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Chris Paul's Latest Controversy Invites Old Debate: Is CP3 a Dirty Player?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2021

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 23: Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during Round 1, Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on May 23, 2021 at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

Early in the fourth quarter of the Phoenix Suns' 99-90 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, Chris Paul rushed the paint to box LeBron James out after the latter missed a free throw.

Around the same time Paul got there, LeBron jumped, oversold the contact (as he often does) and went down with an apparent arm injury.

Now, Paul clearly grabbed LeBron's arm. That's a foul. But there's a real debate on whether he undercut him. CP3 was between LeBron and the rim before anyone left the ground.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel appears uninterested in that debate, though. His mind is made up.

"My view was a really aggressive box out, a dangerous play where 'Bron was in the air and got uppercut," Vogel said after the game.

Plenty of fans not only agree with Vogel but also feel this is a career trend for CP3.

The point guard himself, of course, sees the situation differently.

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"I don't know anything about that," Paul told Yahoo! Sports of Vogel's comments. "I have absolutely nothing to say about that. We're just playing basketball and competing. I'm just thankful we got the win, and I'm looking forward to Game 2."

In the meantime, the debate will rage on about Paul. Is he a dirty player? Or, is he just an uber-competitive future Hall of Famer who leverages whatever he can to win?

As accusatory as the question seems, it's probably fair.

There are entire highlight reels devoted to his "dirtiest plays." In college, he was suspended for punching NC State's Julius Hodge in the groin. In 2018, ESPN produced a series of clips showing other questionable below-the-belt shots to opponents.

Baron Davis, clearly hesitant to throw a fellow NBA point guard under the bus, simply reacted to the video by laughing and saying, "That's tough. That's tough."

The answer to this question may depend on your definition of "dirty," but if I managed to get those exhibits entered into evidence, they'd be tough for the defense to explain away. When seen in rapid succession, they're almost damning.

Reasonable minds can disagree, though. As Jalen Rose mentioned in the clip above, Paul is "edgy." In a league of giants, he's had to be.

Those lowlights are spread out over a 16-year career. Far more possessions feature pinpoint passing, ball-on-a-string handles and one of the most accurate midrange games we've ever seen.

If you include an element of intent, proving dirty play is even tougher. Paul isn't likely to admit he plays dirty any time soon, and he's generally been just close enough to the line to plausibly deny malevolence.

One could be a student of his game, see his various tricks and just think he's crafty.

With the flopping, stop-and-let-the-opponent-run-over-you dribble, the little grabs and, let's call them, pokes, CP3 seemingly has a little annoyance he can deploy against any matchup.

Does that make him dirty? Again, this may sound like a cop-out, but it probably just depends on what "dirty" means to you. It's just as easy to claim that he's figured out the rulebook's gray areas and works within them as well as anyone.

More than a desire to hurt anyone, Paul is likely just doing everything he can to win. That just looks different in the NBA than it might in, say, the NFL.

"What [Conrad] Dobler, the 6'3", 260-pound All-Pro right guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, means by 'controlled violence,' 'careful technical planning' and 'a very physical game' is that 'I'll do anything I can get away with to protect my quarterback,'" Daphne Hurford wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1977. "And according to his opponents, what Dobler gets away with is holding, eye gouging, face-mask twisting, leg whipping, tripping, even biting."

There are no scrums in the NBA quite like 1970s tackle football. Players aren't wearing helmets. There's quite a bit less a so-called dirty player could get away with, even if he wanted to.

But wherever the line is on the hardwood, CP3 knows how to toe it, even if he won't admit it as readily as Dobler.

(For what it's worth, fans voted that Paul is indeed a dirty player in a far-from-scientific poll.)

As far as Sunday's play against LeBron goes, it's probably not even on the leaderboard for Paul's closest calls. And with a chance to eliminate the defending champions in the first round, you can bet he'll continue to play with that kind of intensity (assuming his own shoulder is OK).

This is a matchup of two legends who happen to be both friends and a couple of the game's best at operating in those gray areas.

Nothing "dirty" has happened yet, but this is a series that might generate some heat-of-the-moment moments.

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