Chris Paul’s trade to the Houston Rockets pairs one of the great point guards of this or any NBA generation with Mike D’Antoni; a head coach who finds his muse in point guards of Paul’s ilk.
The two are a fitting pair beyond the exciting possibility of Paul operating in D’Antoni’s wide-open offense, or fro the perspective of D’Antoni now overseeing what might be his most ideally constructed roster. Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni are kindred basketball spirits of another kind.
Anyone who follows professional basketball understands Chris Paul’s worth. With career averages of 18.7 points, 9.9 assists and 2.3 steals, he’s statistically in league with luminaries of the position like John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. In light of his trade to the Rockets, the name to which Paul is sure to draw the most comparison is Steve Nash, who elevated from solid All-Star to two-time MVP as the driving engine of D’Antoni’s Italian League-inspired, high-octane offense.
But in those Phoenix Suns teams from 2005 through 2007 exists the parallel that binds D’Antoni and Paul. Those were good teams, great even, exciting and fun at a time when the NBA was collectively sluggish. And they never reached an NBA Finals.
Likewise, the tag on Chris Paul throughout an otherwise outstanding NBA career hangs from his team’s inability to advance in the Playoffs. Starting with the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets squad Paul captained to 56 wins and the No. 2 seed in the point guard’s third professional season, Playoff disappointment has mounted.
That any postseason appearance can be described as “disappointing” for the Clippers — long the laughingstock of the NBA — is a testament to Paul’s career. He’s been the soul of a franchise that, before his arrival, had not been to three straight Playoffs since Bob McAdoo was doing his thing for the Buffalo Braves.
Nevertheless, Paul heads to Houston with that stigma of never leading a team to the Western Conference Finals, say nothing of the Finals. Blame can’t be put him on him — especially not this season, when he averaged 25.3 points and 9.9 assists in a seven-game series loss to the Jazz.
The Clippers have also been the victims of misfortune, losing key players at inopportune times. Blake Griffin’s injury this year effectively doomed their hopes for 2017.
The story’s been the same for D’Antoni. What if Joe Johnson hadn’t been injured in 2005? The guard — who, coincidentally, was vital to Utah bouncing Paul’s Clippers this year — said the Suns would have won their first NBA championship that year.
Two years later, Phoenix had a clear-lane path to the Finals and likely domination of the young Cleveland Cavaliers were it not for the San Antonio Spurs. More specifically, had Amare Stoudemire not left the bench on a hard, Robert Horry foul of Steve Nash, the Suns would have had a clear lane to their first Finals since 1993.
D’Antoni’s teams haven’t always faded in the postseason simply because of bad luck, however. Despite winning his second NBA Coach of the Year — a well-deserved honor based on Houston’s regular-season improvements — D’Antoni was outcoached by Gregg Popovich in the conference semis.
Popovich has been an albatross for D’Antoni, bouncing his teams from often non-competitive series in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2017. By simply landing Chris Paul, D’Antoni finally scored a win over Pop — San Antonio was another rumored destination for the point guard.
No one franchise or player has been a roadblock for Chris Paul advancing in the Playoffs, though Golden State has morphed into a singular obstruction for all organizations, players and coaches seeking a championship.
The Warriors rolled to a championship without breaking much of a sweat, an inevitable conclusion when what was already the NBA’s best lineup added Kevin Durant. The new road map for the NBA was clearly drawn with Durant’s move to the Bay, almost one year ago today, and Houston’s enacting the same strategy.
A detour through Houston driving D’Antoni’s car could be what finally gets both to their destination.
While Paul’s a proven scorer, he doesn’t need to put up big points in order to thrive. The threat that he will should alleviate pressure on 2017 MVP runner-up James Harden. More naturally a 2-guard, Harden will flourish with a traditional, distributing point guard setting the table.
Think Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 after Larry Brown moved The Answer to the 2. Now imagine that reshuffling with the Eric Snow role played by a surefire Hall of Famer.
Mike D’Antoni and Chris Paul have never reached an NBA Finals. But perhaps together, the two can do together what they never did apart.