The NBA is afraid of what Chris Paul sees. Opponents show it in the way they react to his stare, selling out into passing lanes simply because Paul's eyes suggest it. When Paul slows down to survey the floor, it can paralyze his defender with possibility. His attention is a weapon. The fear of it can lead a defense to do senseless things—the kind that leaves smart players baffled in the moment and shaking their heads in a film session. There are anxieties in guarding any great player, but with Paul, the greatest concern is the imbalance of information. Russell Westbrook kills with speed and Stephen Curry with space. Paul wins by seeing things that no one else could and exploiting a defense that knows it.
"There are point guards who see the action that can make the pass right now," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "There's very few of them that can anticipate if they keep the ball another second, what will happen."
Our perception is shaped by our tools. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But if you have the moves to get anywhere on the court (like Paul does), your view of the game widens.
The inextricable link between vision and function is central to everything that Paul does. A boundless creativity is fueled by technical mastery; Paul sees so much, in part, because his arsenal of moves makes everything possible. It’s a repertoire that has only grown more sophisticated with age. Paul, at 31, still has defenders wary of a blow-by because of all the ways he can set them up to fail. On every possession he gives a defense so much to consider. Even those who know to watch for his step-back jumper can't help but react to his hard drives. The worry of biting on a fake can leave a defender still when the real move finally comes. The basis of Paul's game is to create friction against instinct—to move a defender and immediately make him second-guess his own actions.
"It's always a game within a game," Paul said. "I'm always trying to set you up for one thing and doing another one."
Everything Paul does is part of a greater context. When he sees a defense waiting on him to throw a pocket pass, Paul will instead hit them with a spin dribble—a nearly identical motion save that the ball is thrown with enough English to return to its sender off the bounce:
"I started doing that when the league tried to change the basketball [in 2006]," Paul said. "I remember being in Oklahoma, the league tried to change the texture of the basketball and I used to throw that ball way out and it would catch and come back. So then when we went back to the regular ball, I just started doing it but not throwing the ball out as far."
Counterintuitively, he uses this setup with the intent to actually pass to his faked target. The spin dribble works because a defense expects a particular kind of feed. Paul feigns it for what follows: the moment of panic when a defender realizes he's been had and scrambles to defend what must be a shot. It's the correction that gets you. Paul returns to his original premise with the defense out of position and sets up his teammate with ease.
Paul has a talent for mimicry. His fakes are sold on their indistinguishable figure. When it's not a spin dribble masquerading as a pocket pass, it's a layup imitating the cadence of a lob:
But play Paul for that possibility and the layup itself becomes a deceit:
"One thing about the ball screen is if I do what I'm supposed to do, I should never be worried about the guy that's guarding me," Paul said. "He's getting screened. That's one thing that I usually never worry about. I'm always looking at the big's defender, cause I'm watching his coverage. The guy guarding me doesn't matter."
Every one of these moments is a window into Paul's virtuosity. From the second he gathers the ball, Paul and the defending big—Lakers forward Julius Randle in this case—are locked in a dance. Paul's hop into the lane pulls Randle in his direction. A quick eye toward DeAndre Jordan then pushes Randle away, into a potential passing lane. Paul's liftoff draws Randle back in for a hard contest, which he eludes with a double-clutch lob. It is inarguable who leads and who follows. Every move that Randle made was one Paul essentially made for him – down to the jump that allowed an uncontested dunk.
"It's his mind that makes him who he is," Rivers said. "He's a genius."
The genius of players like Paul comes out in obstruction. Start to box him in and you'll see fireworks; the fewer the options that Paul seems to have, the more fantastic the results. Whatever limits a defense looks to impose, Paul will find ways to break them. Spring a trap and Paul—a control guard by type—will give up the ball to get it back later on the move. Switch pick-and-rolls against the Clippers and Paul becomes an even more vicious dual threat. Any big in front of him is as good as cooked:
All while Paul is sharp enough to see his own appetizing option as part of a fuller menu:
Once Paul gets a sense of what's coming, the conferencing begins. Scan the floor during a dead ball and you'll find Paul in a teammate's ear, distilling his wide view into actionable intel. "It's just information building," Paul said. "Tell me what you see, I'mma tell you what I see. [I’m] always setting up.”
Those exchanges can get heated. Every Clipper can't pick out the same angles from the muck of a 10-man mob, which leaves a ruthless, detail-obsessive, expertly-skilled dynamo of a point guard to stew in near-constant irritation. Paul is ornery because there will forever be something stuck in his craw: the wealth of what he sees and others can’t.
When mistakes are made, disagreements can become squabbles. The Clippers are a testy group and Paul has the harshest edges of them all. But these constant lines of communication mean that a Paul-led offense will never bluntly charge into the same result over and over. The game is in constant flux.
"Everything is in frames for him," Jamal Crawford said. "It's in slow motion. So he sees four plays ahead. He sees what's gonna be open. He sees that they did this in the first quarter, so I'm not gonna call that play again until the fourth quarter cause I know how they're playing it."
Arm Paul with that material knowledge and, in time, he will solve you. Thousands of minutes alongside Jordan, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick have made Paul an especially flexible orchestrator. The base offense might not change. Yet every play offers room to work within its arrangement—one more dimension that can be shaped against an opponent's expectations. "I think our starting group, we're all really f-----g smart," Redick said. "So we feed off of that and play off that together. We do things whether it's an ATO or whether it's communicating on the fly. We have certain calls where we'll call a play knowing that we're actually calling a different play."
