POSTED: Jan 16, 2013 11:21 AM ET
Chris Paul (right, against Jarrett Jack) is going through what all great players do.
No one will forget the toll championship expectations extracted from LeBron James, the most physically gifted and skilled player the league has known and the player with the highest basketball IQ playing today.
Championship expectations are the NBA's litmus test for greatness. They're the trial by fire that burned me, Julius (Dr. J) Erving, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Dirk Nowitzki and countless others before melding us into champions.
It's difficult to appreciate the burden, the weight and the mental fatigue of NBA championship expectations. Counting the playoffs, it's a 100-game death march carried out almost exclusively by players labeled "superstars" by the media, players whose careers will eventually be defined by what they accomplish in June.
A close victory against the wrong team in January can be viewed as a lack of preparedness for June. A one-or two-game losing streak in March can create doubt that lingers until May.
Smitty's Top 5 Under the Rim
Chris Paul is one of my favorite players. I've spent the past month wondering how he's dealing with the championship expectations no one saw coming. James knew what he was stepping into when he signed with Miami. Plus, he'd already dealt with championship expectations in Cleveland. Dr. J, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, Dirk and I all went into multiple seasons knowing our ultimate goal was hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Paul plays for the Clippers, an organization that wasn't considered a favorite until this year. He led them on a 17-game winning streak that stamped the Clips as championship favorites. There was no time to prepare.
He has a chance to survive this, a chance to avoid the trial-by-fire championship-expectations burns that scorched the overwhelming majority of us the first time we confronted them. I'd say he has a chance. Here is why:
Paul is one of the best point guards in the game today because he plays from the neck up and not the neck down. He is not the fastest player in the game nor is he the highest jumper. When you have mastered the study of movement and patterns -- termed offense and defense -- regardless of size or weight you can control the game. Every action causes a reaction. When the ball is in Paul's hands he controls the movement of the nine other players on the court. Only when the ball is in his hands does he have that power!
I have watched Paul's journey through the NBA from his early years in New Orleans to present day with the Clippers. I remember when my childhood friend Darrell Walker, who is now an NBA assistant coach in New York and was formerly an assistant in New Orleans, called me and said these words: "Chris Paul has it. I don't know what 'it' is, but he has it. He sees everything that is happening on the court."
There are certain phrases and words when spoken that I hear louder than others. "He sees everything" is one of those phrases. It is impossible to see everything on the court unless you have eyes in the back of your head. I have not seen nor played against this four-eyed monster. However,if you can acquire and apply the basketball science of defensive movement and offensive patterns, not only can you predict the outcome but you can control the outcome in your basketball laboratory -- the court. You can't control your teammates' shot making, but you can always lead them to a good shot. If you do a little homework and find out what your teammate's favorite spot to shoot from is, you can get him in a position to shoot from there every time.
Paul this year has mastered his craft. I see a player thirsty for knowledge. In his quest to understand the power of the "point," he has stumbled upon a championship journey. I don't believe at the start of the season there was a person playing in a Clippers uniform or a member of their management team that actually believed the Clippers could win it all this year.
This is Paul's first championship journey in the NBA. His name, while always mentioned with the elite in the sport, had never entered into the championship discussion. His epiphany comes with newfound knowledge and a better understanding of player movement and defensive patterns. This allows him to think faster and process information more quickly. Now that he can control player movement and anticipate player reaction, he is two steps ahead of everyone on the floor. Because of his acquired knowledge, the game moves slower for him. This amped-up brain power allows him to play bigger, faster and appear to be more athletic than his actual physical gifts. Being two steps ahead mentally gives him space and time to imagine the outcome if one defender moves incorrectly. By the time you finish reading this sentence, Paul has read the defense and found Jamal Crawford for a corner 3 or Blake Griffin for another magnificent dunk. Paul has transformed the Staples Center from the home of "Showtime" to "Lob City". It's a joy to watch. It will be interesting to see if the burden of championship expectations steals that joy and replaces it with the pain most champions come to know intimately on their way to greatness.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in '90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA.
He's now an analyst for NBA TV and will be a regular contributor to NBA.com.
You can follow him on Twitter at @iamisiahthomas.