusion the pain on his face was clear to see. Part and parcel of being the leader is to take the praise in success, and play the fall-guy for failures, but Paul had nothing to be ashamed of.

If the Clippers felt they were a team that were ready to win, the Thunder were even further along that path. Sure it’s disappointing, but why is there shame in losing to a team with arguably two of the five best players in the league, and with more experience of competing for titles in general? Paul played magnificently during the playoffs averaging 19.8 points, 10.4 assists, 2.8 steals, and a true shooting percentage of 58.3, a set of playoff stats only emulated in NBA history by John Stockton and Johnny Moore.

Did that make him feel better about how things ended though? Of course not. Following the Clippers elimination Paul spoke candidly in the post-game press conference, with the realization of the opportunities his team had this season. The 29-year-old’s post-mortem analysis of the situation was, “It’s tough. You don’t get a chance to be on teams this good very often”. Paul’s right too, but as he had proved in the weeks prior, it’s when things get tough that he comes into his own.

Speaking about Paul back in 2012, his former coach Monty Williams noted, “Everybody wants to lead until things get tough; he leads all the time.”

With uncertainty still surrounding the ownership of the franchise, the offseason has the potential to be difficult for Paul and the Clippers. After all they’ve been through it shouldn’t faze them though. The 2013-14 playoffs, and the circus that became attached to them, were a learning experience for the Clippers, and one that should allow them to come back tougher and more resilient in the coming years.

As for Paul, disappointment fuels him. It opposes his desire to win, and so you can expect him to do everything in his power to bounce back and lead his team to victory. After leading the Clippers with aplomb through the most testing of months, don’t expect Paul to be daunted at the prospect of leading them to a title next year.

A question that I’ve seen raised a lot recently is whether Chris Paul is a “superstar”. That’s a debate that could rage on and on based on varying definitions of that term, but what shouldn’t be lost in the argument is the NBPA president’s true identity.

Chris Paul is the greatest leader in the NBA.

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