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


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.

Tags: Chris Paul Featured Los Angeles Clippers Popular

  • Alfredo Rodriguez

    Chris Paul just had too much on his plate. Being a leader for too many things may have contributed to the Clipper’s demise. I know from experience what it’s like to have to deal with running a podcast, working on video games, and perfecting my Preventions metric. You feel like you can handle a lot of things, but once you get to work, you realize how hard it is to manage all these jobs and activities.

    As far as Paul being a superstar goes, whether he is one or not, whatever attributes he once had have been tarnished. With three first round exits and three second exits, totaling six playoff losses, Chris Paul has lost his superstar status. It didn’t matter who the opponent was, whether it was a title contender like the Spurs and Thunder, or a playoff contender like the Grizzlies. Paul has been in the league nine years; this will be his tenth season. The playoffs have proven once again that point guard-driven teams are the easiest to exploit, therefore will always lose (no matter which round they are in).

    The only way Paul can get past the second round is if he gives up being a superstar and cedes to being a role player. Big men and post play are highly emphasized in the playoffs, so it’s only fitting that Blake Griffin be the true leader of the Clippers. It also wouldn’t help if the Clippers went after one more superstar, not just to have a True Big 3, but to relieve Paul of his responsibilities. For example, what if Doc Rivers found a way to get both Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love without giving up Blake Griffin? In this scenario, the team would have to trade the farm, but don’t think it’s impossible because Doc Rivers experienced this before in 2007 when the Celtics traded seven players, draft picks and cash to get Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Paul wouldn’t have to bear the winning load when he has Melo, Love and Griffin to help him make buckets. Dream team it seems, the sole purpose of the scenario is to propose the concept that if Paul wants to be a true leader, he needs to learn when and why to defer.

    • Adam McGee

      Thanks for your comment, Alfredo!

      I get where you’re coming from, but I have to say I disagree. Paul’s history in terms of the playoffs is down to the guys he was surrounded by. Up until this year, could we say that he has ever really been on a true contender?

      In terms of him being a superstar, personally I don’t think it’s a debate. Sure, he was responsible for the Game 5 loss, but how many times in his career has he hit clutch shots, or made key passes. This is a guy who ranks third All-Time in both assists and steals per game!

      His playoff record may hurt his legacy overall, but his consistent performances make him a superstar right now. Was LeBron not a superstar in Cleveland?

      In terms of that trade, it’s a nice idea, and a team with those four guys would be exciting to watch, but I don’t see how it’s possible. To do it, the Clippers would need an owner willing to pay luxury tax, and with the current question marks over the ownership, that’s the least of their concerns right now.

      Another potential issue I’d see with that suggestion would be the lack of defense, Melo and Love are far from elite defenders, and as much as DeAndre Jordan may have his downsides, he’s a key cog in the Clippers wheel.

      Paul might well be taking on too much in terms of leadership, as you said, but although it would likely benefit his game to do less, I don’t think it’s in his character.

      • Joe Kidd

        As I’ve indicated, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Paul’s “leadership” responsibilities affected his play one iota.

        Paul is one of the best point guards in history, but he is hardly analogous to LeBron James. James needed more help than what he’d received in Cleveland, but he was always the kind of player who could elevate a team over the top. Paul, like most small point guards (even great ones), is less likely to push a team over the top.

        One could argue that the Clippers constituted contenders in 2012 and 2013, too. Heck, the Clippers won 56 games in 2013, just two fewer than the Spurs. And in 2008, Paul’s Hornets won 56 games, ranking as the West’s number-two seed, just one win behind the Lakers. David West was an All-Star power forward, Tyson Chandler constituted an elite defensive center and rebounder with the athleticism to represent a threat on the pick-and-roll, catch and dunk lob passes, and reduce his point guard’s turnovers (kind of like DeAndre Jordan now), and former All-Star Peja Stojakovic remained a significant sniper from the perimeter. And, to be sure, Paul did a great job leading that team, bringing it one win shy of dethroning the Spurs in the second round. But make no mistake, he has played on a contender before.

        Ultimately, Paul is hardly to blame for the fact that in nine NBA seasons, he has never reached the conference finals. Yet the one criticism that someone could reasonably make is that he is too dribble-heavy at times, and that he constantly wants to go right because his right hand is much stronger than his left. When he goes left, he usually does so just to return to his right hand. To be sure, Paul is extremely effective and efficient in how he plays, so his somewhat ponderous style isn’t necessarily problematic. However, it can make his offense a little predictable, which is less than optimal, especially versus playoff opponents. Conversely, guys like Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, while not in Paul’s league as playmakers and not as consistent as shooters, are much better going to their left and thus create an offensive flow that is perhaps more quick-hitting and dynamic, and hence less predictable.

