Chris Paul enters the 2013-14 season with a new coach, new weapons and the same championship expectations that follow all transcendent talents.
Backed by new Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers and surrounded by long-range gunners—new (J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley) and old (Jamal Crawford, Willie Green)—Paul's ninth NBA season could be his best yet. Frankly, it has to be.
The six-time All-Star hasn't yet lost his grip as the league's best point guard, but the return of Derrick Rose threatens his throne. More concerning, though, is the fact that the 28-year-old is nearing panic mode in terms of finding some championship bling.
Those sirens are silent for now, but Paul has the talent, the weapons and the leadership in place to complete a successful title run. There are no excuses. It's a make-or-break season for Paul and his Clippers.
Can Paul Lead a Championship Team?
The walls aren't closing in on Paul just yet, but if you look hard enough, you can start to see some movement. For all of his regular-season success—five All-NBA selections, five All-Defensive team honors, five steals crowns and a pair of assist titles—he's yet to make any significant postseason noise.
Of the five playoff trips he's made in his career, three were snuffed out in the opening round. The other two ended in the Western Conference Semifinals, where Paul holds just a 3-8 record.
While he was given a free pass during his days with the New Orleans Hornets, that safety net was pulled back the moment he landed in L.A. It's narrow minded to blame him for all the team's failures and unfair to put those faults on his shoulders.
It's also life for an NBA superstar, which Rivers has already been helping Paul realize, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports:
The first meeting I had with Doc, he pretty much told me I wasn't anything. He told me I hadn't done anything in this league, and he was right. You don't always want somebody that's going to tell you what you want to hear.
Despite their offseason upgrades, the Clippers still have some major question marks on the interior. Blake Griffin has yet to find a reliable post game. DeAndre Jordan isn't the same player below the rim that he is above it, and there are some confidence issues left over from the Vinny Del Negro era that Paul and Rivers will need to address.
But none of that lowers the bar for this team. The Clippers played championship-caliber basketball at times last season (including an undefeated, 16-game month of December), but they fell apart down the stretch.
As the undisputed best player on the roster, Paul has to shoulder a disproportionate part of the blame.
Legacies are built up or torn down in the postseason. Even after eight productive seasons, Paul's still searching for that sustained success to start construction on his.
What's On the Line for Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers?
No need to belabor this topic. Everything's at stake here, for both the player and the franchise.
For the first time in his career, the stars have all aligned in Paul's favor.
He has an All-Star big man in Griffin capable of stumbling into 20 points and 10 boards a night (career 20.4 and 10.4 respectively). If Griffin found some post moves and continued improving his mid-range shot, the sky is literally the limit for the high-flying 24-year-old.
Even if Lob City really is grounded, this offense could still soar to new heights. After finishing 2012-13 with the league's fourth-most efficient offense (110.6 offensive rating), this fully stocked collection of shooters could make the Clippers even better at that end of the floor.
|Fire Away: A Look at the Clippers' Gunners|
|Player||2012-13 3PT%||Career 3PT%|
Absent from that group is rookie Reggie Bullock, who connected on 38.6 percent of his three-point attempts in three seasons at North Carolina. Paul also deserves mention as a shooter, as last season's 32.8 percent conversion rate snapped his three-year run with 37-plus percent shooting from distance.
Defensively, Paul and Rivers aren't working with a blank slate. The Clippers posted the seventh-best defensive rating last season (103.6). The arrival of the defensive-minded Dudley will help L.A. recoup some of what it lost on the perimeter with Eric Bledsoe's offseason departure.
Paul doesn't have a perfect supporting cast, but he has enough pieces around him to compete for a title. According to VegasInsider.com, the Clippers enter the season with the third-best championship odds (8/1). Expectations are lofty outside the locker room, and even higher inside it.
For L.A., the no-longer-frugal franchise needs to see a return on its investments.
Both Paul and Griffin are working on max salaries. Rivers required his own heavy financial commitment (three years, $21 million), along with a sacrificed 2015 first-round draft pick.
These moves weren't made for their wow factor. If owner Donald Sterling can't see the light at the end of the tunnel soon, the Clippers' rise to prominence could be over before it ever really started.
