When it comes to MVP candidacy, one of the best candidates is undoubtedly Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul. Although there are numerous arguments that can be made for some of the other favorites to win the award (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant among the other leaders), assuming Paul doesn't win MVP, does it mean Paul isn't the most critical player to his team's success?
No, absolutely not, and aside from just statistical output, Paul's presence and leadership provide plenty of intangible value as well, something often overlooked in favor of wins or stats.
So, that being said, why is Paul more critical than, say, an elite distributor like LeBron or a scoring machine like Kobe or K.D.?
Well, consider his unique skill set—not only is he an elite individual scorer, but he is also an elite passer as well, a "killer" and a catalyst if you will.
The above videos are great examples of the Clippers' mindset and how they perceive Paul within the offense. What makes Paul so dangerous is his ability to create off the dribble—whether it's a shot or a pass off dribble penetration.
If Darius Morris over there helps too early in the first clip, Paul has Caron Butler for a kick-out three-pointer, and because of Paul's lethal off-the-dribble ability, it's why Kobe (who has over six inches of height on Paul) is digging in attempting to cut off a pass or jumper. That slight hesitation from Paul on the dribble-drive leads to a stop-and-pop crossover, which, despite Kobe's defense, still goes in thanks to creating just enough space to get the shot off.
Aside from Jamal Crawford, there really isn't anybody on this Clippers team who you can have a straight up spread-the-floor isolation for you to get two or three points in a key situation. Since the Clippers acquired Paul, this type of possession is the norm in low shot-clock situations
Because of the Clippers rely on him to score key baskets, he's undoubtedly the most critical piece within their collective offense as far as being relied upon to come through in the clutch.
Now, aside from his deadly scoring ability, perhaps the biggest impact Paul has brought to the Clippers is his playmaking ability. It's virtually impossible to see a Clippers game without a single play that reminds us of the "Lob City" namesake.
Now sure, it's definitely exciting to watch Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan hammer down dunks, but notice how these exciting lobs are predicated off of Paul's passing ability—the part of Paul's game that reminds us he is just as effective helping others score as he is individually.
Because guys like Griffin, Jordan and even his starting perimeter players like Willie Green or Caron Butler often can't create shots for themselves easily, the onus is on Paul to make plays for others.
Paul doesn't have a Russell Westbrook or a Dwyane Wade or even a Chris Bosh at his side, and he certainly isn't asked to just go out there and score a high clip either; he has to make plays for everyone else.
It's a unique situation and something a lot of superstars in the league don't have to bear the burden of.
Now of course, this isn't taking anything away from the other candidates for MVP (or to try and downplay the ability of Paul's teammates; they have arguably the best bench in the league)—any of them are certainly worthy of winning just as Paul is, but when you consider how much everyone as whole relies on Paul as an individual, it's clear how critical he is to their overall success.
Also, besides the lobs, besides the buzzer beaters, just consider how much he means as a leader and how this team rallies around his presence. Perhaps this was best exemplified during the Clippers' incredible comeback in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.
Paul, along with some incredible shooting from his teammates, helped overcome a 27-point deficit, but his words (emotional but with a tinge of boastful humor) in the postgame speech epitomized everything that makes Paul great and why his undersized, underdog attitude has, in more ways than one, changed the perception and culture of the Clippers from perennial laughingstock to legitimate title contender.
Whether Paul wins the award or not, the immense positive impact he brings is why he is certainly paramount to his team's success going forward, and it's why he is undoubtedly the league's most critical player considering the array of ability and intangible worth he provides every time he steps on the court.