The NBA of 2014 is a hostile place for auteurs. The game has become so schematically complex on both sides of that ball that even superstars are finding less room for improvisation. The most reliable way to beat a modern NBA defense is by spreading the floor and zipping the ball around the perimeter. Hell, the Spurs just won a title by hiveminding towards open, efficient shots. Creativity isn't dead, but it has been collectivized. If any one player tries to enforce his will on the game too much, the defense can zero in and force turnover hell.
Unless that player is Chris Paul, spritely omnipotent point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul is on pace for historic assist-to-turnover numbers, but statistical meteorism undersells his paradigm-busting sensibilities. He doesn't function within the Clippers offense, he is the Clippers offense. See, there are these beats you find every team playing to. Pass, move, dribble, cut, screen. The arrangements vary, but the timbre is familiar. You screen, then you roll. You pass, you linger, then make your move.
Paul's genius is that he's making up the arrangement as he goes along. He'll post a defender up at the perimeter, turn around for a quarter-second, and toss an alley-oop with his off hand. He'll run through a pair of screens in order to force a switch on a teammate all the way on the other side of the court. Watch him toy with the fabric of entire defenses and see how he manipulates time and space. Paul creates angles that no other point guards do, like he's trained in the Dark Arts of geometry. With anyone else leading their offense, the Clippers are two good big men and chronic spacing problems. But with Paul running things, they come alive into a circus of dunks, one-touch passes, and transition threes.
Other point guards approximate certain tenets of Paul's game, but nobody is as revolutionary or effective. Russell Westbrook lances to the rim at terrifying speed, but he doesn't create open shots with the sophistication of Paul. Rajon Rondo manufactures weird angles, but he is just a conduit, not any kind of scoring threat. Chris Paul's elite contemporaries do their best work fronting systems they control, but nobody vertically integrates their own.
The ideal modern NBA superstar is comfortable switching onto multiple positions defensively and can work anywhere on the court on offense, like LeBron James or Anthony Davis. In short, range matters. They excel all over the place and their modularity allows them to plug into any system. Paul is pointier. He is only 6'0", and can't guard forwards, but he regularly leads the league in steals. Where Davis and James shapeshift around, covering swaths of ground, Chris Paul seizes every opportunity, and then strip mines it.
Paul has always been an offense unto himself, but these particular Clippers are the most fully realized team he's ever been a part of. The best pre-L.A. team Paul played on was the 2008 Hornets, a mediocre squad—Morris Peterson, Jannero Pargo, and Hilton Armstrong were all key players—that he willed to the 2 seed and the Southwest Division title over the Spurs. Paul elevates his teammates more than any other player with his scoring ability, but there are limits to how far some teammates can be elevated. Those Hornets were never good enough to be serious contenders.
Now Paul has Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as alley-oop muses and J.J. Reddick as a three-point target. Paul's usage rate is the lowest of his career, but he is the author of most Clippers plays. Whether or not a play ends with him converting his deadly floater or getting credit for an assist, he is there, spinning the gears into motion.
And yet, as good as this Clippers team is, they are still flawed. Paul papers over a lot of their deficiencies but the bench is deceptively shallow and they don't have a reliable wing defender on the roster. Matt Barnes is regressing and Spencer Hawes looks more like a Civil War-era farmer drafted into service than backup center. As currently constructed, the Clippers will only go as far as Paul can take them. If they are to deliver on their promise as contenders, it will be because Paul's unceasing creativity propels them past their rivals. Indeed, if L.A. wants to bring a title home this season, its only hope is the other team, its only hope is Paul whirling and fighting and inventing his way through the playoffs.