Saturday, March 29, 2008
Watching the MVP (no stats included)
Chris Paul gets my theoretical vote for MVP. I know Kobe hasn't won it before and deserves it. I know KG made the Celtics more than relevant-- he changed the way men played basketball with his presence. I know LeBron James is LeBron James. I know it. Paul, however, changed the way I looked at basketball once, and lead a insurgence in New Orleans that cannot be denied as the single best collection of people playing to their talent level in one season that weren't "superstars" at the start of the season. Honestly, if you knew David West would not only reach, but surpass his peak level, Tyson Chandler would become one of the best all-around young forwards in the league AND the bench (including the unpolished-but-fun in Jannero Pargo) would blossom simultaneously, raise your hand.
Like many others, I knew about Chris Paul. When I watched him at the end of last season, I knew the leap was inevitable, but more so, I knew his game was already exploding. This comes from knowing exactly how to watch him.
I had a head start, by accident, with Paul. I lived 30 minutes from Wake Forest and never saw him play a minute. I went to several North Carolina State games and none of them was against Wake. I had my chances and never took them. Then, in a wonderful and heaven-sent gesture, my friend Matt produced tickets to see a pair of first-round NCAA Tournament games, the latter of which was Wake Forest vs. Manhattan. Funnily, I had seen Manhattan once that year against NC State and knew how sneaky and quick they were.
But I had never witnessed a live Chris Paul. I said "holy shit" more times in one game than I did in my first week of college coming out of an all-male military high school. He was astounding, and what's more, he was so good he turned the crowd away from cheering for an underdog. If you've never been to a first-round game, the reason you're there is to see "the game" where the little guy wins. Not here. Paul was a one-man show without a supporting cast. Erik Williams was a big, slow, fouling oaf, and Justin Gray was a hot-headed, fairly lazy 2. There was Vytas Danielus, but there also wasn't, in a way.
Paul ran the break so quickly, he had to take skitter steps to let his team catch up to their lanes. He made that team so much better, that Erik Williams was discussed as a viable pro prospect. In a close game, I saw Chris Paul decide he was going to take the game over with no help whatsoever-- something the NCAA doesn't see often (see the fixation on Stephen Curry). This is why I've never had much interest in Ty Lawson, Jarrett Jack, Javaris Crittenden or Raymond Felton as a pro prospects coming out of the ACC-- they were ruined when I saw Paul.
Unfortunately, most people watch Paul the exact way they watched the last episode of the Sopranos or The Wire-- awaiting the crazy ending they sat through five years to see. They expect the plays to be flash and glitter; alley-oops, fade-away threes and no-look skip passes. While those plays happen, they happen with less effect than the tiniest plays before them. He does two things before a play develops that floor me every time I see them, and they lead to my adulation and MVP rating.
Paul may have the most purposeful first-step I have seen. Unlike fellow MVP candidates Kobe or Lebron, Paul's first step is rarely toward the basket. His is more like Iverson, but the likelihood of finding open lanes instead of open space. He puts himself in perfect position to have three options other than the shot. The first step is a preternatural beast and it should improve vision, create separation and not waste the movements of the other players. Paul is so efficient that passes are already delivered before cuts are made. His first step not only sets up the play, it defines the movement of the rest of the shot clock. Against Detroit, he had an ankle injury and still dropped 6 assists in the first few minutes. That was all first-step, and when Rip and Chauncey closed in on him, it rendered him ineffective for the most part. New Orleans lost badly.
Last night, he got into rare foul trouble. Still, in a play highlighted by NBA.com (surprisingly good wrap-ups and highlights longer than just 25 seconds of dunks and dazzle have made them my go-to in lieu of ESPN), Paul drove toward the lane but not into it despite having an inside path on Rajon Rondo. Why? Because the help defense would be coming from the weak-side due to his ability to alley-oop with Chandler and West. So he drove two steps to the weak-side to pick up a second defender, went up and hit the open (weak-side, of course) shooter for a midrange jumper. Paul drives to pick up defenders instead of look for contact or kick-outs. You can't call the play a kick-out. He never touched the lane. It was like a back-pass near the mid-line in football (soccer, sure). It set up everything by not being greedy. The open-lane penetration was a perfectly sensible idea, though the most likely to end up with a contested shot. He chose the way to points rather than the way to the ideal close-range leaner. (NOTE: watch the game-winner against Cleveland posted above. His purposeful side-step in the lane draws LeBron off of West-- an All-Star leaving another All-Star alone in the closing seconds. Classic.)
Paul's ability to make his teammates better depends less on his teammates than it does for any other MVP candidate. It's that simple. He's that good. Kobe had to get a team to firm his handle as the best in the game. LeBron can't be argued against numbers-wise, but his team tried to bulk up as well. He's also dealing with the Eastern Conference. I don't like how maligned they are, per se, but in the MVP debate, Paul plays a more solid set of contenders every single night, and puts up insane numbers in the process. KG has two other bona fide superstars next to him. Paul has what he has-- a good team that has no business leading the West with less than 15 games to go.
I wonder if most people really know why. You can listen to the critics and list the numbers, but there is something about seeing it in the middle of a quarter-- a sidled step to find a better lane with 17 still on the shot clock, a drive to the wing to free up the post, or, yes, a high screen-and-roll with an alley-oop result-- that tells you that this team would be scores of unrealized potential without the most valuable player taking that first step.