Chris Paul is an all-time NBA great. Here’s why.
Career Averages: 10 seasons
18.7 PPG / 4.4 RBS / 9.9 AST / 2.3 Steals - 47% / 36% / 86%
131 Win Shares / .249 WS/48 (3rd All Time) / 25.6 PER (6th all time)
8 All-Stars / ROY / 1 Deserved MVP
All-NBA Teams: 1st - 4 time
2nd - 2 times
3rd - 1 time
Defensive Teams: 1st - 5 Times
2nd - 2 times
Through a ten year career, no other point guard aside from Magic Johnson has put up those numbers. I checked. Thomas, Stockton, Iverson, and Nash are all worthy opponents to the 2 spot and have their own accomplishments. Nash and Iverson have MVP’s. Stockton has the career records. Thomas has the rings. Yet I argue they all pale in comparison to what Paul has done, with the players he’s done it with, and in the time frame in which he’s done it. Iverson never learned how to play with his teammates; Paul models his game around creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. Nash was one of the league’s worst defenders, CP3 is it’s best at the PG position. Stockton had one of the 3 best power forwards by any measure as well as one of the best coaches for his entire career. It’s much easier to put up 13 assists a game with Karl Malone setting the picks than David West.
Isaiah Thomas is the only one I’ll accept an argument for, because he won two titles in the Bird, Magic, and Jordan era. That’s unbelievably impressive. So too, however, were his complement of teammates. The ’89 and ’90 Pistons teams are some of the greatest of all time, and consequently are the deepest. Thomas was their best player, but accounted for only 11% of his team’s win shares that season, less than half of the load that Paul shoulders. Thomas’ playoff averages in 1989 were 18.3-4.3-8.3, with 4 other Pistons in double figures, and 8 players playing 18+ minutes per game. Dumars even scored 27.3 in the finals, winning MVP honors. They had the best rebounder in the league in Rodman and another big man who could get in your head and still body you in Laimbeer. The Pistons teams were the deepest to ever win a championship, and while I’m not saying they would’ve won with Paul, I am certain Paul could win with less talent.
Chris Paul has checked off most of the accolades an NBA player can on the proverbial ‘HOF checklist’.
Yet Paul’s most cherished goal has thus far eluded him. It is the one stat that doesn’t appear above:
Chapter 1: No More Excuses
Chris Paul’s long held reign on the title of NBA’s best Point Guard came to an end this season. His replacement is transcendent. Stephen Curry is a virtuoso; a once in a lifetime player who epitomizes the shift within the NBA to a 3-point oriented offense. Biting at Curry’s heels is Russell Westbrook, another revolutionary player and the most athletically gifted in the league. Paul fits somewhere in the middle in my mind. He remains a better leader, passer, and on-ball defender than either of the other two, and is still in the latter stages of his prime.
But something has changed for Chris Paul: he no longer has an excuse. For his entire career up until this season, Paul simply has not had the talent to win an NBA championship. His Hornet’s teammates were abysmal, akin to the ’07 Cavaliers (which I’ve affectionately nicknamed “Lebron + Water trash”). His hopes for an NBA title were realized when he landed in Los Angeles alongside a pair of high-flying big men with whom he’d create the most exciting offense since the 7-seconds or less Suns and the Showtime Lakers. Yet the pieces weren’t quite there. His Clippers teams lacked the talent to bang with the Big Three in Miami, the budding superstars in OKC, and the greatest modern dynasty in the Spurs. Until now.
The Clippers put the pieces together in the playoffs this year, weathering a somewhat shaky season to vanquish the defending champion Spurs in the first round. That’s an oversimplification. The Western conference right now is as strong as an NBA conference has ever been, epitomized by the Clippers v. Spurs first round match-up. Both teams were title contenders when the season started and a possible Western conference finals matchup if the chips had fallen differently. For comparison, the 3 vs. 6 seed Eastern conference matchup pitted the 50 win Bulls against the pedestrian Bucks (a series which for some reason went 6 games). The Bulls are no slouch, but the Bucks are, especially when juxtaposed to West's 6th seeded team. Another comparison: The Bulls netted 50 wins with the 10th toughest strength of schedule; the Clippers took home 56 against the second toughest schedule in the league. Anyone who follows basketball knows: The East is a joke. The West is what separates the men from the boys.
After a grueling, back and forth 7 game series, the entire fate of the Clippers season rested on Chris Paul’s shoulders. And all hope seemed lost when he hobbled to the locker room with a hamstring injury. But just like Isiah in 1988, Paul delivered a signature performance through the pain. He finished with 27 points on 69% shooting, and even went 5-6 from three.
And with the game tied at 109, Paul banked in what has to be the most miraculous and career defining shot of his career to give the Clippers the 2 point lead, 111-109. time had not expired, but the game was over. The Clippers came out on top in the most evenly matched series I've ever watched.
To save time, I’m going to let Bill Simmons do the heavy lifting on a recap of the Clip’s first round series. Can’t say it too much better myself anyways. (That’s actually not true, but I’m on vacation so Simmons it is.)
“They [The Clippers and Spurs] played 341 minutes in this series; the Clippers took the lead for good at the 340:59 mark. The Spurs knew what play was coming, and so did the fans, only it didn’t matter. What’s amazing is that Paul always seemed to think it was going in…
…CP3 played brilliantly all series, injured himself at the worst possible time, rallied back and ended up making history. And that seven-game series/battle/war/life experience brought that whole team closer together. Don’t sleep on the Clippers.”
- Bill Simmons
And so Paul cemented his legacy as an all time great by checking the one box he’d never been able to:
Legendary Playoff Moment? Check.
