Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chris Paul and Competition

Normally I would let this kind of thing slide right by, but I'm stuck at work on a Saturday and I've got nothing but time to kill. 

Earlier this morning, Pro Basketball Talk put out a short blog post about Chris Paul crying in the locker room after the Clippers lost Game 5 of their second round series to the Thunder. If you remember, LA blew a 7-point lead in the final minute in rather dramatic fashion, thanks in large part to one of the silliest fouls I've ever seen - the Clippers were up 2 with 6 seconds left when Paul fouled Russell Westbrook on a pull-up 3.

Their article is in bold, my comments follow.

Chris Paul is one of the game’s most fiery competitors, a player who wants to win much more badly than the rabid fans who cheer for him on a nightly basis.

This is one of the main tropes when it comes to covering CP3. It's not enough to say that he's one of the best players in the NBA and that he's in the running for best PG of his generation, we have to talk about how much he wants to win and what a fiery competitor he is.

At 6'0 190, Paul is one of the smallest players in the league, but he makes up for it by being one of its smartest, quickest and most skilled. He's a great story and his size makes it easier for the average fan to relate to him than most of the giants who play in the NBA.

However, there are some advantages to being undersized - for the most part, the referees let him get away with murder on the court. He grabs and holds constantly and he's one of the worst floppers in the league, which is just an awful combination. It's one thing to take cheap shots at a guy throughout the game and it's quite another when you do that and then start crying to the refs when there's the slightest amount of contact the other way.

It's like he has decided that since he's so much smaller than everyone else, the rules of the game don't apply to him and it gives him the license to bend the rules as much as he wants. Maybe that's what people mean when he says he wants to win so badly, which is fine, but it's hardly the most admirable trait in the world.

It’s not surprising, then, that he would be moved to tears following a crucial postseason loss where his play down the stretch was a contributing factor to such a critical defeat.

Contributing factor!? I'm not a huge fan of playing the blame game for a tightly-played game with over a 100 hundred possessions that was decided in the last seconds, but if we're going to micro-analyze the last minute and play by the rules established by the media, let's be clear. The Clippers don't lose that game if Paul doesn't make two huge mental errors in the final 20 seconds.

With 17 seconds left, they are up 2 with the ball. Paul is dribbling up the court when Westbrook reaches over and goes for the steal. Instead of taking the foul, holding the ball or dribbling the other way, he anticipates the contact and tries to make a jump pass in order to draw the foul. The refs don't bite, Westbrook rips the ball out and the Thunder have a chance to tie or win. This is not a mistake a PG at any level of the game should ever make, much less a professional that people refer to as "The Point God" with a straight face.

About 10 seconds later, after the Clippers were on the wrong end of a very controversial out of bounds play, Paul makes his second mistake. There's so much wrong with fouling Westbrook on that situation it's hard to even know where to start. Fouling the shooter on a 3 is a cardinal sin in basketball - that should never ever happen, much less with the game on the line. And since Westbrook is a 32% three-point shooter, that is exactly the shot the Clippers want him to take. If he makes that absolutely terrible shot with a hand in his face, you shake his hand and call it a day. The one thing you absolutely cannot do is foul him and give him 3 shots at the line to win the game.

Personally, I wouldn't blame Paul for the loss. Mental mistakes are a part of the game and anything can happen in the last few seconds of a close game - that's what makes it so compelling. At the same time, if a guy like Westbrook had done two stupid things like that, you think the media would have cut him the same slack as Paul? Lord forbid Dwight Howard had done ONE of those things - people would still be talking about what an asshole he is.

The double standard is what really annoys me about the coverage of Paul. He's one of the best players in the world and he's been on some really good teams and he's never even made a Conference Finals. If he was held to the same standard as his peers, people would be calling him a choke artist who doesn't know how to win when it really counts. Can a team with Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony ever win it all? I don't know, but apparently they can go farther in the playoffs than a team with Paul on it.

Four months later, the emotional fallout lingers. “It would be lying to you to say I’d forgotten about it,” Paul said during a break on set. “It’s one of those things that I don’t want to forget, to tell you the truth. I think for me, I feel like you have to remember things like that and therefore you don’t want that feeling again. I know I don’t.”

 This isn’t something to make fun of, and in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

But when Chris Bosh cries in the locker room after a loss, this makes him a giant pussy? Just checking.

