NEW YORK -- Chris Paul likely won't win the NBA MVP award this season.
But if Paul and the Clippers continue to play the way they did Sunday in New York in a 102-88 win over the Knicks, Paul should be in the thick of the conversation and would be just as deserving of the award as James, Kevin Durant or anyone else.
Judging the value of a player to his team and then deciding which player is the most valuable is a thankless task most seasons. It usually turns into a popularity contest based largely on individual statistics and team records. Perhaps the one positive that came from Paul missing 12 games and nine straight because of a bruised right kneecap is that it made clear how truly valuable Paul is to the Clippers.
The Clippers were 6-6 without Paul and lost seven of nine games as he dealt with the injury. Meanwhile, when Paul is on the court, the Clippers are 30-11 this season. So, basically the Clippers are a .500 basketball team without Paul and are one of the top three teams in the league when he's healthy.
As good as James and Durant are, chances are the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder would be better than .500 teams if both players were out of the picture. They wouldn't be championship contenders, but they'd at least make the playoffs.
For all the talk of the Clippers' depth, Paul's absence showed how little it actually meant if he wasn't in uniform. It was like a talented orchestra with no idea how and when to play their instruments without their conductor to lead the way.
On Sunday, Paul showed why he is not only the most valuable player on the Clippers, but possibly the most valuable player in the league. He scored 25 points in 29 minutes to go along with seven assists, five rebounds and four steals. He scored seven of his points in the final six minutes of the game to seal the Clippers' most impressive win in a month -- and certainly the most impressive they've had during what has been an otherwise unimpressive 3-4 Grammy road trip.
Paul was forced to sit on the bench next to Chauncey Billups during the Clippers' 6-6 record without him. Many of those losses came late in the game after the Clippers had blown a fourth-quarter lead and wilted under the pressure on the road. With Paul and Billups back on the court, there was no way they were going to let that happen again.
"Me and Chauncey used to go nuts over there," Paul said. "That's a huge responsibility to put on guys if they haven't been in that situation a lot. [Eric Bledsoe] was trying and working as hard as he could but that's usually not the situation he's in, but it was a great learning experience for him."
With Paul on the floor, a six-point lead in the final minutes of the game doesn't seem like such a precarious position for the Clippers anymore. After blowing a 10-point lead in less than two minutes to Portland on the road without Paul, the confidence in this team's ability to close out games without him simply wasn't there. But with the ball in Paul's hands, no one on the Clippers doubted the final outcome of the game late.
"It just gives us confidence as a team that the ball is going to be taken care of and it's going to go to the right spot," Blake Griffin said. "It's going to be a methodical style of basketball. Everything is very thought out. There are no careless mistakes. It helps when you have two guys who are on top of the game and controlling it."
After the game was over, Paul, still wearing his towel, stopped to chat with Griffin, who was sitting in front of his locker with his towel on as well. The game had been over for no more than a few minutes and they still weren't dry from their postgame shower, but Paul was still going over key plays late in the game with Griffin. He was still coaching him on where to be on the court and how he could best get him the ball.
For all his raw talent, Bledsoe is still a 23-year-old kid who usually reserves his postgame conversation for cracking crude jokes at DeAndre Jordan. One day he'll be able to lead his own team, but for now, it's clear why this team is a championship contender with Paul running the show, and wildly inconsistent when Bledsoe gets to borrow the keys.
"The thing about having me and Chauncey back, at the end of the day, we're going to play the right way," Paul said. "Every night we're going to get what we want. ... I strive for those situations, to be the closer and win games. At the end of the day I just want to win."
Paul doesn't much care for MVP talk. He has been touted as a serious contender before, only to see the award eventually go to Kobe Bryant or James. After Sunday's win he was more interested in talking about the impact he and Billups can have on the court late in games after only playing in a total of five games together over the past year because of injuries.
"We used to battle when we were on separate teams and managing the game in the final minutes," Paul said. "Now that we're on the same team ... it's pretty much a wrap."