USA TODAY Sports’ AJ Neuharth-Keusch discusses what to keep an eye on in 2017.
USA TODAY Sports
Chris Paul, fresh off his outing against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night that put him in the NBA’s top 10 for all-time assists, glanced at the list of legends on the cell phone before him and shook his head.
“When I first came into the league, my goal was to pass (Utah Jazz legend) John Stockton in steals and assists,” the Clippers point guard said. “No chance. Nah, I missed 15 games my second season in the league with an ankle injury (and) that went out the window then.”
And therein lies the key to the 31-year-old Paul’s greatness.
Faced with a chance to celebrate his own historic evening, to thank all the little people for the big role they played in his Hall of Fame-level career, he Paul lamented what might have been because, well, the pursuit of perfection never ends.
Never mind that he just passed Rod Strickland for 10th (7,994 assists), or that he’ll likely be No. 9 by next season (Andre Miller is at 8,524) or that there’s a good chance he’ll wind up second all-time in assists by the time his hoops days are done. Paul, who saw his Clippers go 2-5 in games that he recently missed because of a hamstring injury while falling to fourth in the Western Conference , was more focused on what might have been.
“Yeah, (being in the top 10 is) cool,” said Paul, who is barely halfway to Stockton’s incredible mark (15,806). “I mean it’s an honor. It’s a privilege. For me, it’s crazy man, I’m so competitive, I think about all the games I’ve done missed (laughs) – you know what I mean? – because of injury or what not. But that’s an honor and a privilege and I think that says a lot about my teammates, and my coaches that I had over the years. I’ve been blessed enough to come into this league, and play from Day One, so that’s why that stuff happens.”
As Paul is well aware, no one can match Stockton when it comes to the NBA’s Ironman status. After all, the man played in all 82 regular season games an incredible 16 times (Paul has done it just once in 11 seasons).
But factoring in Paul’s career-long availability (he has played in 87% of regular season games), in addition to his average rate of piling up assists (9.9 per game), he is on pace to pass Jason Kidd for second on the all-time assists list early on in the 2022-23 season (he would be 37 years old). As for chasing down Stockton? Were Paul somehow able to magically maintain that elite pace, he would be 42 years old when he finally passed him while also becoming the oldest point guard to ever play in an NBA game (Celtics great Bob Cousy played until he was 41).
As Paul so aptly put it – no chance.
While he’s much farther behind Stockton when it comes to steals – 3,265 to 1,861 – Paul is 84 away from passing his pal Kobe Bryant (1,944) and entering the top 15 (he’s currently tied with Isiah Thomas).
None of which qualifies as a major priority for the nine-time All-Star at the moment. With forward Blake Griffin still having had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Dec. 20 (announced absence timeline of three to six weeks), and the Clippers a mediocre 11-12 since their league-best start of 14-2, Paul needs to lead squad going down a better road. What’s more, this fork-in-the-road summer of Clippers free agency for Paul (player option for next season), Griffin (same), and shooting guard J.J. Redick (unrestricted free agent) is nearing.
From the history books to the season that’s before them all, Paul – as always – wants more.
“We’re going to win games,” said Paul, whose Clippers have won 66.2% of their games since he came to Los Angeles in 2011 (54-win pace in an 82-game season) but have yet to survive past the second round. “That’s something that’s always going to happen. We’re just talented, and we’ve got enough guys. We’re going to win games. But for us, it’s bigger than that.
“We can go out and like – not even trying to be (funny) – winning 50 games, that’s easy, you know what I mean? Not for everybody, but for us that’s easy. But for us, it’s big picture. We’re trying to build for something bigger than that.”