LOS ANGELES – You don’t hear much profound in sports locker room these days, even about sports.
You hear about “rhythm,” and “momentum” and playing them “one at a time.”
So it was a delight to listen to Chris Paul the other day.
The Los Angeles Clippers had just beaten the Chicago Bulls, who were playing without the injured Derrick Rose. Paul always has had difficulty playing against the far more athletic and explosive Rose.
Really, given their physical attributes, Paul shouldn’t be considered anywhere near in talent compared with Rose.
But Paul is one of the true stars of the NBA, perhaps a handful or barely more of players who make a difference for your team, players who with them you win 50 to 60 games and without you are fortunate to get to 40.
And in some respects, Paul is more welcomed than most because he defines the true art of what makes a star in the NBA, a player who is good and who makes you better with his presence.
Some do it with their own brilliance, like Michael Jordan. He occupied so much attention from the opposition the opportunities of his teammates were manifold.
Though with players like Jordan and Kobe Bryant it was more what they would do to overwhelm the opposition that would enable the team to succeed.
Paul can do a lot of special things because of his canny abilities to score and shoot the ball. But his true genius and worth is in his view of the game.
He would be my favorite player to play with. Because he also wants me to have fun.
“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul was explaining in a rare admission among NBA stars. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake (Griffin), and once that continues we become that more dangerous.”
It’s why Paul is one of the true leaders of the game.
There’s an old story about baseball I love. It involved the 1962 expansion New York Mets, the lovable losers of baseball managed by the intelligently eccentric Casey Stengel.
This was after the expansion draft with the Mets selecting their first players. With their first pick, and some big name players available, Casey took Hobie Landrith, a utility catcher from the San Francisco Giants.
Why, reporters wondered, would Casey take Landrith?
“If you don’t have a catcher,” Casey explained with the perpetual wink in his voice, “the ball rolls all the way to the backstop.”
Which is another way of saying how point guard is the most important position in the NBA today, and thus Chris Paul is one of the most important players.
It once was that all offense rotated through centers, but they have become a vanishing breed as young, tall kids decide they like to become 3-point shooters instead of standing by the basket.
So as basketball has evolved, it’s evolved more into a little man’s game.
Yes, you still can have a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Durant or Bryant who makes spectacular plays and their teams benefit. Though that doesn’t do much for teamwork and team dynamic and team success.
In the game today, Paul is nonpareil among playmaking guards. Rajon Rondo has a spectacular streak of double figure assist games, but teams still lay off his shot. It’s better, but Paul can beat you with his. Which keeps the court more spread.
Deron Williams tends to shoot more on his own and plays more selfishly. Paul is more in the mold of Steve Nash, the two-time league Most Valuable Player who is on his last run with the Lakers and breaking down physically.
They make teammates better like no one in the NBA since Magic Johnson, perhaps the model of this kind of player.
If you look in NBA history, you see Magic at the top of this Mount Rushmore of Playmaking Great Guards. Probably with Bob Cousy, John Stockton, Guy Rodgers, Lenny Wilkens, an unappreciated favorite of mine in Mark Price, and Nash and Paul.
The Clippers, as their famed broadcaster of more than three decades Ralph Lawler said before the season, are legitimate title contenders for the first time. They are, but as Paul goes so go the Clippers.
It’s not just Paul, of course, since the Clippers have a star in Blake Griffin and a deep team that includes players who would start anywhere coming off the bench, like Jamal Crawford.
And still with Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill returning in December from injuries.
Though this season for the Clippers is as much about making sure Paul doesn’t depart. He’s an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Not that he’s running the team, but Paul pushed for the Clippers to add reserves like Willie Green and Matt Barnes, and the club complied.
And an opposing coach joked to me the other day Paul could be MVP because he’s a player, coach and general manager.
Paul, as we recall from last season, was set to join the Lakers in a trade until commissioner David Stern overruled the deal and Paul eventually landed on the other end of the hall in the Staples Center the team shares with the Lakers.
Paul seems satisfied, but the Clippers also know this is a turning point season in their history because they actually have a chance to make a title run for the first time with one of the best playmakers in the game.
And without him, they simply don’t and won’t for many years.
Players with the skills, intelligence and unselfish attitude are rare. Or as Casey once said, “Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.”
He did say it. You could look it up.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for the Chicago Tribune for 25 years. He is the author of the best-seller “The Jordan Rules.”