Chapter 2: The MVP
Chris Paul should have won the 2007-2008 MVP. Simple as that. He was the best player that year, propelling a hapless Hornet’s team to the 2 seed in the West. Ironically Paul exited that playoffs against the Spurs, grinding a 3-2 advantage before the youth of the Hornets caught up and they blew the final 2 games.
Here’s how the voting went down:
Yet another illustration of the NBA robbing the true MVP in the attempt at reparations for an all timer who somehow hadn’t won one yet. In this case, the benefactor was Kobe. Why did he win? A number of factors contributed. Kobe’s Lakers were first in the West, and he had an outstanding year. No doubt. Yet, it was his worst of his 2005-2008 run, years in which Bryant had lost the MVP voting to Nash and Dirk. He had scored 35.4 per game and didn’t win. He had won 3 titles but was always the backup vocals to Shaq’s lead guitar. So when Pau, Odom, and Bynum joined with Kobe in ’08 and snatched a 1st place finish in the West by 1 game, it felt like it was finally time to give the award to Kobe. Lebron hadn’t broken through yet. Nash and Dirk were old news. Garnett split time with the Big 3 and didn’t quite put up the numbers for a dominant MVP season.
Enter Chris Paul.
Paul had the best statistical season, as illustrated above, but he also managed to do something Kobe never has. Paul led a team of replacement level players to the second best record in the West, and to a 7 game series with the defending champions…in his third season. Take a good look at the ‘Age’ column, and recall what you were doing at the age of 22. Imagine trying to tell a team of players anywhere from 3-9 years older how to play a game they’ve been perfecting their entire lives. Very few in NBA history have been up to the task.
In reality, NBA writers and broadcasters were tired of PG’s winning MVP's with big assist numbers and team ball. Nash somehow finagled his way to 2 MVP’s, a cute pick as the best player on a fun team. Really, it should have been Shaq in ’05 and Kobe in ’06. The NBA media landscape also wasn’t ready to admit it’s most valuable player was barely legal drinking age. And yet in many ways, Paul’s age should have added to the magnitude of his accomplishment. He was 22, in his 3rd year as a pro, and heading into the season on a team who lost one of its key players (Desmond Mason), and was coming off a 39-43 record. Paul responded by dominating the Western conference, leading the league in assists, steals, and win shares. Along the way, he led the Hornets to a 17 win improvement. Yet Paul settled for second, with Garnett coming in third. Who deserved the MVP? Kobe was a more dominant player on a better team but Chris Paul was better in ’08, and was more valuable to his team. He was the alpha dog that year, and I’ll back him all the way.
Chapter 3: Drill Sergeant
Flash forward 7 years to the 2015 NBA playoffs. The Clippers are up 3-1 against the Rockets. Harden and Howard have been neutralized. The Warriors have finally been tested by the Grizzlies, and have a long history of playing heated series against the Clippers. With a win over the defending champs and the demolition of the Rockets, the Clippers would have all the momentum they needed to take a shot at Kerr, Curry and the rest of the Warriors squad.
Then, like a timid college boy at a dorm party, Chris Paul failed to close. A pattern had emerged last year against the Thunder, and was now beginning to set in for good as part of his tortured legacy. It began against the Spurs in 2008 (up 3-2, lost 2 straight), then the Grizzlies in 2013 (up 2-0, lost 4 straight), Thunder in 2014 (too horrifying to say), and now Rockets in 2015 (up 3-1, lost 3 straight). Chris Paul doesn’t choke per se. Rather he has shown a consistent inability to maintain his own level of play as well as controlling his teammates in crucial situations.
In all of Chris Paul’s brilliant career, he has never reached the Conference Finals.
If you watched the 2015 playoffs, or much of the 2015 season for that matter, you inevitably witnessed Chris Paul barking at DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin. The antithesis of his play style, Paul’s demeanor towards his teammates is Jordan-esque. There are a number of times I’m sure Chris Paul has thought about punching DeAndre Jordan or JJ Redick in the face, just as Jordan did to Kerr in a Bulls practice one day.
Paul has become the drill sergeant rather than the wise, hardworking mentor. He is a broken man, fed up with his career’s shortcomings in the playoffs.
Paul has always played with a chip on his shoulder, ever since he was the 4th overall pick. Those atrocious Hornets teams pushed Paul to work doggedly in pursuit of a title, and he raised the play of those around him in the process. He led by example, not verbally. Now Paul is the old guard. He’ll turn 30 this season, and is poised once again to make a run at the finals. But this time like all the others will be no easy task. The Spurs re-upped and signed Lamarcus Aldridge, the Warriors crushed the field this year and are only getting better, the Cavs possess a hungry, focused Lebron and will have Irving and Love back and healthy. Forget about the Thunder? You shouldn’t. They have as good of a shot as any of those teams with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. How about the Rockets? Harden and Howard is nothing to scoff at. The Grizzlies? They won as many games off the Warriors as anyone in the playoffs and are still a force to be reckoned with.
But the biggest question mark for me is the Clippers as a whole. In my mind, no one can beat them when they are firing on all cylinders. Griffin and Jordan can touch the ceiling of Staples Center. Redick and Crawford don’t miss when they’re hot, and if Lance Stephenson buys in and returns to 90% of his Pacers productivity, the Clippers join the elite group of true contenders.
That just leaves Chris Paul. He’s been pushed to his limit time and time again, and the wear is taking a visible toll. Now in his 11th year as a pro, he is faced with a choice. His point guard throne has been snatched; his excuses are no longer valid.
How will he respond?
I believe Chris Paul is good enough to be the best player on an NBA championship team. The question most will have is whether his teammates believe that.
But most importantly, does he?