The statistics place Chris Paul among the absolute greats to ever play his position, but he is yet to experience their level of playoff success. How does he stack up against them given the gap between his stats and his résumé?
Paul is a four-time All-NBA first teamer and the best pure point guard in the league whose skills are well known to anyone reading this blog. He is a true floor general and orchestrator of his team’s offense. He is a maestro with the ball, one of the best distributors in recent league history and a multi-faceted scorer. He is also a relatively good defender – though not quite fully deserving of his six All-Defense nominations, as I recently laid out here.
617 games into his career, Paul is putting up averages of 18.6 points, 9.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals on 47.2% shooting. A true stat sheet filler, he already has 297 double-doubles to his name.
Historically, he is amongst elite statistical company. He is one of just five players to amass 11,000 points and 6,000 assists over his first nine seasons, and he currently ranks first all-time in PER among all guards – not a tell-all stat by any means but one that demonstrates his all-round statistical brilliance. Moreover, only five players have ever averaged 21 points and 11 assists on at least 48% shooting for a season. Only two have ever done it more than once: Paul and Magic Johnson.
As it stands he is among a group of just four players with career averages of 18+ points and 9+ assists. A case can be made that the other three – Magic, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas – are the top three point guards in NBA history, so this is the most elite company imaginable. Yet those three won titles – eight between them. Will Paul ever win one? Or is his game more conducive to piling up stats than winning playoff series?
He is in a weird place historically. Quite simply, his statistical greatness suggests he is already a top-four all-time point guard and a top-25 all-time player, yet in reality there is a severe disconnect between his stats and his résumé. He is not an obvious “empty stats” candidate like a Kevin Love or a Carmelo Anthony (both great players in their own right), or a Stephon Marbury of yesteryear. But, fairly or unfairly he may be the poster boy for that group by pure definition. Of the eight players to average a PER of at least 25 over at least 500 games, Paul is the only one without a title. Statistically, he belongs. Résumé-wise, he is an outlier.
He simply does not have the hardware or team success to bolster his obvious statistical claim to all-time greatness. As he enters the 2014/15 season, his tenth in the NBA, he is still yet to taste life beyond the second round of the postseason.
Paul is 22-31 in the playoffs. This is by no means an abomination; he has spent his entire career in the Western Conference and has generally been eliminated by higher-seeded teams. But truly special players find a way to transcend – like Magic did in the 1980 Finals without Kareem and like Isiah did in the 1988 Finals on one ankle.
Paul has been celebrated for a number of years as a top three or four player in the league, and is statistically one of the greatest point guards ever without question. At his level of apparent greatness, it is only fair to hold him to the highest of standards and judge him by his postseason failures.
His biggest failure came last season when, despite a 1-0 lead and a massive coaching advantage, his Clippers still could not get past Oklahoma City in the second round. In the crucial Game 5, Paul spearheaded one of the more memorable choke jobs in recent playoff history as L.A. somehow lost after leading by 7 points with 45 seconds remaining. Re-live his two turnovers in the final 17 seconds:
Had he not been so desperate to go into his patented, ridiculously exaggerated “look at me, I’m shooting from 75 feet!” motion in a back-firing bid to draw a three-shot foul on Westbrook in the backcourt, the Clippers would have sealed the win. Paul is a high IQ player, but he out-thought himself here. Purists who are fed up of his flopping, whining ways did not shed a tear for him that night. His incessant desire to get questionable calls out of the refs is a distraction to me as a viewer so it may well possible impediment to his postseason success.
One informed observer posited: “Lots of great players complain about refs. But Chris Paul seems to carry it around with him all game, and I think it becomes more of a distraction for him and his team than anything.”
In Game 6, with a tied game going into the fourth quarter on his home floor, his team still lost. Taking away his numbers in garbage time with the outcome decided, he put up 11 points and 9 assists on 3-for-11 shooting and failed to stamp his impact on the game. It was not a superstar performance. He did not find a way to inspire his teammates or will them to a victory. He was outplayed by the oft-maligned Russell Westbrook, a player who lacks Paul’s pure point guard instincts but was the MVP of the series.
