The Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. It was the closest series so far this postseason in terms of point differential. It also was one of few series in NBA history where the road teams won five total games. The Jazz have a core that is advancing in the postseason for the first time. Oh, and the “what is the future of the Clippers” conversations have started.
The fact remains that nobody knows what the future looks like in Los Angeles. Many are predicting – regardless of how much other teams can offer – idealistic locations the two stars can each play for following the Clippers.
This fun discussion, though, has led to one set of problematic conversations. It is about Chris Paul being and acting like “a winner.” Before I get to the main criticism, however, let me dispute this claim empirically.
Yes, Chris Paul has a 33-43 record in the postseason, but this is not his fault. Let’s bring stats into this. Chris Paul’s statistical NBA playoff rankings are below:
-Player Efficiency Rating (PER) (a regression stat estimating a player’s efficiency) = 3rd
-Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (a regressions stat estimating a player’s contribution to winning a game) = 3rd
-Box Plus-Minus (see Win Shares) = 3rd
-Assist Percentage (percent of assists a player is responsible for while on the court) = 2nd
-Offensive Rating (a team’s offensive +/- adjusted for pace) = 2nd amongst Point Guards, 7th overall
-True Shooting Percentage (see here) = 3rd amongst Point Guards, 22nd overall
-Value Over Replacement Player (see Win Shares and Box Plus-Minus) – 6th amongst Point Guards, 30th overall.
Thus, by almost every advanced statistical metric, Chris Paul ranks as a top-30 postseason player of all time, and many place him in the top-five.
But, frankly, this is a distraction from the actual issue at hand. Those stats are provided to avoid simplistic rebuttals to my actual argument.
Put simply, there are degrees of dehumanization, denial of agency, and frankly, racism, when people claim “Chris Paul is not a winner if he stays with the Clippers, “Chris Paul is not a winner if he does not go to team A,” or, my favorite, “Chris Paul does not have the mentality to be a winner.”
Let’s break this down.
Chris Paul is a 31 year-old African American man, with a family, who gets paid multiple millions of dollars to play basketball and represent his various sponsors. Let’s forget the last part for a second and view this in a vacuum.
“Chris Paul is a 31 year-old African American man, with a family, who gets paid a substantial salary.”
Chris Paul also has an option to terminate his contract one year early. In doing so, he can sign a new contract with the same company for a significantly larger salary, or join another competing company for a lower salary. If he chooses the latter it will mean moving locations and potentially his family; but, could also result in greater professional success.
So is Mr. Paul’s choice a simple “money vs. professional success” decision? Is the choice that binary? Anybody who is being honest with themselves know that such decisions are significantly more complicated.
Sports fans, pundits, bloggers, and others like to make these decisions simple. This makes it easier to provide conjecture. Yet, there is also a dark side to these conversations.
By claiming a set of binary choices, one is viewed with positive sentiment (winning), and the other with negative (caring about money). If Chris Paul chooses to stay in Los Angeles, he is a bad competitor who is also selfish. Whereas, on the other hand, being a winner is a positive ideal. This is someone who has given up niceties ($70 million over five years) to achieve professional greatness. Thus, if Paul chooses money, he is selfish; or, if he chooses winning, he is a “role model.”
That binary reasoning is simplistic and dehumanizing. First, it is done at the level of a three year old saying, “mommy, that’s not nice” or “mommy, you’re nice.” In reality, if given one minute of critical thought, any adult will realize these life decisions are incredibly complicated made up of an infinite set of factors. By not recognizing that, this commentary is denying Chris Paul human agency.
Frankly, a master-slave dynamic emerges. We, the fans, pay Chris Paul’s salary and he owes us to do whatever he can to be a winner. Anything short of that and Chris Paul is being “disrespectful” to “the sport.” Below is an analogous situation:
You work for a respected public university. The students and professors are both “good” but not “great,” the salary is outstanding, and your family is comfortable living in the neighborhood. Yet, regardless of your presence, the university will never be considered “elite.” Now, a top-ten university thousands of miles away calls and offers you a job. Your presence at this new university could transform it into the best in the world; but doing so would mean taking a significant salary cut, relocating your family thousands of miles away, making new friends, getting adjusted to a new work environment, and many other unsavory changes. It becomes clear that the decision is much more complicated than “money” versus “professional success.”
And this is a main problem with the “winner” discourse. It simplifies an extremely complicated issue to the degree where normative judgments about players – i.e. Chris Paul being “good” or “bad” – become commonplace.
In reality, the decision is not binary, but has an unbelievable large amount of potentially impactful factors. It is absolutely likely that Chris Paul cares both about money and winning. He also probably cares about his family’s comfort level, his own happiness, and many other factors. If Paul chooses to leave Los Angeles, it will have to do with more than just “winning.” And if he chooses to say in Los Angeles, it will equally have to do with more than just “money.”
Furthermore, even if Paul is making the decision solely based on money, that’s totally reasonable and it does not mean he is selfish! The extra $70 million over five years will allow him to support his family more easily, will benefit the Chris Paul Family Foundation, and can lead to an overall higher quality of life for him and those close to him. This is an extreme amount of money for anyone – even a multimillionaire athlete – to give up. In essence, it is declining a 35% raise in order to play for a “better” company.
Every individual has the right to express an opinion that Chris Paul choosing to stay in Los Angeles means he does not care about winning. But saying it does not make it so. And there is no evidence that suggests choosing to stay on a worse roster means a player simply prioritizes money – or, in the case of LeBron James, “playing with friends” – more than winning. Additionally, even if the decision is entirely about money, that should not be an avenue fans and pundits take to criticize athletes, because doing so makes desiring the best salary a “selfish” decision.
Most importantly, insisting that the false binary is true actively denies agency to these athletes. The contradiction is clear because, given the vast American consumption of sports, it seems obvious that society should provide these athletes with this basic sense of human dignity. Perhaps, with the looming free agency of Chris Paul, this process can start.