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Chris Paul, Clippers in Western Conference finals – with a twist

Chris Paul in Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 8: Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the game against the LA Clippers on April 8, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

When Chris Paul left the Clippers in 2017, he said, “I felt like it was not only a good time for change for me, but for the team, too.”

Paul is the greatest player in Clippers history. And they were going to be better off losing him?

As wild as it sounded, he had a point.

The Clippers never got past the second round with Paul, and those repeated disappointments weighed on everyone. Paul sometimes subverted chemistry and might have resented others not doing their part. He contributed to a loss of joy within the team. Re-signing the aging Paul would have been expensive.

Still, he was a masterful point guard in L.A. – throwing lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, scoring efficiently and playing strong defense. Paul left with more All-NBA first-team selections with the Clippers (three) than everyone else in franchise history combined (one by Jordan, one by Bob McAdoo back when the team was the Buffalo Braves). The Clippers made the playoffs all six years they had Paul and won three series – unprecedented success for the franchise.

His departure was momentous.

The Clippers lost nine more games the next season. They began a complete overhaul.

But it worked. L.A. built a scrappy starless winner then lured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This year, the Clippers advanced further than they ever did with Paul (or anyone else) – to the Western Conference finals.

Their opponent? Paul and the Suns.

Tonight, Paul – cleared from coronavirus – returns to L.A. for Game 3 to face his former team.

What a matchup.

Using win shares, just two players have accomplished more with a franchise than Paul with the Clippers then faced that franchise in the playoffs.

Wilt Chamberlain played the Warriors thrice in the playoffs – once with the 76ers then twice with the Lakers. With the Rockets, Russell Westbrook beat the Thunder in last year’s playoffs.

Like Chamberlain and Westbrook for their meetings against their former teams, Paul is still a star. He led Phoenix here. Once he shakes off his rust, he’s expected to again take the reins.

This type of drama is a rarity.

Among players who were All-Stars that season, here are the players with the most win shares with a franchise when facing that franchise in the playoffs:

pbt chris paul clippers suns playoff series former team

Paul took a winding path to L.A. and, as an opponent, back.

He left the Clippers to make the Rockets a championship contender. After ups and downs in Houston, he spent a fruitful year with the Thunder. That earned him the ability to pick his next team, and per his desire, Oklahoma City traded him to the Suns. In Phoenix, Paul has wonderfully accelerated a young team’s ascent.

As much turbulence as the Clippers faced when he left, it didn’t always seem Paul would still be thriving at this point, either. He’s 36 – two years older than when Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was already griping about his contract.

Now, Paul is set to get another big contract this summer.

First, he has unfinished business. Up 2-0, the Suns have a big advantage in this series. Paul’s return only strengthens Phoenix’s position.

Finally, Paul and the Clippers are in the Western Conference finals.

Though just not as initially imagined.