Chris Paul complains to the refs. The imagery is so engrained in your brain it has become the unofficial logo for the Los Angeles Clippers (a team whose own logo is inferior to its D-League counterpart).
Paul’s reputation as a talker on the court is as much a part of him as Cliff Paul, and that reputation has reared its ugly head on the ‘Point God’ and his teammates.
In an abbreviated 2016-2017 season Chris Paul started 61 games for the Clippers en route to a fourth place Western Conference finish. It’s the second-fewest games Paul has played since his pro career began, trailing only his injury-plagued 2009-2010 in New Orleans. For the first time in his career Paul, as most speed-reliant point guards on the other side of 30, began to show signs of slowing down. But thanks to that same tenacity and willingness to push the limits of the rules in his role as the President of the NBA Players Association, Paul will likely command the maximum salary for a final time in his career (yes, he could theoretically be eligible at 36 years old but the max at that point would be unprecedented for a point guard) this offseason as an unrestricted free agent amidst another rise on the salary cap. The man most likely to give him that contract? His Clippers GM, coach, and verbal referee-sparring tag-team partner Doc Rivers.
The Rivers-Paul combination has referees sighing as the sight of ‘LAC’ on their calendars, to the point that it has begun to damage the Clippers on-court performances. At his peak, Paul was a top defender in the Association with his combination of speed, strength, and stodgy will-power. Even today he takes every Steph Curry three-pointer as a personal dig. But as his physical skills diminish, he’s become more reliant on using his words – which in basketball has a downside. Of the 25 point guards who started at least 50 games this season, Paul was 12th in free throw attempts per 36 minutes at 4.87, behind the likes of Kyle Lowry and Jeff Teague. For that same group of guards, Paul was fifth in personal fouls per 36 minutes behind poor defenders Reggie Jackson, Ricky Rubio, and Goran Dragic, as well as Matthew Dellavedova – not exactly the cleanest of players. Paul’s antics on the court have refs swallowing their whistles while he’s on the one end of the floor and scrambling to find them on the other.
The impact on the rest of the Clippers is harder to quantify – the team averaged 26 free throw attempts per game, the third-highest in the league coming in behind the James Harden head-fake Rockets (26.5 FTA/game) and the surprising Suns (26.3 FTA/game). On the surface that makes it appear as if the Clippers are getting their fair share of calls, but nearly half (12.1) of those attempts belong to DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin thanks to the hack-a-Jordan defense and Blake’s banging down low. The only other starting power forward and center duo accounting for over 12 FTA/game are the hack-a-Dwight Hawks in Atlanta featuring Paul Millsap. In contrast, the Rockets get 15.8 attempts combined from Harden and Lou Williams who both shoot over 84% from the line; the Warriors get 13.6 attempts from the Durant, Curry, and Thompson at better than 85% each; and the Suns cash in a combined 13 attempts from Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, and Brandon Knight at over 83% a piece. In a good year for DeAndre at the line in 2016-17 he shot .482 while Blake shot .760.
That free throw percentage is underwhelming for any set of bigs in today’s game, but it’s even harder to stomach when those are the two guys leading the team in attempts from the charity stripe. On top of the Jordan-Griffin struggles from the line, their presence on the floor creates geometry issues for teammates to get to the line themselves. Outside of a pick-and-roll with Paul getting Jordan’s man switched onto him, DeAndre tends to clog the lane forcing teammates like JJ Redick, Austin Rivers, and Jamal Crawford into jump shots. Neither Redick nor Rivers has ever been a guy who consistently gets to the line, but Crawford just averaged his fewest free throw attempts in a season, 2.1 per game, since starting 31 games for the Chicago Bulls in 2002-03.
Until the NBA begins releasing full-game referee reports (which they shouldn’t, but probably will do in the not too distant future), non-calls and missed calls will be nearly impossible to quantify from a full-season perspective. But the numbers available make it hard to build a case for Paul’s constant ribbing of the referees. The Clippers are getting to the line – though not the guys they would likely prefer – as frequently as any team in the league, but Paul’s knack for knocks on the officiating may be costing his own game. Chris Paul is a savvy speaker, a fierce negotiator, and as good a role model off the court as any player in this generation, but on the court it might be time for him to keep his mouth shut.