The signature sports stars who never won a championship often say that the failure to win a ring, or a chip, does not define who they are or what they meant to their teams and their leagues.
And they have a point, of course. The Hall-of-Fame likes of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Dan Marino were wildly successful athletes in any other context. Ted Williams never won a World Series with the Red Sox, yet he is still perhaps the best pure hitter who ever lived. Elgin Baylor did not win a title with the Lakers, yet he rightfully ranks among the finest small forwards to ever play the game.
Chris Paul has that going for him right now. No matter what happens between his Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks over the balance of the NBA Finals, his place as one of the best point guards of his generation, or any generation, is secure. In his career, Paul has scored nearly 20,000 points and passed for more than 10,000 assists in the regular season. He has been selected for 11 All-Star Games. He has proven that a six-foot playmaker can dominate without elite, high-flying athleticism.
But make no mistake: If a great athlete never wins The Big One, that hole in the résumé follows that athlete into retirement. Though the greatness isn’t questioned, the conversation about that athlete inevitably veers into a maddening series of “Whys.”
Why didn’t he win a championship?
Why couldn’t he elevate his team above a superior final-round opponent just once in his career?
Why shouldn’t the ring-free record knock him down a level or two on the unofficial all-time list at his position?
Nobody wants to deal with those annoying questions. Nobody wants to constantly defend a body of work that should require no defending.
So entering Game 5 on Saturday night in Phoenix, Paul had to understand the potential consequences of failure. He had to know that if the Bucks ended up recovering from a 2-0 deficit and emerging as champs, the lost opportunity would stay with him forever.
Fair or unfair, Paul had to know that if he finished his brilliant career without a title, that void would be as much a part of his legacy as a liberating Larry O’Brien Trophy — should he happen to win it.
This was never going to be easy for Paul. His Suns appeared to be the stronger team after winning five more games than Milwaukee won in the regular season, after going 2-0 against the Bucks during that regular season, and after taking the first two games of these Finals. Paul had 55 points and 17 assists in those victories, setting up the main storyline for the eventual coronation. Much the way John Elway won his first title at age 37, the Suns’ quarterback could win his at age 36. Someone on the championship stage might even declare, “This one’s for Chris.”
And then Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee happened. Paul suddenly looked older, slower, and more injured than before. He has been through a ton this postseason — the shoulder injury, the COVID-19 diagnosis, the partially torn ligaments in his right hand, the apparent left wrist issue — and it seemed to have caught up to him. One of the toughest defenders anywhere, Jrue Holiday, also caught up to him, and suddenly there was Paul answering for the turnovers that helped turn a 2-0 series into a 2-2 series.
“I turned the ball over hella times before,” he explained.
Just never with so much on the line.
“That’s why they make it seven games,” Paul said. “This is the Finals. It’s dramatic.”
As the undisputed star of this show, Paul’s slippage sure made things more dramatic entering Saturday night’s Game 5. The point guard was 5-for-13 from the floor and committed the same amount of turnovers as the entire Milwaukee team — five — in Game 4, including a couple late that really hurt.
“There’s not a person in our locker room that’s not expecting him to come out and play really well the next game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
He’s Chris Paul after all. Devin Booker is the Suns’ most explosive player, but it all starts with the quarterback. The ball is in his hands. Paul has finished on the wrong side of postseason history with the Pelicans, the Clippers and the Rockets, who might have won the whole thing in 2018 had their playmaker not injured his hamstring in Game 5 against Golden State.
Paul might never get another clear shot at this. He’s an all-timer at point guard, and that can never be taken away from him. But Paul could really use a total of four victories in these Finals, to eliminate the Bucks and that maddening series of “Whys.”