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NBA Sunday: Chris Paul Must Beat the Spurs

As he turns 30 years old, Chris Paul must finally beat the Spurs, writes Moke Hamilton.

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As the 2015 NBA Playoffs get underway, the Golden State Warriors begin the postseason having been front-runners. They are among the favorites to win the Western Conference and quite a few fans and analysts believes they will win it all, as well.

Meanwhile, out East, both LeBron James and Derrick Rose have their sights set on the Eastern Conference crown, knowing the road goes through Atlanta.

Despite the expectations, though, Chris Paul and Doc Rivers are the player and coach that have the most to lose.

And if the Los Angeles Clippers suffer a fate that many expect—if they fail to defeat the San Antonio Spurs and advance out of the first round—this will be a long summer out in Los Angeles. It is one that will be marked by questions about the team’s future, and most certainly, questions about Paul’s legacy, where he stands now among his peers, and what will ultimately be said about him long after his career is over.

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When history looks back at the likes of Chris Webber, Jerry Stackhouse, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, their careers will mostly be stories about failure to fulfill expectations and wasted potential. Without question, each was talented in their own right and while McGrady and Carter will both likely end up in the Hall of Fame, each had the potential to ultimately go down as trans-generational players who would be long remembered after they hung up their sneakers. Webber probably should be in the Hall of Fame, but that is a different discussion for a different day.

In terms of on court production, each will be mostly remembered for failing to win at the highest level. In the case of Webber, he is arguably the best player on the best team to never win a championship—not exactly an enviable superlative.

In the NBA, a career lasts a few years, but a legacy lasts a lifetime. And if there is one fear that every NBA superstar has, it is ultimately being remembered for the wrong reasons.

That concern, for sure, keeps Chris Paul awake at night.

Over the years, in one-off conversations with Paul and with many who know him better than me, the recurring theme about him has always been how competitive he is and how he is consumed by basketball and immortalizing himself and his team. The last thing he would ever want is to end up as the next Kevin Johnson, Glen Rice or Shawn Kemp.

In the generation that preceded Webber, et al, one need to look no further than Johnson, Rice or Kemp as examples. Although Rice would eventually win an NBA Championship with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2000, today, he is more remembered as a footnote and an auxiliary piece to a dynasty than he is for having been an All-NBA performer and one of the deadliest shooters the game has ever seen.

Odds are, most 20-something-year-old NBA fans (and certainly teenagers) have no idea who Kemp or Johnson are. That is sad, but quite understandable. As a culture, we have been taught to celebrate the victors and chastise all others. Batman is the object of our affection; Robin gets no love.

Which one will Chris Paul ultimately be remembered as?

Johnson, Rice and Kemp, historically, join a long list of NBA greats who had the unfortunate reality of competing during the era dominated by Michael Jordan. From that era, the historical greats—Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Charles Barkley, to name a few—are remembered. Most others, simply, are not.

Webber, McGrady and Carter were caught in the Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan era, and what the list of former greats all have in common are that they will ultimately be remembered as inliers and as background noise for those that were able to transcend their generation.

As we look toward the future and see sub-25-year old superstars in Anthony Davis (22), Kawhi Leonard (23), Paul George (24) and Damian Lillard (24) readying to seize the mantle from LeBron James, the very fair question to ask is who from the current crop of older NBA superstars will ultimately be remembered as being nothing more than one of James’ inliers?

It may be too early to make such a case for James Harden, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but at this very moment, that list would certainly include Carmelo Anthony, and yes, it would include Chris Paul.

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For the most part, Paul has escaped ridicule for his lack of postseason success because there is no valid argument that can be made against him being anything more than a winning player. He elevates his teammates, he competes every single night and he plays both ends of the floor. He has his faults, but they pale in comparison to the pluses he brings and they are especially forgotten when he brings those pluses all 82 games (as he did this past season).

What Paul has not done, however, is win big in the playoffs. And as it relates specifically to the Spurs, Paul has become the perfect inlier, having lost to the Spurs previously in the 2008 postseason and the 2012 postseason.

Paul has never gotten past the second round and while it would be difficult to convince any reasonable and educated NBA viewer that this is due to his fault, in the long run, nobody will remember the intricate facts. Nobody will remember that Paul won 56 games in New Orleans with David West and Tyson Chandler as his running mates and that a good case could be made than he deserved the Most Valuable Player Award that season.

