Chris Paul's name has been virtually synonymous with greatness at point guard over the last few seasons.
Even as other NBA floor generals have won MVP awards, decorated their fingers with championship rings and made All-Star squads, CP3 has stood a step above the rest of the field at his position. He's just been that good at his job, getting to every spot on the court when he so desires and excelling across the board.
He's won the imaginary point guard crown, and it's a piece of head-wear that I doubt he wants to give up at any point in the near future.
The 2013-14 season will test his grasp on it like never before. For the first time in a while, Paul will have to actually defend his title.
The Total Package
First of all, it's necessary to give a brief overview of why Paul is widely viewed as the NBA's premier floor general.
It's not that he's the best passing point guard in basketball. Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio would have too many qualms with that.
It's not that he's the best defensive point guard in basketball. Rondo and Mike Conley stand out there.
Instead, it's the combination of all of Paul's skills that makes him superior.
CP3 can put up points whenever he wants to, although he usually prefers to get his teammates involved, and he waits until crunch time before he starts filling up the scoring column.
He's one of the best distributing point guards in basketball, although his shot-creating talents prevent him from actually leading the league in assists. And Kelly Scaletta's WAMS rankings have him rated as the No. 4 defensive point guard in the Association.
No other player at his position is that well-rounded, and that doesn't even factor in his insane leadership abilities and knack for effectively functioning as a de facto coach on the floor. If there's one player in basketball who was going to serve as a player-coach, Paul would be a strong contender for the job.
While it would be possible to get into a more detailed analysis of why Paul is almost universally viewed as the top point guard (criticisms tend to hone in on his playoff performance, which doesn't even remotely make sense), that's not the point.
The true thrust here is that—more so than during any point over the last few years—Paul's crown is going to be under siege during the 2013-14 campaign.
Clippers Offseason and Ensuing Expectations
As mentioned up above, the main knock on CP3 has always been his perceived lack of success in the postseason.
But how exactly was Paul supposed to win championships with the rosters he was dealt? In New Orleans, his best teammates were David West (a legitimate low-level All-Star) and Tyson Chandler (well before he broke out with the Dallas Mavericks).
Take a look at who started playoff games alongside CP3 during his time in the bayou:
Ouch. Good luck building a championship-contending roster out of that bunch.
Things didn't get much better once Paul joined the Clippers. Although the roster was more talented, it was still ultimately flawed. Plus, it didn't help that Blake Griffin completely failed to show up as soon as he got a taste of physical play against Zach Randolph.
Which player do you think should be blamed for the Clippers' postseason flame-out in 2013, based on the comparison of their regular season and postseason per-game stats?
Somehow, it was Paul, not Griffin, who took most of the flak for another premature playoff exit. It apparently doesn't matter that his 29.2 PER was the highest in the playoffs, or that his 53.3 percent shooting from the field and 1.5 turnovers per game were insanely impressive.
As always, Paul's reputation as a postseason flopper was remarkably overblown. Although perhaps that was a poor word choice in the previous sentence.
This year, for the first time in his impressive career, Paul will have a roster that is actually capable of winning a title. After all, the Clippers had one of the best offseasons of any NBA team during the summer of 2013.
One of the biggest upgrades comes on the bench, but it involves a man who won't ever be suiting up in anything other than, well, a suit.
Vinny Del Negro often held back the Clippers during his reign as head coach, forcing the half-court sets to stagnate and Paul to take on too much responsibility. The same won't be true with Doc Rivers pacing the sideline.
Rivers is one of the best coaches in the Association, and he'll do wonders with a talented roster that added even more depth and perimeter shooting. His ability to create chemistry, motivate players and maximize defensive talent should be inordinately helpful, especially given the dearth of point-preventing presences in the frontcourt.
The Clippers could afford to move Bledsoe, who was a rather expendable piece behind CP3, and they used him to acquire Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, both of whom can light it up from downtown.
As long as Griffin at least shows up to the 83rd game of the season (and beyond), L.A. is poised to be strong contenders for the title. In fact, they're my pick to take home the No. 1 seed in the brutally difficult Western Conference.
Here's where a certain Voltaire quote comes into play. It's a quote that has been used by Spiderman's Uncle Ben among many others, so using Shelden from "The Big Bang Theory" to deliver it is by no means bastardizing the words of wisdom.
Paul has always had great power as an individual. Now he has great power supporting him, and it's his job to live up to the responsibility that inevitably accompanies it.
A postseason flop with a team like this may actually have to rest on his shoulders. If he can't bear the weight, that's when the point guard crown would begin to feel a bit too heavy, forcing its removal and transfer to another player.
Trust me when I say that there are plenty of challengers waiting to take the crown from Paul. Point guard is getting increasingly deep, so these young guns are coming at the king of the position. While the game's the same, it got more fierce.
And—to keep "The Wire" theme going—when they come at the king, they best not miss.
Derrick Rose is ready to go after taking a full season to recover from his torn ACL. The Chicago Bulls floor general is the last player not named LeBron James to win MVP, and he's still only 24 years old. As long as he fully recovers from that tough injury, he'll be gunning for CP3.
Russell Westbrook is also coming after the Clippers floor general. Although a torn meniscus is also a knee injury, it's not nearly as severe, so the health concerns aren't too applicable.
The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar has continued to display poor shot selection, but he's also improved throughout his career. Each and every year, Westbrook becomes a better point guard, and last year he took major steps forward as a distributor.
Are they the only challengers?
Nope. Of course not.
Tony Parker couldn't beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, fading away as his health slipped at the conclusion of a tough postseason run, but he's still emerged as a top-10 player in the NBA.
The French floor general is a master of the Gregg Popovich system on both ends of the court, and that's not going to change anytime soon.
Rajon Rondo also has a chance to ascend to the top of the rankings now that the Boston Celtics unquestionably belong to him.
Are they the only challengers?
Nope. Of course not.
I haven't even mentioned established veterans like Deron Williams and Mike Conley, yet, players who aren't that far out of the realm of elites.
The point guard position is ridiculously stacked in the modern NBA landscape, and all of them want to be the best. Paul is 28 years old, so he's still got plenty of quality years left in the tank. It's not like a decline is going to force him off the top of the totem pole anytime soon.
However, the enormous expectations in Clipperland and the growth of his position could both do the trick.
Over the past few years, he's been playing chess on the court while so many other floor generals have been playing checkers. That's steadily changing, and there could be a resultant shift at the top in the coming months.
Will it happen?
I doubt it, but it could. At the very least, CP3 is now going to be forced into a defense of his crown. It's just a defense that he'll ultimately win.
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