Most teams consider each season a championship-or-bust year. But those aren't just words for Paul and his Clippers.
Scouting Report for 2013-14 Season
Paul is a wizard in the open floor and a general in the half court. He's so insanely talented at the offensive end that fans still want to see more production despite his career 18.6 scoring average.
He's not an athletic freak like some of his peers at the position, and at just 6'0", 175-pounds, he has neither the length nor girth to overwhelm with size.
His offensive attacks are built around deception and change. He goes from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye and rarely does so in a straight line.
Given his yoyo handles, he has a number of devastating dribble moves to put defenders on the floor. But none breaks ankles quite like his nasty in-and-out dribble.
Sometimes he'll exaggerate the move with a dribble to the outside. He's just waiting to see when the defender will bite, and once that time comes, he has a free path to the basket.
Keeping him away from his dominant hand seems like a good strategy, but bite too quickly on his outside fake, and he'll simply rock to the inside. Plus, his left hand is strong enough that he can finish with it if he has to or use a secondary move to get back to his right.
Sometimes he'll just faint to his outside without that extra bounce. As soon as the defender starts moving, he'll continue his path or break off the move.
Considering he often strings this together with other ball tricks, it's like having a secret ace in an already stacked deck. He can break out the move at any speed, going any direction to set up any sort of finish. Whether that's stepping back for a silky smooth jumper, charging hard at the rim or setting up one of his teammates, his options are endless.
Even through the ebb and flow of his playoff efforts, Paul's been the model of consistency during the regular season.
So, what's the best way to defend him? Judging by his career 25.5 player efficiency rating (sixth-highest in league history), that's something the NBA is still trying to figure out.
Stopping him is out of the question. But there are some ways to slow his production.
Force him to be a jump shooter whenever possible. He's a good enough shooter to keep the scoreboard rolling, but his percentages drop as he moves further from the basket (58.2 percent inside of 16 feet last season, 39.5 percent from beyond).
Even though he remains a threat going to his left, he's a better finisher moving to his right. Defenders must force him to his weak side and not let a fake clear a path back the other direction.
Help is needed whenever defending Paul, but bring to much of it, and you're exposed to lobs or kick-outs to shooters.
Prior to last season, his long ball showed steady signs of improvement (37.8 percent from 2007-12, 31.3 percent in his first two seasons). Still, that's where you'd like him taking the most of his shots.
It's rare to be left wanting so much from a player with Paul's resume, but the lack of postseason success puts an ominous cloud over his otherwise impressive stat sheet.
This new-look roster gives Paul the best chance he's ever had at adding that missing piece.
Individually, he's rapidly approaching his ceiling or already standing on top of it. His basement's still flooded with All-Star ballots and All-NBA honors.
Expect similar production in terms of his stat line.
His scoring could creep a little closer to his career average (16.9 points per game last season), but probably not any higher than that. I'd be shocked if he doesn't finish with double-digit assists given the help he now has, and his three-year run as the league's best thief will continue.
But this year isn't about any other numbers than playoff wins and losses.
Another first round exit would be disastrous for this franchise. Anything short of a Western Conference Finals appearance would.
Worst-case scenario, Griffin and Jordan struggle to add an interior punch and the team's lack of frontcourt depth is glaring. Shooters are forced to create their own looks and lose effectiveness. Paul loses trust in his teammates, and eventually, Rivers loses the locker room the same way his predecessor did.
Best-case scenario, Griffin's an All-Star for both his numbers and his value. Jordan fulfills Rivers' optimistic prediction for him. The Clippers have so many shooters that a hot hand is always available. Paul does what he does best, maximizing the play of his teammates and taking over in crunch time.
The Staples Center rafters see yet another transformation—the addition of the Clippers' own championship banner.
If Paul gives Griffin enough touches for him to keep growing, keeps Jordan engaged in the offense, has an eye on his shooters and doesn't forget to call his own number, this team has the chance to do something special.
Granted, those are plenty of ifs and a lot of weight to put on one player's shoulders.
But, again, that's life for a ringless (for now) NBA superstar.