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The New Adventures of Old Chris Paul

The Point God has finally made it to the conference finals after finding a team that can adapt his old-school style to the modern era

Chris Paul Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The cut dribble (or yo-yo dribble) is one of my favorite sleights of hand in basketball. It is, ostensibly, a fake bounce pass that, by virtue of backspin, becomes a dribble. Instead of applying force to the top of the ball, it’s channeled toward the underbelly, changing the direction of the ball’s velocity and leaving it to bounce more or less back into the handler’s possession—like a yo-yo. It’s a move that traces a lineage that Eurosteps across generational lines, from Pete Maravich in the 1960s to Grayson “The Professor” Boucher of And1 fame. And unless you’re in Boucher’s line of work, where deceit is telegraphed and magnified, it’s a move that is almost undetectable on first glance. On a TV screen, at full speed, it can look like a frame skip: The ball travels nowhere fast, yet for a split second, the defender is drawn to a different spot on the floor. It’s magic, or something like it.

Chris Paul has been mastering the maneuver since 2006, the year the NBA rolled out a new basketball made with synthetic materials that confounded its players. In experimenting with the way the ball handled different variants of hand pressure, Paul soon discovered the yo-yo effect for himself. It’s been a tool in his back pocket ever since. In an era that has become almost entirely reliant on pick-and-rolls as an initial action in a set, the cut dribble is a natural byproduct. Because it essentially uses the same motion as a pocket pass, its utility as a feint increases tenfold. It preys on the expectation of a pass that would normally be made nine times out of 10. That’s how deception works.

My first recollection of the cut dribble being used in game action was in 2008, with just under two minutes to go in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal series between the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Hornets. Paul had just made a midrange shot through contact from Bruce Bowen—contact he considered egregious. So he did the Chris Paul Thing: He scowled, jerked his head around, and stared with an intensity unbefitting of the situation (the Hornets were up by 14 points). Less than a minute later, the NBA’s most vengeful, pint-size demigod hit Bowen with a cut dribble and transitioned straight into a spin. Bowen was liquefied and committed a foul to prevent the layup. I recall screaming.

“Chris Paul turns the game into an organized playground,” Marv Albert said during that game, echoing a term Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used to describe the state of play Paul conjures on the hardwood. “No one is better at doing that. He takes complete control, and it’s his game.”

Ten years ago, CP3, at only 22 years old, played in his first postseason. It still rates as one of the best in his career. That isn’t a slight: Paul is top-five all-time in postseason player efficiency rating, assist percentage, steal percentage, win shares per 48 minutes, and box plus-minus. But if citing his unreal numbers were enough to summarize the past 10 years of the Chris Paul Experience, his upcoming bout against Golden State wouldn’t be the legacy-defining occasion it stands to be. Paul’s brilliance has consistently been met with bad luck, inexplicable errors, and flared tempers. The way Paul was being congratulated for making it to his first Western Conference finals, as though that was to be the culmination of one of the greatest point guard careers in NBA history, must have felt like someone patting the top of his head.

The last time Paul played the Warriors in a series, back in 2014, the Clippers were victorious in a thrilling seven-game first-round series that might have altered the landscape of the league as we know it today. The Warriors’ early exit forced Mark Jackson out and foisted Steve Kerr in. Golden State was pushed light-years ahead; Los Angeles was stuck in neutral. Paul’s Clippers would win only one of the 12 games they’d play against the Warriors during the next three seasons. Paul grew disgruntled, and the Clippers increasingly played a joyless brand of basketball. It didn’t help that, in that time, the nature of the game was turned on its axis. Conventional positional tropes began to mutate, or vanish completely. The concept of a point guard broadened and became all-inclusive. In 2008, Paul was the dream point guard. In 2018, he is an anachronism, perhaps in more ways than one.

Allen Iverson guarding Chris Paul NBAE/Getty Images

Growing up, Paul wanted to be Allen Iverson. He regaled us with a story in The Players’ Tribune about the time in high school when he stayed over at a friend’s house to have his hair braided just like A.I.’s for an important high school game the next day, only for his dad to show up at the game and force him to take the braids out before shootaround. He never adopted the look, and was never the score-first-second-and-third guard Iverson was on his best and worst days, but what Paul did take from his idolatry was A.I.’s ability to manipulate space.

