Sports

Chris Paul’s COVID Absence Threatens the Playoffs’ Most Thrilling Storyline

Basketball is better with the maddening point god playing it.

Paul looks upward on the court, arms akimbo
Paul in the fourth quarter of the Suns’ Game 4 win in the Western Conference second round series against the Nuggets, at Ball Arena on June 13, in Denver, Colorado. Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, the latest piece of bad news broke on a thoroughly nightmarish NBA season: Chris Paul, transcendent point guard of the ascendant Phoenix Suns, had entered the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and would be out indefinitely. (Incredibly, this news was almost immediately overshadowed by the announcement that Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard was possibly done for the remainder of his playoffs with a knee injury.) The Suns’ breakthrough success, spurred by Paul in his first year with the team, had been the most exciting storyline of the playoffs thus far, an aesthetically thrilling and hugely likable squad of energetic up-and-comers and crafty vets. (DeAndre Ayton, the Suns’ frighteningly talented young center, turned 7 years old the year Chris Paul was drafted.)

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Paul’s status—still unresolved at the time of this writing—threatened to imperil one of the most impressive fifth acts in NBA history, as the upstart Suns may represent the aging Paul’s last best hope at the championship that has long eluded him. In the finale of the Suns’ second-round sweep of the Denver Nuggets, Paul played one of the great games of his career, scoring 37 points on a 14-for-19 shooting clip. He made all nine of his free throws and didn’t take a single 3-pointer, at one point hitting eight consecutive mid-range jump shots from eight nearly identical spots on the floor. He also dished out seven assists against only two turnovers, although this was slightly subpar to his standard: Through 10 playoff games Paul’s overall assist-to-turnover ratio is an absurd 8-to-1. It’s difficult to play basketball better than Chris Paul has been playing it lately and, aside from a guy in Brooklyn, lately no one is.

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Great point guards see the game of basketball through other people, a preternatural awareness of where their teammates are, where their teammates’ defenders are, and where said teammates and defenders are likely to be two, three, four passes down the line. For Paul this extends to a sui generis command of the whole physical space of the basketball court and the constant movement that defines it. It’s this aptitude that makes Paul such a brilliant passer, of course, as well as an exceptional scorer and one of the best defenders at his size the game has ever seen. (Paul has made nine All-Defensive teams.)

Arguably the most memorable shot of Paul’s career, his Game 7 game-winner against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, is a perfect demonstration of this all-encompassing awareness. Paul takes a handoff from Blake Griffin and dribbles all the way out almost to center court, blanketed by the Spurs’ Danny Green, a terrific defender who’s got a solid six inches on Paul. Paul gets Green on his hip and then, with impossible quickness, turns the corner and surges downhill to the basket. Green gives chase while Tim Duncan swiftly rolls to cut off Paul’s path to the basket. As the clock runs down Paul suddenly propels himself away from the hoop—more of a full-on backward leap than a traditional fadeaway—shaking Green and creating just enough space between Paul and a contesting Duncan for the ball to arc from Paul’s fingertips, off the backboard and through the hoop. It’s a shot that shouldn’t have even been able to exist, let alone go in.

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A reasonable observer might wonder why a guy who’s this obviously great at basketball has been traded four times in 16 years, and one answer might be that Chris Paul also has a knack for rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. He’s long had a rep as a dirty player, going back to a collegiate suspension for punching North Carolina State star Julius Hodge in the nuts. (Paul carried this move with him to the NBA, as an entire sub-genre of YouTube videos attests.) He’s a flop artist who hunts fouls with a maniacal zeal, a tireless hardwood lawyer who treats referees like they are teammates who are perpetually letting him down. The most extreme recent example of Paul’s litigiousness came in a 2019 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul successfully lobbied for a delay of game penalty against Wolves reserve Jordan Bell, who’d committed the unforgivable offense of entering a game without his jersey fully tucked in. The infraction resulted in a technical foul and a crucial free throw for Paul’s Thunder that helped swing the outcome of the game. Many people would argue that this is not really a “basketball play,” to which Paul would probably respond that it helped him win a basketball game.

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The greatest point guards are often described in terms of genius, but there’s a similar word that better encapsulates Paul at his most brilliant and most maddening: Chris Paul is precocious. For as long as we have known him he’s been ridiculously good at basketball, even in comparison to the very best players in the world. Young point guards are notoriously erratic, prone to offensive inefficiency and defensive ineptitude. In Paul’s rookie season (2005–06) he led the NBA in steals while posting a Player Efficiency Rating of 22.1. (For perspective, Magic Johnson, widely considered the greatest point guard ever and an outright prodigy who won Finals MVP in his first season, had a rookie PER of 20.6.) Paul’s greatest season may have been 2007–08, only his third year in the league, when he led an otherwise pedestrian New Orleans Hornets team to the second-best record in the Western Conference and finished second in MVP voting to Kobe Bryant. At every stop of his career, Paul has made his teams better, and often dramatically so—there have just been a lot of stops, and lately they’ve come frequently. (Phoenix is Paul’s fourth team in the past five years.) Going back to his earliest successes, Paul has cultivated a sort of golden-child aura, conducting himself on the court like the gifted kid in the front of the class who takes for granted that he’s the teacher’s pet. It’s an act that can get stale, even among people who benefit from it.

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Listed at 6 feet flat, Paul is small even by the standard of “small NBA player,” an inch shorter than John Stockton, who retired the year that Paul entered Wake Forest and a player whom Paul increasingly resembles as he treads deeper into middle age, right down to the gnawing absence of a championship. Paul’s postseason record is among the most controversial topics that you can raise around a certain species of internet-addled NBA fan. Partisans will point to a healthy collection of great playoff performances, of which Sunday’s masterpiece was just the latest entry. Detractors will note a tendency for early-round exits—not only has Paul never played in an NBA Finals, but this upcoming series will be only his second appearance in a conference finals—as well as a small but notable handful of inexplicable meltdowns.

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As with all of these sorts of conversations, the truth is somewhere in between. Making the NBA Finals is very difficult (you’ve probably never done it either), and Paul has spent his entire career toiling in the perennially stacked Western Conference. He’s certainly played on some excellent teams, but never one that was an odds-on favorite to win it all. And of course Paul hasn’t always been at his best in some crushing losses, a nagging record of inconsistency that dovetails with a general tendency toward the snakebitten. (Paul’s lone previous conference finals appearance, in 2018 with the Houston Rockets, was cut short by a hamstring injury going in to Game 6; Houston, up 3–2 at the time, went on to lose the series in agonizing fashion.)

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This history is of course why Paul’s COVID status has thrust one of the playoffs’ most dramatic storylines into uncertainty, while also threatening to rob fans of the sublime pleasure of watching one of the sport’s great dramatists. Love him or hate him, basketball is better when Chris Paul is playing it, and until he’s back on the court his absence will feel like a punch in the, uh, gut.

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