Personally, I don't care whether a guy is crying or not in the locker room. It's not even really my business - on some level, it feels like a violation of his privacy. Respond how you want to respond, it's your life. All I really care about is whether the guys on my team put themselves in the best position to win the game. If they have done that, they've done their job and I have nothing to complain about.

Real fans are emotionally invested in the outcome of their team’s favorite games, and I hate to break it to them, but the vast majority of players don’t care about these contests nearly as much. It’s a job for the most part, and once one game is finished, it’s onto the next one, often times in another city the very next night.

Let's unpack this for a second. I really dislike the idea that we have to divide fans into categories of "real" or "fake". If you're at the game, you're a real fan. If you're watching it on TV, you are a real fan. And if you are doing one of those things and you just want to watch a good game without having an emotional investment in the outcome, that's no big deal either. There's a lot of things you can do in the world - if you follow basketball and put money in the collective pocket of the industry, that's cool with me.

Personally, I consider myself a "real fan" of the Dallas Mavericks, even though I no longer have the same emotional attachment that I did when I was a kid. That's just a part of growing up and not letting the actions of others affect your emotional well-being. Even if it were not my job, I would still follow their personnel moves very closely and go to a lot of their games, because I really enjoy watching basketball played at a high level. If I'm going to watch them 60+ times a year, I would certainly rather they be a good team that wins more often than not, but I'm also not going to sit here and feel like shit afterwards if they lose.

The other thing to note is the weird juxtaposition the author makes. Even the most diehard fans aren't that emotionally invested in the outcome of any one regular season game. There's 82 in a 6 month span, you can't get too up or too down about any of them. How could a player be any different? He would go crazy over the course of an 82-game season if every loss shook him to the core. Those are the games the author is talking about as being "a job" - the ones where you have to hop a plane and go to another city the very next night.

You can't juxtapose a guy's blase reaction to losing Game 43 of the regular season with Paul crying after losing Game 5 of a second round series. Those are totally different scenarios. Show me the player whose not upset by losing a game like that, a game that would have swung a second round series and gotten them to the Conference Finals. Who knows when your team is going to be in that scenario again? A lot of guys go their whole career without ever getting out of the second round. When you big up Paul for a perfectly normal reaction, you are taking a cheap shot at the professionalism of the rest of the league and that is not OK.

Players like Paul are rare in today’s NBA. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have the same level of competitiveness, but they’re the only ones who immediately come to mind that share Paul’s passion.

And here's where the article goes off the rails entirely. Just to pick a name at random - if you are looking for a superstar known for outward displays of emotion and reacting poorly to tough losses, how about Westbrook? Kevin Durant doesn't have a passion for the game? As someone whose covered the Mavericks for several years and has followed the team for most of his life, I know for a fact that Dirk Nowitzki does. I could make a long list of NBA superstars who have given their life to the game and that's before we even get to the average player who had to beat out 10 guys who were just as good for their spot in the league.

As writers who are paid to cover the spot, maybe we shouldn't judge things based off what immediately comes to our mind? Maybe we should take a second and think about it what we said before we hit publish. I got nothing against Kobe and Nash, but FOH with putting them up on a pedestal above the rest of the league.

There may be others, certainly, but the list is shorter than most fans would like to acknowledge. A report of a genuine show of emotion should only gain Paul more respect from those following the league, and anyone who would try to use this as a reason to mock the game’s best point guard should ask themselves what they truly want to see out of the players they idolize.

I've been in enough locker rooms to know that NBA players show emotion all the time. I can't remember what playoff game it was anymore, but for whatever reason, the image of Matt Barnes with his jersey over his head, absolutely devastated by a loss, has stuck with me. This is one of Paul's teammates! Just because a guy isn't a superstar doesn't mean he doesn't care about the game and have a passion for what he does, a point I probably should have emphasized more in the section about Kobe, Nash and Paul.

Also - maybe grown men shouldn't idolize other grown men? Maybe that's a bad idea? I hate the idea that LeBron James and Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant are different than you and me. They are just regular human beings with a very tough job - the only difference is they are bigger, faster and more coordinated than us. They work hard at their jobs and they care about doing well, but so does everyone else! The guy working 2-3 jobs to support his family - he's putting in the same amount of time that Paul does and no one's kissing his ass about it either.

Professional basketball players are entertainers. That's all they are. The only thing I want or need from them is to be good at their jobs in a way that makes me enjoy watching them. I want to see guys like Paul playing their best on the biggest stages of the sport, not making elementary errors that end up swinging the power structure of the entire league. That's all. 

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