Chris Paul, the greatest floor general in the league on offense, has been named to the All-Defensive first or second team six of the last seven years. Is he that good on that end of the ball?
As the years have gone on I have learned to take All-Defense votes with a considerable pinch of salt. The average media member with a vote is simply not informed enough to make a judgement, and players tend to get in based on reputations – some well-earned, some completely undeserved.
In Paul’s case, it is somewhat deserved.
His relative lack of height and explosive athletic ability limit his effectiveness, but for his size he is a generally good, feisty one-on-one defender when focused. Doc Rivers is able to trust to him in guarding opposing point guards one-on-one and even shift him on to shooting guards when the Clippers go small. He is an intelligent player with great anticipation and a generally clear awareness of his own positioning on the floor, making him an excellent off-ball defender.
Here he instantly recognizes that Blake Griffin has lost his man Anthony Davis on the pick-and-roll, and fills the void between AD and the basket to deter Tyreke Evans from making the entry pass, preventing what would have been an easy score. Great help defense:
He has an almost Jordan-like sense for when to double-team an unsuspecting post player and force a turnover, as he does here against Tim Duncan:
Six times he has led the league in steals per game, and his steals tend to be the result of strong hands and calculated help defense rather than the more reckless kind of gambling in passing lanes that helped Allen Iverson reach the top ten on the all-time list of pickpockets.
As a result of his strong reputation, the refs let Paul get away with more contact than most in on-ball situations. This has always been the way the league works – reputations become self-fulfilling when it comes to getting the benefit of the whistle – and it is an asset for the Clippers. Paul bullied Steph Curry at times during their 2014 first round series versus the Warriors, and got away with a probable foul on the deciding play of Game 3.
Steph was still able to put up his usual averages of 23 and 8 against the Clippers, but Paul’s defense was commendable throughout the series. He forced him into two uncharacteristic 7-turnover games and made it difficult for him to find open looks by consistently fighting over screens and getting up in Curry’s chest on the perimeter:
The fact Paul was trusted to guard Curry is testament to him. On the other end, the Warriors hid Curry, routinely a defensive disaster, on Clippers small forward Matt Barnes.
By the same token, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook have had their way with Paul at times over the last two postseasons. Parker, a better penetrator and finisher in the paint than Curry, is not bothered by Paul’s physicality. And Paul has next to no chance of containing the bigger, athletically freakish Westbrook, who blew by him off the dribble time and again in the 2014 Conference Semifinals:
Westbrook was arguably the MVP of the series, averaging 28 points and 9 assists on 49% shooting and thoroughly outplaying Paul in the crucial Game 5.
Paul has also had difficulty locking in defensively against lesser players during the regular season. Here he lazily goes under the screen when guarding a smoking hot Patty Mills, who promptly knocks down the open three:
Mills finished with 25 points in this one. Here he waltzes past Paul to the basket:
We can probably put this down to (partly understandable) regular season coasting, but part of being an All-NBA defender is doing it on a nightly basis throughout the year.
His reputation continues to strengthen, however, partly due to outlandish observations like this from his media-favored coach:
Presumably Doc never saw Clyde Frazier or Gary Payton play, because Paul is nowhere near as impactful as they were on that end of the floor, nor is he as consistently solid as John Stockton, Jason Kidd or the recent retired Chauncey Billups were defensively. Of course, Doc is a pro at playing up his own players’ abilities in the press – he even compared DeAndre Jordan to Bill Russell with a straight face – and he is right to praise Paul for being a legitimate difference maker when he is dialled in.
At just 6’0” tall though Paul is simply unable to bother the shot of many of the taller guards he faces, particularly in post-up situations – despite his physicality and lower body strength sometimes making it difficult for opponents to establish position.
Here the Pelicans’ Darius Miller rises up over him with ease:
According to Basketball-Reference’s advanced stats, Paul’s teams throughout his career have given up more points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor than when he is off it. In 2012/13, the Clippers gave up 5.4 more points per 100 possessions with Paul on court during the regular season, and 15.2 more points per 100 possessions during the playoffs. Again in the 2013/14 playoffs, they gave up 5.7 more points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor. This is not a tell-all stat but it is one of the better ones we have to judge defense, and the numbers fly in the face of Doc’s hyperbole.
I point out these shortcomings to stress that his reputation as a good defender is only partly accurate. What good is an All-Defensive nomination if in practice he is serving as Westbrook’s personal chauffeur to the rim?
In the right matchup though, when he is locked in, he is one of the better on-ball defenders at his position – as we saw in the Warriors series. He is also one of the more intelligent off-ball defenders in the league. For that, he deserves credit. By all means, star point guards have not traditionally been counted on for their defense – see Nick Van Exel, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury, Steve Nash, Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Curry to name a few – so we should commend Paul for his effectiveness on that end even if it is not on a full-time basis.