NEW YORK - Derek Fisher sat in his slightly darkened office at Madison Square Garden and, as usual, reviewed videotape. It was 3 hours before his Knicks welcomed the Clippers to MSG on Wednesday.
The video showed the Clippers' usual array of monster dunks and fastbreak thunder, but it also revealed a maestro at work. Fisher, less than a season removed from playing in the NBA, couldn't help but be awed at the deftness with which Chris Paul orchestrated the movements of every player on the court.
"I was thinking as I was watching tape, 'I don't know why he wouldn't be in the MVP conversation,' " the coach said, "with all he does for his team."
To be fair, Paul usually is in the conversation; but only on its periphery, and, usually, only a cursory inclusion as an also-ran.
Lately, the main dialogue concerns two other point guards.
Some offer Warriors slickster Steph Curry, with his improved defense and unmatched shooting accuracy. Some prefer Russell Westbrook, an explosive scorer with unmatched quickness who has carried the Thunder since reigning MVP Kevin Durant got hurt.
A few will argue for swingman James Harden, the Rockets' scoring machine who has kept his team relevant in the absence of the injured Dwight Howard. And, of course, there always is LeBron James, the most dominant player since Michael Jordan, still in his prime, now back in Cleveland.
None possesses as complete a skill set as Paul, whose team visits the Sixers tonight.
He is the best ballhandler around; indeed, one of the better handlers in NBA history. He is the league's best midrange shooter this season. His assists-per-game average and his assist-to-turnover ratio and steals average are the best among active players and are the third best in NBA history: Only Magic Johnson and John Stockton averaged more assists; only Muggsy Bogues and John Paxson turned it over less frequently; and only Alvin Robertson and Micheal Ray Richardson stole the ball more.
Paul also averages 18.7 points per game this season, right at his career mark. He shoots about four fewer times per game than Westbrook, who leads the league in scoring, and goes to the line about six fewer times than both Westbrook and Harden.
Only Harden plays on a team with less offensive help.
In short, Paul is a brutally efficient player fronting a playoff team with selfless, almost flawless play, a season that has become typical for him. He hardly could play better, but he has been in the top five of MVP vote-getters only four times in his first nine seasons.
Wouldn't he like to win?
"It would be nice," he said, with a sigh. "But I'll take a championship. I'll take that over any and everything."
Certainly, he has suffered because of his selflessness.
Steve Nash won the award in 2005 and 2006, but he is the only guard ever to win it without scoring at least 20 points per game. Also, Paul plays in an era in which gluttonous scoring and highlight plays at the rim reign supreme: hence, Durant, LeBron, Kobe, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose.
There is no viable argument that any of those players should not have won, nor is there any argument against any of the rest of this season's candidates.
"There are a number of guys having great years statistically. Whoever wins is always deserving; there's always more than one guys who's deserving," said Fisher, who played for 18 seasons, half of them against Paul. "Chris is consistent in his high performance. He shoots the ball really well. His team wins a lot of games. He finds ways to make big plays when plays are needed. That's what the best players do."
The best players don't necessarily get their due.
Isiah Thomas, perhaps the best point guard in history, finished better than eighth in MVP voting only once. Thomas went to 12 straight All-Star Games, while Paul has an eight-game run. He has become an institution.
"I think he's one of the forgotten guys," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I just think Chris is one of those guys you've seen for so long, you just take him for granted: 'Oh, yeah, Chris had another good game.' They don't stand out anymore."
Paul stood out Wednesday.
He finished with 11 points, but had 16 assists and four steals in slightly more than 28 minutes.
More significant, Paul had a hand in 59 points in his time on the court. Three times, he set up a shot by drawing the defense and setting up the pass that led to a dunk. Once, Paul set a concrete screen in the low post on a player to whom he surrendered 80 pounds.
"He can do everything," said Fisher, who played his last three seasons with Westbrook. "The versatility of Chris, in terms of shot-making, passing, vision, toughness, to be able to defend - on the defensive end, he makes it hard for you."
When the Clippers took the floor to start the second half with a 30-point lead, they did so joking and laughing. Paul pulled them into a huddle and chastised them:
"You know what's making this fun? What's making this fun is we're getting stops. The dunks and the lobs are all good and well, but the only way we get all of that is if we defend."
Paul and the Clippers visited Westbrook and the Thunder on March 11. Westbrook had averaged 40.2 points in the Thunder's five previous games. Westbrook managed 24 against the Clips, on 5-for-14 shooting, with a career-high 10 turnovers.
When Paul guarded him, Westbrook was 2-for-8 with seven turnovers.
Similarly, Paul outplayed Curry on March 8.
He can do no more, and, so, he dismisses the issues: "I don't even think about it, to be honest."
Others think about it.
"I'd love everybody to get theirs," Rivers said. "And he's been fantastic."
Fantastic might not be good enough.
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