A couple of weeks ago, we had Chris Paul atop our list of NBA point guards.
No surprise there. Although he plays a position that is very deep in talent, Paul is a fantastic leader with an inhuman competitive streak. He ranks annually among the leaders in assists and steals. And believe it or not, he’s still on the right side of 30, at least until next year’s playoffs.
But Paul is atop another of our lists list as well – NBA superstars with something to prove.
No NBA star has more to prove this season than Paul. You can make arguments as to whether Kevin Love can actually make his teammates better or whether Kevin Durant can win a championship or whether Derrick Rose can regain his MVP form. But the star who is truly on the spot is Paul.
Paul is entering his 10th season and has yet to reach the conference finals. And he has pretty much gotten a pass on that, even though he has been the unquestioned leader of his team when it has come up short.
Paul already has squandered two golden opportunities to reach the NBA’s Final Four. The first came in 2008, when his New Orleans Hornets had Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals on their home floor and lost to the San Antonio Spurs, 91-82.
Yes, the Hornets were playing the defending champs, and yes, Paul had a very good game with 18 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds and five steals. But New Orleans had won its first six home playoff games by an average of 16.6 points before crumbling under the weight of the moment.
The second chance came last season, when the Los Angeles Clippers were on the verge of winning Game 5 of the conference semifinals at Oklahoma City and taking a 3-2 lead. Paul’s jumper had given LA a seven-point lead – three possessions – with 49 seconds to play. Surely that was more than enough for one of the game’s best closers.
But in the final 15 seconds, Paul made a terrible decision to elevate for a pass and was stripped for a turnover, fouled Russell Westbrook while he was shooting a 3-pointer and overdribbled and lost the ball on the final possession for an inexplicable loss.
There’s no excuses anymore for Paul. The Clippers may have the best roster in the league. They have one of the best coaches in Doc Rivers. They are no longer in the shadow of the Lakers. And Donald Sterling has been exiled. This is Paul’s 10th season, and he is on the spot to get the Clippers into the conference finals.
Every NBA team has at least one player like Paul, one who is on the spot in either his personal development, how his success relates to his team, or both. We’ve compiled a list below.
AL HORFORD, ATLANTA: With the exception of the Chicago Bulls, no East team has been without its best player over the last three years more than the Hawks. Horford has played in just 116 of 230 games since the start of the 2011-12 season, missing the bulk of two seasons with torn pectoral muscles. Not coincidentally, the Hawks have been unable to get out of the opening round of the playoffs. The Hawks need Horford to stay healthy and elevate them to the top of the bracket in the East – and perhaps divert attention away from the current mess of management and ownership.
RAJON RONDO, BOSTON: The first thing he has to do is show the Celtics he can play back-to-back games, which shouldn’t be an issue at this point. The second and more important thing he has to do is get a group of kids who have no idea what they’re doing to be competitive and possibly compete for a playoff spot. And he has to do this while putting aside the issues of his impending free agency and whether he wants to stay or leave.
DERON WILLIAMS, BROOKLYN: He has three years and $63 million left on his contract and has been bothered by ankle injuries the last two seasons which made him an ordinary point guard LINK and had Kobe Bryant declaring that he had lost his confidence. He is ahead of schedule following offseason ankle surgery and a return to All-Star form could help the Nets contend for the top spot in the East. The health of teammate Brook Lopez also is key.
LANCE STEPHENSON, CHARLOTTE: He began last season as the fourth option in Indiana’s offense and ended it as the league leader in triple-doubles. When the Pacers tried to lowball him in free agency, he took more money and a bigger role from the Hornets. But Charlotte made the playoffs without Stephenson and need him to fit in rather than take over. His arrival also bumps either Gerald Henderson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to the bench and may upset the chemistry applecart.
DERRICK ROSE, CHICAGO: Before his injuries, Rose was a dynamic top-five player who had the Bulls contending for an NBA title. Since his injuries, they have been a team lauded for its grit and not much else. They added some punch in the offseason in Pau Gasol and youngsters Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. And Rose was happy with his play for Team USA, even if it didn’t reflect in his stats. He has to be an All-Star for the Bulls to truly contend again.
DION WAITERS, CLEVELAND: Some would say Kevin Love, who has never been in the playoffs, is Cleveland’s player on the spot. Others might say it’s Kyrie Irving, who is going to have to subjugate his game to accommodate Love and LeBron James. But I really believe it’s Waiters, who has spent his first two seasons freewheeling for a lottery team. He is playing for his third coach in three years and has to buy into his role, whether he starts or comes off the bench. He has the skills to fit into an unselfish style. Does he have the mindset?
CHANDLER PARSONS, DALLAS: He says his new status as a $15 million player is not an issue, because his play wasn’t impacted by his salary when he was making six figures. But no one got a bigger raise in the offseason, Dirk Nowitzki has gotten to the age where he needs some help and Mavericks fans are getting a bit restless with the lack of contention since the team’s 2011 title. So it’s on Parsons to be a nightly weapon and justify the considerable outlay for him.
JAVALE McGEE, DENVER: While teammate Danilo Gallinari also is returning from an injury, unlike McGee he has shown what he can do. McGee has barely cracked the starting lineup since arriving in Denver, which needs more from someone making $11.25 million this season. It’s time for McGee to at least average a double-double, trigger fast breaks with his defense and rebounding and stop making weekly appearances on “Shaqtin’ a Fool.”
ANDRE DRUMMOND, DETROIT: Just about everyone new GM Stan Van Gundy added in the offseason – Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Cartier Martin – has a 3-pointer in their arsenal, which means he envisions Drummond as sort of a Dwight Howard 2.0, right down to the adventures at the free-throw line. But the truth is that Howard was a bit more developed offensively and a much better rim protector entering his third season. The stat geeks love Drummond’s PER, but he needs to become a more refined player.
HARRISON BARNES, GOLDEN STATE: He started every game as a rookie and had an awesome postseason. But the arrival of Andre Iguodala pushed him to the bench and seemed to stunt his development. His overall shooting dropped below 40 percent, his name was freely mentioned in offseason trade rumors and many observers believe Draymond Green is the better player. If the Warriors are serious about contending in the West, they need Barnes to embrace his role and provide whatever is necessary.
PATRICK BEVERLEY, HOUSTON: He was a good fit last season, because he provided tenacious on-ball defense that Jeremy Lin did not and picked up scraps on a team loaded on offense. But with Lin and Chandler Parsons gone, he will have to provide more on offense, and his playmaking (just 2.7 assists in 31.3 minutes) will have to get better if the Rockets want more than a first-round exit.
ROY HIBBERT, INDIANA: He shot a career-low 44 percent with 6.6 rebounds last season, unacceptable numbers for a 7-2 center with excellent talent around him. That doesn’t include the four donuts he posted in 19 playoff games. Now, with Lance Stephenson gone via free agency and Paul George out for the season, the pressure is on Hibbert to consistently contribute on the offensive end. If he doesn’t, the Pacers could miss the playoffs.
CHRIS PAUL, LA CLIPPERS: Go back and watch the end of Game 5, then try to remember the last time a player as accomplished as Paul had that complete a meltdown in that huge a moment. It is entirely irrational. However, Paul’s seven All-Star appearances are the most of any active player who has not reached the conference finals. Next on the list is teammate Blake Griffin with four.