Until Paul redeems himself and reaches the later rounds of the playoffs, the OKC series will remain a defining moment for him – but it is by no means the only black mark on his résumé. In the 2009 first round, with a chance to tie the series in Game 4 at home, his New Orleans Hornets lost by 58 points to Denver as Paul submitted a listless 4-point, 6-turnover performance. He followed up by shooting 5-for-16 as they were blown out again and eliminated in Game 5. In Game 6 of the 2011 first round, again with a chance to tie the series at home, he coughed up a 10-point, 5-turnover showing in a blowout elimination loss to the Lakers. In the 2013 first round, he was effectively played to a draw by Mike Conley, whose Grizzlies advanced in six games despite the Clippers’ homecourt advantage.
Would the Clips have fallen in such ignominious fashion the past two seasons with ’87 Magic or ’88 Isiah or even ’94 John Stockton or ‘03 Jason Kidd running the show? I doubt it.
NBA historian and friend of the blog, Non-Player Zealot, whose famous “Magic Man” compilation showcases the gold standard for point guard play, cogently tells us that Paul is not on that level:
“Paul is statistically great. But how is his statistical greatness lifting his team? He just does not have that Magic or Isiah aura to me. I don’t see his play and think ‘holy crap…’. He’s also not the leader and level-headed consistent playmaker that Stockton and Kidd were in the playoffs. I think he can be lured into more of a scoring role in a 7-game series, making him less of a threat to get his teammates involved. He is not bad by any means at mixing his attack during the regular season, but doing it in the postseason is another matter.”
The stats back up NPZ’s suspicions. In the playoffs, Paul averages 15.5 field goal attempts (up from 13.8 per game over the regular season) and a whopping 25.5% usage rate. By comparison, Magic averaged 13.4 attempts and a 21.4% usage rate – despite possessing a height advantage and a level of effectiveness in the post that are both foreign to Paul (and every other great point guard to play the game). Knowing when to take a back seat is a delicate art.
As much as we view Paul as a “pass-first” player, to put up this volume of shots whilst also determining when, where and how his teammates get fed represents an absolute monopolization of the basketball. He takes on as high a responsibility for his team’s collective offensive fate as any point guard in NBA history.
For his career, Paul assists on 46.5% of his team’s made baskets whilst he is on the floor. Only John Stockton (50.2%) ever assisted on a higher proportion of his teammates’ field goals. Yet Paul, an expert mid-range shooter and finisher at the basket, has a far more aggressive scoring mentality than Stockton had. At times he seems to combine Stock-type floor general-ship with Oscar-level scoring responsibilities.
Can he win a title playing this way? In 2013/14 he had on his side one of the greatest coaches in the league (Doc Rivers), the third-placed player in MVP voting (Blake Griffin), the league’s leading rebounder (DeAndre Jordan), the Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford) and a hand-picked sharp-shooting two-guard (J.J. Redick) and it still was not enough for him to come close.
Contrary to his popular reputation as someone who routinely makes his teammates better, Paul’s ball dominance occasionally makes it more difficult for others to find their grove. Watch here as his over-dribbling and monopolization of the ball brings the offense to a screeching halt in three fourth quarter possessions against the Mavericks:
With Paul out of the lineup in the middle of last season, Griffin was freed to be the fulcrum of a more free-flowing offense, going on a 16-game stretch where he averaged 28.8 points and 4.4 assists on 56.4% from the field (all would be career-best marks by some margin). It was the most effective he had been as a scorer since his rookie year – his last season without Paul. Outside of his expert lob passes, does Paul really make Griffin better?