        I consider Paul the game’s best point guard, but ultimately, the Clippers will probably go only as far as Blake Griffin develops.

    • Joe Kidd

      “What mattered was the trio of blunders he committed in Game 5, for those self-errors consumed him to the point where he now doubts his ability to play in the clutch. He lost that ability.”

      How do you know that Paul “now doubts his ability to play in the clutch,” and that “He lost that ability”? The very next game, facing elimination, Paul bounced back with 25 points (9-18 FG, 2-4 on threes, 5-5 FT), 11 assists, and 7 rebounds, including 13 points and 2 assists in the fourth quarter. His Game Five performance merely amounted to an aberration, nothing more.

      And one must make a pretty big leap to attribute Paul’s errors at the end of Game Five at Oklahoma City to his leadership responsibilities as the union’s president (by the way, Kevin Johnson was not officially the union’s acting executive director). If Paul’s leadership responsibilities were to blame, then why had he played well in that game up until the final three minutes? Why had he led the Clippers to victory in Game Four, coming back from a 16-point fourth quarter deficit, with 23 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and just 1 turnover, including 8 points and 4 assists in the fourth quarter? Why had Paul enjoyed a memorable Game One at Oklahoma City where he produced 32 points and 10 assists in just 27 minutes, shooting 8-9 on threes? Why did Paul shoot an amazing .457 on threes in the postseason, in a whopping 5.4 attempts per game? Why did he post 25 points (9-18 FG, 2-4 on threes, 5-5 FT), 11 assists, and 7 rebounds in Game Six versus the Thunder, with his team facing elimination? Why did Paul produce 22 points (8-15 FG, 5-5 FT), 14 assists, 4 steals, and just 2 turnovers versus the Warriors in Game Seven of the First Round, including 15 points and 8 assists in the second half? Moreover, Paul had also committed a crucial turnover and missed two free throws in the final twenty-four seconds of Game One against the Warriors, before the Sterling scandal erupted. So there’s just no basis to the idea that Paul’s mistakes late in Game Five at Oklahoma City possessed anything to do with the Sterling drama and his role as the union president. In that case, Paul’s overall performance in the postseason should have been affected, something that was not the case as he averaged 19.8 points, a league-leading 10.4 assists, a league-leading 2.8 steals, 4.2 rebounds, and a .467 field goal percentage, and a .580 True Shooting Percentage, averages that proved virtually identical to his regular season averages this year of 19.1 points, a league-leading 10.7 assists, a league-leading 2.5 steals, 4.3 rebounds, a .467 field goal percentage, and a .583 True Shooting Percentage. And if late-game mistakes by Paul were predicated on leadership responsibilities off the court during a crisis, then Paul wouldn’t have committed those mistake at the end of Game One against Golden State. So while this narrative of Paul’s play being burdened by his off-court role is attractive to speculating writers, the actual evidence utterly contradicts that thesis.

      I do concur that for the Clippers to become a championship club, the pivotal player will need to be Griffin. By the same token, though, he still needs to further improve his post-up game.

      • Alfredo Rodriguez

        The same post appeared all over the place. What happened?

        Recall that in Game 6, the score was tied at 72-72 after three quarters. The fourth quarter was controlled entirely by the Thunder with a 9-point margin. Paul scored 14 points in the final 8 minutes and 34 seconds of the game, and collected two assists in the remaining 2:11. He had 11 points and 9 assists before then. That didn’t look like a player determined to take over a game; in fact, he knew the game was out of reach. Chris Paul looked like a player who wanted to pad his stats in an effort to deflect the blame.

        This is why you need three superstars. In the playoffs, there are three series, each one tied to a specific situation that is delegated to one superstar of the Big 3. Let’s take the Spurs, for example. The first round could be a point-guard driven team, so you counter that by having Tony Parker. The second round might feature an elite wing player, so you rely on Manu Ginobili or future superstar Kawhi Leonard. The third round could be an opponent who relies on their big man, a matchup that Tim Duncan must assume as leader. In the NBA Finals, all three superstars must come together. You saw that in 2008 when Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce joined together to defeat their arch nemesis Los Angeles Lakers. If your team drew the Clippers in the playoffs, all you had to do was get Blake Griffin fouled out and it would be easy street. Point-guard driven teams are the easiest to exploit because the players around him are role players or specialists who can’t create their own shots (except for Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick). By having a superstar like Kevin Durant, Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (and DeAndre Jordan should they find a way to keep him), opposing teams will be forced into a poison-picking situation where you hope the chosen dosage doesn’t cause a side effect. The Clippers don’t have a true third wheel.

        • Joe Kidd

          You make a good point; the Clippers could certainly use a player such as Ginobili or a prime Ray Allen, giving them greater versatility. They do feature a third scorer who can create his own shot in Jamal Crawford, but he’s a cut below Ginobili and a prime Allen.

