Chris Paul has always been essential. You could say this about any generational talent—teams need great players in order to thrive—but Paul, more than perhaps any of his peers other than LeBron James, has constructed a career that’s an argument for his own importance. In a league increasingly populated with point guards who don’t run offenses so much as initiate them, Paul possesses a Stocktonian dominion over his team. He controls the tempo and has an overwhelming say over which of his teammates get the ball and where they are on the floor when they receive it. If Paul doesn’t want to run, his team doesn’t run. Big men and shooters get fed to the degree Paul deems proper and necessary. In fourth quarters of close games, everything that happens on offense is an extension of his will.
The Point God moniker is meant to compliment Paul’s command of the position, the pureness of his point guardery, but it’s also a descriptor of this domineering style. He possesses an air of infallibility, as if he believes his immense talent and vast knowledge of the game sanction him to direct and critique the efforts of everybody he comes into contact with. He’s never been wrong about a foul call, or a pick-and-roll coverage, or a crunchtime decision. If these flawed beings would only listen to him, he would never lose.
The reason teammates and coaches and even refs have put up with Paul’s disdainful attitude toward them is that he’s consistently proven himself almost completely right about being right all the time. Eight All-NBA teams, nine All-Defensive teams, and career averages of 18.7 points and 9.9 assists per game on 58 percent true shooting. The accolades and stats describe a terrific player, but more than that, watching Chris Paul is engaging with a particular type of genius who, in a sport that facilitates nigh limitless improvisation, does exactly what he’s supposed to. This is not the same as doing the obvious or easy thing, and in fact the maneuvers that Paul pulls off are often difficult and sometimes unexpected—zipping passes through the forested paint, making space for himself from fifteen feet despite everybody in the building knowing that’s what he wants to do, feinting a drive then draining a three—but his composure and skill make everything he does seem like a forehead-slapper. Of course that’s how you solve that defense! Few players jump that canyon between knowing the answer and making it work as regularly as Chris Paul does. His basketball feels—you get the sense he would like this characterization—unimpeachably correct.
Yet the Clippers, at this still early stage of the NBA season, seem better off without Paul. And if their win percentage takes a hit this year, they are at least undeniably more joyful, unburdened from his baleful scowl and constant fault-finding. Over their six seasons together, it was typically the case that the Clips were curiously at their best when either Paul or Blake Griffin were out of the lineup with an injury. Griffin would miss six weeks with a bone bruise and Paul would conduct the team with flawless auteuristic verve, or Paul would sit with a sore knee and Griffin would splay the full extent of his talents. Together, they were never as good as you might think they would be by watching them operate separately, and Paul’s now-permanent absence has further reinforced that impression. It doesn’t scan that the Clips more or less don’t need Paul, but talent isn’t a purely additive thing and they did, after all, infamously never make it past the second round of the playoffs with the future hall of fame point guard.
Without holding Paul’s abysmal opening night performance for the Rockets against him—he was banged up and out of sync with an unfamiliar squad—it’s still somewhat difficult to see what his role in Houston is going to be once he returns to full health. This is a novel idea to consider because it’s always been self-evident what Chris Paul’s role is on any team: he’s the center of it. We kind of knew, heading into the season, that he was going to have to make some adjustments at age thirty-two and occupying the same roster as voracious usage-eater James Harden. But while Paul has been sidelined, Harden has driven the point home with a party sub-sized hammer: he is the Houston Rockets. (56 and 13!). Paul is welcome to help out, but he’s not going to supplant Harden as the team’s most important player, and this isn’t going to be a co-captains thing either. Harden is right in the thick of his prime, playing like an MVP, and he’s had his run of the Rockets for going on six seasons. They function like a fully realized unit with the hirsute dynamo at the helm. He’s entitled to his eminent status; the onus is on his new running mate to fit in.
Maybe Chris Paul is no longer essential; maybe he hasn’t been for a while now. This isn’t to say he’s not still exceedingly useful or that he won’t find his way in Houston, but it’s that he has to find his way at all that’s striking and unusual, because throughout his career, he has been one of the most clearly defined players in the league. We have known what he’s going to do, and that he’s going to do it brilliantly. He has the qualities of a great, hard man who’s tumbled out of a particularly baroque history book—the mythical Churchill or Alexander—who has a clear understanding of himself and projects that understanding toward the rest of the world with sizzling clarity. What does that guy do when circumstance and the ravaging effects of age puncture the legend he’s been successfully living for a decade-plus? It’s time for the Point God to reckon with his messy mortality, to learn to become something other than singular. But it remains to be seen if that’s something someone so peculiarly sure of himself can learn to do.