"Let's say we needed a three, for example. We have a couple play calls where we'll call a play that's meant for something else and everybody on the court knows that we're actually running it to get me a three. There's stuff like that on one out of every four possessions."
In that, Paul runs an offense layered with subtext. A high pick-and-roll can be a guise to clear out for a post-up:
A mismatch for Griffin inside can be most valuable in how it frees up the mid-range:
These opportunities don't just materialize. They develop. Their roots stretch back over seconds or minutes or entire quarters – if not further. When they were in New Orleans together, Paul used to call up now-Nuggets coach Mike Malone on off-nights to riff on the latest in League Pass. His Clipper teammates say Paul is liable to ask if they saw some random move from a completely irrelevant preseason game. "All I do is watch basketball," Paul said. "Seriously."
So when Paul sees Griffin sealing off an overmatched Domantas Sabonis, he approaches the play with a sense of both how Sabonis might fare and how the Thunder might overcompensate. One cannot separate how Paul experiences the game from what he's learned from it. Every micro-adjustment is informed by a seat in the thick of the action or one parked in front of the game tape.
"Because he's the guy who has the ball and is dictating how we're playing, you can't do that if you're not incredibly focused on details and incredibly smart," Redick said. "That makes us all better."
It's not a coincidence that Paul leads the league in Real Plus-Minus. He’s generated as many Win Shares in 60 games as Damian Lillard has in 75. Paul is playing MVP-caliber ball that’s hidden in plain sight, obscured by monolithic stat lines in Houston and Oklahoma City. Harden and Westbrook both transform a game with their presence. Their control of an offense leads defenders to abandon their assignments, opening up assists from the threat of a drive or a shot. Paul leans on that effect in inverse. The potential for a pass to a cutter or roll man creates a buffer between the defender and one of the best pull-up shooters in the league. His vision can be an active repellant.
"I’m reading their feet," Paul said. Any big resting on their heels is as good as done. Paul is shooting 51.6% on mid-range shots overall and 49.7% on two-point shots over 10 feet—with 40.5% on threes to boot. Coverage at the point of the screen is the only way to survive, and yet the further a big man wanders from the paint, the more vulnerable to Paul's deceptions he becomes. An entire subset of Paul's offense is predicated on driving at the big in a pick-and-roll before turning out—tricking them into releasing back into the fold.
Should they stay attached, Paul will throw—with perfect arc—what amounts to a blind lob:
Paul will spin, cross, hesitate, dribble through, and still have an impeccable sense of both where the help is coming from and where the rotation would leave the defense as he circles back out. "I'm always looking at the low man," Paul said. "If there's not a guy over to bump him, then he's open. And if the big don't step up, I've got the jumper. If he does step up, then I've got the corner guy for the three." High-level prospects have folded their careers over their inability to read that progression at NBA speed. To Paul, it's all a matter of familiar geography.
"It sounds so simple, but when you've played as much as a lot of us have played, it ain't but so many different things you can do," Paul said. "Like if you're tryin' to get home, if you're tryin' to drive to your house, there's only so many different ways to get there. Right? So I think about that on the basketball court. When I beat this guy, there's only a couple places where another defender can come from."
Paul helps to control those angles with his signature cut-back. Straight lines can make for easy scores, but Paul was one of the first guards to fully explore the width of the court as a pick-and-roll weapon. By snaking around a ball screen and toward the sideline, Paul extends the path of recovery for any guard trailing behind him.
"I just started doing it in practice one day with Tyson [Chandler], cause I realized it would create a two-on-one," Paul said of his former New Orleans teammate. "If he sets the step-up and the [defender] trails the screen and I cut back, my man is behind me and we've got a two-on-one with the man that's guarding Tyson."
Give him a perfectly ordinary setup and Paul will manipulate the space to create just that kind of advantage. Even a set, expectant defense will yield a two-on-one or a three-on-two to Paul as the Clippers roll downhill. In a sense, the teammates on the other end of these plays have it easy. Jordan can trust that a lob will be just where it needs to be. Redick will curl into a pass that lands right in his shooting pocket. Yet playing with Paul also means living in a simmer, waiting for the moments when the point guard's quiet fury becomes loud.
"I think certain people are probably better adapted to playing with someone like that," Redick said. "I think we have guys that are able to play with him in the way he communicates."
Paul plays with the vision of LeBron James but little of his joy. There is a severity to everything he does on the court. His defaults are to bark and to snarl. It’s a disposition clearly born of a need to win—"He may be one of the most competitive people on earth," Rivers said—but likely fueled by a divide. That no one else on the floor sees what Paul sees cuts both ways. Paul's desperation to win every game stokes his annoyance when a given possession doesn't go quite as he thinks it should. Whether you’re a opponent or a teammate, Paul sees right through you—to your positioning, your judgment, and your every error. Everyone is held accountable to his own impossible standards.
There is wonder in Paul’s works, though it is almost a natural byproduct of his stern resolution. And really, could a playmaker so exacting as Paul ever really have fun playing basketball?
"That's a great question," Redick said. After mulling the thought, he continued. "I think winning is fun for him. I think the end result is fun for him."
Everything else—down to the delicate craft of a once-in-a-generation passer—is preamble.