          Yet I think that of equal importance to the Clippers is Blake Griffin developing a better post-up game, so that he can be a genuine go-to player. Otherwise, the default option right now is simply Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll, and great as it can be, that option has never elevated a team to the conference finals.

          I’m not sure about Carmelo Anthony, though. I don’t know how his ball-stopping style would mesh with Griffin or with the pick-and-roll game.

          As for Game Six versus the Thunder, I think that Paul is a player who looks to dominate the fourth quarter. Steve Nash was like that, too: run the offense for the first three quarters, and then become more aggressive in the fourth. But in the playoffs, sometimes you can’t wait like that: you have to grab the reins sooner and drag your teammates with you. So Paul may still have some learning to do in that regard.

  • Guest

    I’d say that one must make a pretty big leap to attribute Paul’s errors at the end of Game Five at Oklahoma City to his leadership responsibilities as the union’s president (by the way, Kevin Johnson was not officially the union’s acting executive director). If Paul’s leadership responsibilities were to blame, then why had he played well in that game up until the final three minutes? Why had he led the Clippers to victory in Game Four, coming back from a 16-point fourth quarter deficit, with 23 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and just 1 turnover, including 8 points and 4 assists in the fourth quarter? Why had Paul enjoyed a memorable Game One at Oklahoma City where he produced 32 points and 10 assists in just 27 minutes, shooting 8-9 on threes? Why did Paul shoot an amazing .457 on threes in the postseason, in a whopping 5.4 attempts per game? Why did he post 25 points (9-18 FG, 2-4 on threes, 5-5 FT), 11 assists, and 7 rebounds in Game Six versus the Thunder, with his team facing elimination? Why did Paul produce 22 points (8-15 FG, 5-5 FT), 14 assists, 4 steals, and just 2 turnovers versus the Warriors in Game Seven of the First Round, including 15 points and 8 assists in the second half? Moreover, Paul had also committed a crucial turnover and missed two free throws in the final twenty-four seconds of Game One against the Warriors, before the Sterling scandal erupted. So there’s just no basis to the idea that Paul’s mistakes late in Game Five at Oklahoma City possessed anything to do with the Sterling drama and his role as the union president. In that case, Paul’s overall performance in the postseason should have been affected, something that was not the case as he averaged 19.8 points, a league-leading 10.4 assists, a league-leading 2.8 steals, 4.2 rebounds, and a .467 field goal percentage, and a .580 True Shooting Percentage, averages that proved virtually identical to his regular season averages this year of 19.1 points, a league-leading 10.7 assists, a league-leading 2.5 steals, 4.3 rebounds, a .467 field goal percentage, and a .583 True Shooting Percentage. And if late-game mistakes by Paul were predicated on leadership responsibilities off the court during a crisis, then Paul wouldn’t have committed those mistake at the end of Game One against Golden State. So while this narrative of Paul’s play being burdened by his off-court role is attractive to speculating writers, the actual evidence utterly contradicts that thesis.

  • Joe Kidd

    These comments are directed to certain critics of Chris Paul, not the author for the most part:

    One must make a pretty big leap to attribute Paul’s errors at the end of Game Five at Oklahoma City to his leadership responsibilities as the union’s president (by the way, Kevin Johnson was not officially the union’s acting executive director). If Paul’s leadership responsibilities were to blame, then why had he played well in that game up until the final three minutes? Why had he led the Clippers to victory in Game Four, coming back from a 16-point fourth quarter deficit, with 23 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and just 1 turnover, including 8 points and 4 assists in the fourth quarter? Why had Paul enjoyed a memorable Game One at Oklahoma City where he produced 32 points and 10 assists in just 27 minutes, shooting 8-9 on threes? Why did Paul shoot an amazing .457 on threes in the postseason, in a whopping 5.4 attempts per game? Why did he post 25 points (9-18 FG, 2-4 on threes, 5-5 FT), 11 assists, and 7 rebounds in Game Six versus the Thunder, with his team facing elimination? Why did Paul produce 22 points (8-15 FG, 5-5 FT), 14 assists, 4 steals, and just 2 turnovers versus the Warriors in Game Seven of the First Round, including 15 points and 8 assists in the second half? Moreover, Paul had also committed a crucial turnover and missed two free throws in the final twenty-four seconds of Game One against the Warriors, before the Sterling scandal erupted. So there’s just no basis to the idea that Paul’s mistakes late in Game Five at Oklahoma City possessed anything to do with the Sterling drama and his role as the union president. In that case, Paul’s overall performance in the postseason should have been affected, something that was not the case as he averaged 19.8 points, a league-leading 10.4 assists, a league-leading 2.8 steals, 4.2 rebounds, and a .467 field goal percentage, and a .580 True Shooting Percentage, averages that proved virtually identical to his regular season averages this year of 19.1 points, a league-leading 10.7 assists, a league-leading 2.5 steals, 4.3 rebounds, a .467 field goal percentage, and a .583 True Shooting Percentage. And if late-game mistakes by Paul were predicated on leadership responsibilities off the court during a crisis, then Paul wouldn’t have committed those mistake at the end of Game One against Golden State. So while this narrative of Paul’s play being burdened by his off-court role is attractive to speculating writers, the actual evidence utterly contradicts that thesis.