No player is perfect, and Paul remains the best traditional point guard in the league regardless of these question marks. But to what extent does it matter that he is the “best” at his position if he cannot consistently come out on top in battles with his elite peers? Neither Westbrook nor Tony Parker master the position in a traditional sense the way Paul does, but they have eleven Conference Finals appearances between them. In a league that is so often determined by matchups, Paul is unable to stay with Westbrook off the dribble or challenge Parker’s pull-ups and floaters out of the pick-and-roll.
Paul is right there statistically with the greatest point guards – and greatest players, period – to ever play. But statistics never tell the full story, especially when a player has the ball in his hands for such a large amount of the time and therefore accrues numbers somewhat by default. Sometimes stats are empty. What good are great stats if they are not accompanied with relative impact and team success? LeBron James averaged 28, 8 and 6 in the 2014 Finals but only truly determined the flow of one game in the series – he was not as good as his stats said he was.
However, stats continue to define players in many fans’ eyes, which leads to the historical over-valuation of Paul in some circles. “The only thing separating CP3 from Magic is rings,” argues one overzealous observer – as if the rings are a minor detail.
Magic’s teams were propelled to five titles by his unparalleled leadership and intelligence, his uncanny clutch shot-making ability, and the fact that at 6’9” he created a mismatch every single time he stepped onto the floor. His ability to draw double teams and carve up a defense from the post was a greater weapon than any in Paul’s arsenal and far better way to find desirable shots for teammates than Paul’s tendency to dribble at the top of the key for ten seconds at a time. Magic had greater teammates, but by virtue of his era he also faced greater teams, and was able to impact and dictate the flow of games in ways that Paul cannot.
All things considered, Paul is not even the greatest point guard of the post-Magic era.
Stockton led his teams to the Finals twice with his clutch shooting and masterful pick-and-roll play. He was the Mr. Clutch to Karl Malone’s Mr. Not-so-Clutch. And if we’re talking statistics, he averaged 16 points, 13 assists and 52% shooting over his nine-year prime from ’88 to ’96. Only eight times in his entire 1,500-game career did he take 20 shots in a game; Chris Paul has already done it 60 times. Furthermore, Stock set the standard for durability, only missing 24 games in his 19 years. Paul, whose durability is a concern, has missed 105 of a possible 722 career games due to injury to date.
Kidd was twice the best player on a Finals team, a far superior rebounder to Paul and more of a difference-maker on the defensive end. As much as he piled up assists and triple-doubles, Kidd was a player who could not be defined by his stats but by his innate ability to control the tempo and thus the game, sometimes without even scoring a point.
Meanwhile, Steve Nash never made the Finals and was never a good defender, but has two MVPs to CP3’s zero, made the Conference Finals in 2006 when his best teammates were Shawn Marion and Tim Thomas, and would likely have done so again in 2007 if not for the NBA’s ridiculous suspension ruling. Nash, who is the only player to average more assists than Paul since Paul entered the league in 2005, was a better leader in his prime, less likely to be drawn into scoring mode at the expense of his team. For a player of his elite all-time shooting ability to average just 13 shots a game in the playoffs is testament to his commitment to making those around him better.
I would also take Gary Payton over Paul based on Paul’s career to date. A far more impactful defender, more durable player and a demon in the post, Payton led the Sonics to three 60-win seasons and the 1996 Finals. He also unquestionably made life easier for Shawn Kemp in ways that Paul has not done consistently for Blake Griffin.
All this having been said, with Paul’s skillset, body of regular season work and statistical dominance he is already destined for the all-time top ten point guards list. The list by my estimation should read something like this as things stand:
- Magic Johnson
- Oscar Robertson
- Isiah Thomas
- Walt Frazier
- Jason Kidd
- Steve Nash
- John Stockton
- Gary Payton
- Bob Cousy
- Chris Paul
The other nine players on the list led their respective teams to a combined 55 Conference Finals. It is time for Paul to notch up appearance No. 1 if he is to start pushing himself from the lower tier of that list to the middle tier – even if the stats do say he is already in the upper tier. That is the disconnect.