There’s nowhere for Chris Paul to go, really. He turned 32 in May and spent last summer essentially drawing the parameters of his own extension with the Clippers during collective bargaining negotiations, convincing the NBA to replace the Over-36 rule (designed to make big-money long-term contracts for aging vets basically impossible) with an Over-38 one that will allow him to nab one last exceedingly lucrative payday right before his prime runs out: a five-year, $200 million deal that will carry him either straight through the end of his career or very close to it.
He could pass on that opportunity, but for what? The Warriors are extremely likely to own the league for at least the next two or three years, and the only borderline contender for the throne is Cleveland, who don’t have cap space and don’t need a point guard. The Spurs are a possibility for Paul. Gregg Popovich is Paul’s equal in terms of basketball genius, and Kawhi Leonard would thrive further with a creator who can get him a few more easy buckets per game. But locking an aging, if brilliant, six-footer into a long-term contract doesn’t sound particularly Spurs-y, and even with Paul’s help, San Antonio would still be pretty heavily outmanned in any playoff clash with Golden State. LaMarcus Aldridge ain’t Draymond Green and Danny Green ain’t Klay Thompson.
The Rockets, who are also in the running for Paul’s services, have the same talent deficit problem, and on top of that, Paul and James Harden are both accustomed to seeing lots of the ball and having their own way. Harden was fourth in the league in usage rate last season after shifting from de facto point guard to actual point guard, and Paul is an easily angered perfectionist who has assumed absolute dominion over every offense he’s played in dating back to his days at Wake Forest. And not for nothing, he doesn’t like to run, and that’s kind of Mike D’Antoni’s whole thing. Paul to Houston could be a disaster.
Beyond the Rockets and the Spurs, even the fanciful destinations don’t make much sense. The Sixers and Wolves are too young. The Mavericks and Heat aren’t any better than the Clippers. The Celtics want Gordon Hayward and already have Isaiah Thomas.
It’s not Paul’s fault that there isn’t a fully satisfying option on the table. He’s not late-prime Tim Duncan, flanked by a roster that suits him perfectly, and he’s not post-South Beach LeBron James, leaving a crumbling situation for a more promising one. Instead, he’s a victim of circumstance. The Clippers can make Paul gobsmackingly rich and without a superior alternative—in other words, a team that’s one excellent player away from immediately giving the Warriors trouble—he’ll probably elect to take the money and stay in Los Angeles, where he will helm either a Blake Griffin-less squad that’s going to plunge past the depressive depths they’ve been exploring over the past few seasons or a fine one that will crash out of the first or second round of the playoffs. There are worse fates than generational wealth and no hope of a championship, but for one of the best point guards to ever do it, it’s a dissatisfying conclusion to a remarkable career.
In the afterglow of the Warriors’ second title in the three years, there’s a sentiment floating through the basketball discourse that Ringz Culture—how we insist that great players hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in order to legitimize their all-time status—pushed Kevin Durant toward the Warriors and created the competitive balance-disrupting behemoth that currently resides in Oakland. That’s true, to an extent, but what turned many off about Durant’s decision was not just that he joined a 73-game winner, but that he left a convincing rival to do it. The Thunder were one Klay Thompson scoring spree away from taking on the Cavs in the 2016 Finals. This wasn’t a Kevin-Garnett-in-Minnesota predicament, where Durant absolutely had to leave in order to compete for a championship. He had a real shot with the Thunder, and while he got himself a title and a situation in which he seems very happy by leaving, he robbed us of the experience of watching him do it with Russ Westbrook at his side and the ghosts of past failures melting like fro-yo on an engine block. He’s pouring champagne over Steph Curry’s head instead, which is fine, but not what anyone outside of the Bay Area asked for.
Chris Paul has played for some competitive teams, but he’s never truly challenged for a ring. The New Orleans teams he played for were overmatched and the Clippers missed their window due to Blake Griffin’s various inconveniently timed injuries and a couple embarrassing playoff screw-ups—namely, unforgettably, that Conference Semis closeout game in which the Rockets made up a 19-point lead with James Harden on the bench. Paul is something like the third- or fourth-best player of his generation, and perhaps his most memorable playoff moment is Game 4 of a first-round series against the Lakers in 2011, in which he put up 27 points, 15 assists, and 13 rebounds in a performance that defined what a franchise point guard does. Or perhaps it’s him limping through the second half of a gripping first-round Game 7 against the Spurs and capping the night off with a running, banking game-winner. Those contests were terrific to watch, but not exactly consequential.
The point being that the very best athletes can let us down while also playing all the way up to their lofty standards. The opportunity doesn’t exist, but if Paul could make the same kind of choice Durant did last summer, would he? We’ll never know if he has too much pride for that, but we do know the last of his prime, however long it persists, is unlikely to be applied toward winning a ring. There’s nowhere for Chris Paul to go, really. Can he continue to grow in our estimation if there are no expectations left for him to fulfill?