Iverson’s crossovers still have no equal; no player in history has matched his quick-burst lateral explosiveness, his condor wingspan, and his floor sense. His best crossovers—the ball held wide in one outstretched arm, a left-right shoulder shake, and then an explosion—were essentially multiple choice questions. Every move opened up new spaces which he could occupy, and even when defenders guess right the first time, the chances dwindled the longer opponents were caught up in the quiz. Paul can’t do what Iverson did, but, like with the cut dribble, he has always found his own ways to catch his defenders off balance. He also has the spatial awareness to get his shot off, even (or especially) over much taller defenders. He takes a singular joy in catching big men on mismatches out behind the 3-point line, each possession another opportunity for Goliath to die.

Paul has been slaying giants on an island his entire life, but under Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets’ offensive game plan, it feels new—or old, depending on your perspective. The room Paul is given to operate is unprecedented. The isolations truly feel isolated. Disassemble the methodology of both D’Antoni and Daryl Morey, and this Rockets team almost feels like a blueprint lost in translation. Decades of D’Antoni’s experience playing and coaching a fast-paced offensive system has culminated in a team that drains clock as a default setting and centralizes the basketball’s “energy” in the hands of two players; Morey’s ongoing manifesto on efficiency in the sport has led to this season’s Rockets team, one of the most devastating offensive teams in history, and its closest stylistic forebear is … one of the least efficient volume scorers ever?

For 32 minutes a game this season, Paul has essentially been tasked with being Iverson. He has become a “What if X player played in X era?” thought experiment come to life. The irony is crazy-making, but because the game has shifted so far from where we were two decades ago, we’re starting to enter a decontextualized zone in the NBA where old ideas are taking on new forms in new situations. They don’t work simply because they worked in the past; they work because elite teams have built the infrastructure to comfortably experiment against the grain.

Iverson’s attitude toward today’s game has been something of a revelation these past few years: He trusts the Process; he thinks the Warriors are good for basketball. Though he has every right to defend the player he was from the revisionism that has invariably occurred as eras pass, he has somehow managed to avoid the curmudgeonly slant that almost every former NBA star has adopted. Iverson was so specifically representative of his era that it can seem impossible to place him in any other context. But perhaps it’s a little easier knowing that he approves of where the game is heading. Recalibrate Iverson’s singular talents to fit the standards of the league today, and this season’s version of Paul would be a likely result. The dialogue between the past and the future is ongoing, it’s just not happening where you might’ve expected.

I’ve always thought the best CP3 viewing experience was watching him from the nosebleeds. From that vantage, size disparities aren’t so easily discerned, and the court becomes more like a chessboard. You can see the pull he has on the defense, his teammates. You can see how he manipulates their presence to create space for himself and others. I watched Paul from the cheap seats back when he still reflected the prevailing notion of what a point guard should be, when controlling a game entailed a lot of exploratory dribbling. But for the past few years, the best nosebleed attraction has been Stephen Curry, whose off-ball involvement turns the half court into an ever-changing booby-trapped labyrinth. When the individual characters are less of a concern, the scope of the game widens. More interesting than whether Paul becomes the latest self-fulfilling prophecy in this postseason is how math-inflected iso ball functions in a seven-game series against one of the most versatile defenses ever. In a way, the almost counterintuitive offensive structure that D’Antoni set up for his two stars plays into CP3’s most enduring quality: his ability to deceive.

Aging athletes have to deal with not only skill erosion, but the ways in which new trends dictate competition. Paul forced his way into a situation in which he could be insulated from all of that. The move to Houston was not just a transactional, résumé-building ring chase the way so many are at this stage of a career. It was a reclamation of who he is as a player in a league that no longer recognizes him as the standard bearer for the position. This Warriors-Rockets series will feature two of the best point guards in NBA history playing on teams that have almost completely dismantled the positional distinction. Under D’Antoni, who has redefined the 1 spot several times over, Paul found a new lease on his old self. At age 33, he’s been given full license to reanimate the dreams of his childhood. And now, on the biggest stage of his career, he’s unapologetically bringing his game full circle.