  • Joe Kidd

    1) Kevin Johnson was not officially the union’s acting executive director. He played that role in essence, but that was neither his title nor position.

    2) “Emulated” is not the appropriate word in that sentence. According to “The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus” (Second Edition), “Emulate” means 1. “try to equal or excel” or 2. “imitate.” John Stockton and Johnny Moore were not “trying to equal,” or “imitating,” Chris Paul. The correct verb would be “equaled,” or “matched,” or “achieved” (as in “previously achieved”).

    3) Aside from Charles Barkley constantly spouting that line, why is Chris Paul “the greatest leader in the NBA”? Without a doubt, he is a leader, and perhaps a remarkable one. But how do you know that he is the “greatest” leader? Where exactly is the proof of him being the “greatest”? How do you know that he is a greater leader than LeBron James, or Tim Duncan, or Kevin Garnett? You have offered a convincing case for Paul being a notable and commendable leader, but not the “greatest.” It’s one thing to present a puff piece, another to make an argument that actually proves your conclusion.

    • Adam McGee

      Thanks for all your comments and feedback, Joe. I’m glad that this piece clearly piqued your interest!

      I understand and agree with many of the points you’ve made, and really a lot of this comes down to opinion.

      There’s legitimate grounds to term other recent Clippers teams as title contenders, but from experience it seems like some teams are title contenders and others are “title contenders”, if you catch my drift.

      Although the Clippers have been a strong team for a few years now, there’s a number of reasons why I consider this year’s group to be their first that might have genuinely caught the attention of Miami, San Antonio, OKC.

      1. The appointment of Doc Rivers in place of Vinny Del Negro offered a significant upgrade in terms of a pedigree of winning, and maybe even respect within the locker room.

      2. With more experience, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, both showed significant improvements this season in comparison to those two previous campaigns.

      3. The Clippers supporting cast was stronger than ever this season, meaning depth shouldn’t really have been an issue.

      In regards, to Paul’s New Orleans, it’s an interesting point. As good as West and Stojakovic were at that time, I’m not convinced that West offered as explosive or dynamic a threat as Griffin does now, and likewise in regards to Stojakovic vs Redick/Crawford.

      In terms of my statement on Chris Paul as “the greatest leader in the NBA.” The whole article is really an opinion piece, and an exploration of Paul’s game and everything that he deals with around it. It’s open for discussion, and in fact I’m delighted to debate it, but for me, I feel he has shown more than almost anybody else in the NBA in regards of his leadership. Although your suggestions, Duncan, in particular, are valid candidates also.

      As for his leadership affecting his performance, I agree with you, there’s no evidence for that and I don’t feel I suggested it. In fact, as I point out in the piece, his performances against the Warriors to see the Clippers advance show his ability to perform exceptionally, even when his off the court responsibilities seemed to be at their most demanding.

      The point you make on how the young guys in the locker room view Paul’s chatter are really interesting too, and will definitely be something to keep an eye on as Griffin continues to grow.

      Once again, thanks for your comments though, and I hope you check back and read some more of my articles in the future!

      • Joe Kidd

        Thanks, Adam, and I’ll look out for your future articles.

        I concur that the Clippers constituted a more credible contender this season, and the results were indeed mildly better. On the other hand, they did possess deep, talented teams the previous two seasons. Winning 56 games in 2013, for instance, said a lot.

        West certainly wasn’t as explosive as Griffin, I agree. But he was probably a better shooter, and his footwork in the post was better. If Griffin now is better than West circa 2008, I don’t think that the margin is that large. Certainly, Griffin’s upside is much larger, and his notoriety is far greater, but West is one of those players who is underrated in the contemporary NBA because he doesn’t jump out of the gym.

        Reddick and especially Crawford can do more off the dribble than Stojakovic, but with his size, Stojakovic could get his shot off more easily in catch-and-shoot situations. Indeed, he shot .441 on threes in 2008 on a staggering 6.8 attempts per game. He also could post-up smaller defenders, an option that Crawford and Reddick don’t really offer.

        Frankly, if the 2008 Hornets were to have played the 2014 Clippers, I don’t know who would have won, and I would have gone with whoever possessed home-court advantage.