That's always a delicate balance for any point guard, and even the league's greatest can have their struggles. In the past, Paul has drawn criticism for not taking over and creating his own shot nearly enough, relying instead on teammates with unreliable offensive games to make the right decision themselves or hit open shots.
Of course, a big part of that has been forced on Paul. Opposing defenses have always had to worry about him first and foremost, and getting the ball out of his hands has always been a priority. Paul has seen his fair share of double teams, traps and overly committed help defenses, and you could almost see the internal struggle when that happened.
Should Paul make the "right" play and let someone else beat a defense at a severe disadvantage, or should he take matters into his own hands and attack whatever is thrown at him?
While Paul has always been great at picking his spots and taking game situations into account, it has never translated into playoff success. Even though he's historically been more aggressive in the postseason (26.2 career usage rate in the playoffs compared to 23.7 in the regular season), Paul hasn't even reached a conference finals, which is somewhat surprising since he's universally considered one of the very best players in the league.
Things are a little bit different now, however, as Paul has another one of the league's best players next to him in Blake Griffin. Griffin has allowed Paul to embrace his natural tendency to set others up, while simultaneously relieving him of defensive pressure at the same time. Paul has always made the game easier for everyone else, but now someone is making the game easier for him. Andrew Han explains more at ESPN.com:
Blake pushes the pace, and if nothing materializes, the ball goes back to Paul to execute effective and efficient half-court sets. Despite the Lob City moniker and flashy pyrotechnics, these Clippers had never been an up-tempo team. Chris Paul is a basketball pace car. He doesn’t have an internal clock so much as a metronome. But Griffin’s recent elevation has married the natural high-end speed of the team with Paul’s low-end torque.
This wasn't something that happened right away. The trust between Paul and Griffin, and between Paul, Griffin and the coaching staff, wasn't always there. Late in games, Griffin would often disappear, deferring entirely too much to Paul. It wasn't uncommon for CP3 to pull off something amazing, but it made the Clippers predictable and easy to bog down. Trap Paul, and watch the offense fall apart.
With time, Griffin and Paul have found the perfect balance together. The Clippers were the league's most efficient offense this season, and more than ever before, the responsibilities were shared. On Tuesday, Griffin explained to Sam Amick of USA Today all that was needed for that to happen:
Every year (the relationship with Paul) has evolved. You can't expect two guys who have never played together before to just come in and just right away be the best of teammates and understand everything that they're doing. It takes time
For really the first time in his career, Paul can play off someone else and not watch the offense fall apart while he does it. Because Griffin is such a dynamic pick-and-roll player who can beat you with the drive, shot or smart pass, Paul doesn't need to spoon-feed him looks. Because Paul has so many capable outside shooters around him in guys like J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, the spacing is naturally better instead of having to be manufactured with dribble-drives.
Basically, Paul can now conserve his energy, take a back seat for a few possessions, really be a nuisance for opposing ball-handlers on the defensive end and serve as a spot-up shooter on occasion offensively. He couldn't always do that before.
It will be interesting to see how Paul's injury will factor into his mentality. Will he shy away from using as many possessions and let Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford manufacture much of their own offense? Will he look to establish himself early and demand the respect of the defense to free up his teammates better as the game goes on? There are a lot of different ways he can take this.
Would you be surprised if the Clippers went to the NBA Finals?
Again, the answers may be easier this year than they were in the past.
Finally, Paul's trust in his teammates to make plays and good decisions is warranted, and in Rivers, Paul has a coach with experience managing veterans who might not be 100 percent. There are plenty of reasons for all parties to have faith in each other. This is a team worthy of title contention, and Paul knows that.
Ultimately, the Clippers don't need Paul to play at a level previously unseen to reach the Finals. The days of Paul's teams requiring that are over. What the Clippers need now from Paul is right in his wheelhouse: the mental manipulation of defenses, the faith in his teammates to punish teams for overplaying him and the ability to pick his spots and know exactly when his scoring aggression is needed.