In the end, if Paul fails to win big in Los Angeles, nobody will remember that he transformed the Clippers from a laughingstock to a perennial contender.

Instead, all that will be remembered of Paul is that he couldn’t win more.

If it all ended for him right now, Paul would probably go down in history right alongside Webber, and perhaps, 20 years from now, he would simply be remembered as another “good” point guard who played in an era dominated by them. He would go down in history alongside the likes of Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry. One or two of that group will transcend, but the others will become footnotes.

That sort of remembrance doesn’t seem appropriate for Paul, but it is the reality he faces as he begins to battle with the Spurs for the third time in the playoffs.

Had Paul had the good fortune or being matched with a player of the caliber of Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal or Kevin Garnett, he would probably have at least two championship rings and be mentioned alongside all-time great points such as John Stockton and Jason Kidd.

Beat the Spurs now, and it’s possible. Lose again, and he is one year closer to being forgotten. The stakes have probably never been higher, especially as Paul inches toward his 30th birthday.

The Clippers are only one of four teams whose payroll exceeds $80 million this season. DeAndre Jordan, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu will be unrestricted free agents this summer and the rest of the conference is improving. Entering the season, many believed that it was now or never for the Clippers. And for their sake, hopefully it’s now.

The Thunder can tell you first hand—as quickly as the championship door swings open is as quickly and it can be slam shut.

If the Clippers are ousted in the first round for the second time in three years, rest assured that this summer, Doc Rivers will look around at his roster and begin asking himself some difficult questions. Adding a piece or two to the existing core may be a desired course of action, but one thing that certainly cannot be ignored is whether or not DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a championship-caliber starting front court in the Western Conference.

As great as each has been this past season, it would be difficult to overlook the fact that each has been made exponentially better by Paul. Jordan shot 71 percent from the field this past season and has a chance of being named the Defensive Player of the Year. However, can Paul really win with him making less than 40 percent of his free throws?

Griffin is an explosive finisher whose range and consistency has improved tremendously, but his post game is still sorely lacking. Griffin still misses simple post-up technique. He often fails to square his shoulders to the basket and is still overly reliant on his athleticism in the post. Back-to-basket scoring is more about being patient and cerebral than it is about being quick and impatient.

With another first round exit, these are questions that Rivers will have to address because it is his responsibility to get the Clippers over the top. And with Paul closing in on his 30th birthday, the clock is certainly ticking.

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As we speak, the NBA is kicking around a few ideas as it relates to altering playoff seeding and structure. Among the interesting ideas being tossed around are taking the highest ranked 16 teams across both conferences and cross-matching them. Such a practice would have pitted the Clippers against the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. Although Davis could present some issues for Rivers, that matchup is probably more desirable than having to do battle with the defending champions.

In an alternate universe, things could be different for the Clippers. Sometimes, circumstances cause things to happen that are not indicative of the truth. The Clippers are no more a “first round” team than Paul is “just another” point guard, yet, that is exactly the narrative that will be told and sold if the Spurs manage to defeat them in this series. It is a narrative that becomes more difficult to undo with every shortcoming.

Players work hard all season long to have the opportunity to play for a championship and being ousted in the first round is a stomach punch from which few teams immediately recover to win a championship. In fact, since 1989, only the 2011 Mavericks won a championship the year after failing to advance out of the first round.

But for the Clippers and especially for Paul, this series is about more than just one season—it is just as much about their immediate future. It is about Griffin and Jordan, it is about Rivers’ acumen as a team architect and it is about Paul and his legacy.

At the end of the day, players are judged by their postseason success, or lack thereof. As he closes in on his 30th birthday, Paul, from a postseason standpoint, has done little to be considered anything more than an inlier to LeBron James.

For what he contributes on the floor and what he has helped scores of teammates accomplish, Paul is so much better than that. It’s just a shame that 20 years from now, nobody will remember.

With Stephen Curry and his Warriors front running the conference and the Clippers drawing an unenviable matchup against the Spurs, fair or not, Paul has to accomplish the improbable in order to avoid questions that neither he nor Rivers want to have to answer.

It’s a journey that the Clippers traverse in unison, but make no mistake, with the conference around them improving and Paul aging, the hourglass is slowly sifting away.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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