Most experts openly regard Chris Paul as the best point guard in the NBA. This is an even greater accomplishment when you remember that the league has better point guards than ever. The last names Curry, Irving, Rondo, Wall, Williams, Rose, Lillard, Westbrook, and Parker, along with Paul, make up our top ten point guards, all potential All-Stars in any given year.
Yet Chris Paul definitely has been the best— after all, he's running off two straight All-NBA 1st-team selections—but he hasn't been at his best for years. Take a look at this:
2007-10 Chris Paul: 21.2 PPG, 11.2 APG, 15.7 FGA, .495 FG%, .377 3P%, 38.0 MPG.
2010-13 Chris Paul: 17.3 PPG, 9.5 APG, 12.7 FGA, .474 FG%, .360 3P%, 35.2 MPG.
I'm no statistical guru, but Chris Paul's numbers are down across the board. Most notably, he's taking three fewer shots per game, playing less minutes, and dishing out fewer assists. If we look even closer, his three-point percentage has steadily decreased since he turned 25, finally bottoming out last season at a league-average 32 percent.
The league leader in assists during two of those years, Steve Nash, had the worst supporting cast of his career, and was over 35. Paul's stats would be completely acceptable from someone turning 32 or 34, but not someone entering his prime. Paul is 28 years old.
The age of 28 actually may mean more than you think. It's peculiar for a reason: during the year before their 28th birthdays, Kobe came off the ultimate scorer's season, averaging 35 ppg; LeBron and Jordan both snatched their first titles; Bird had just bested Magic in the 1984 Finals, a true all-time great duel. Looking past The Legends Club, what was George Gervin's best scoring season? Prior to his 28th birthday, roasting the NBA for 33 ppg (most of his career hovers below 27 ppg).
From a scouting perspective, the burly, chiseled Paul holds that elusive top guard spot for two reasons alone: 1. He possesses a transcedent ability to defend the 1, leading the league in steals five of the last six seasons; and 2. he's the most versatile set-up man the NBA has ever seen.
As soon as he crosses half court, opposing defenders become cones from yesterday's shootaround. If shooting, his mid-range game and shot selection inside nine feet are unusually well done. If passing, he finds the open shooter much like Steve Nash and Magic Johnson did before him. Instead of working set plays or a system, Paul prefers to control the entire flow of an offense.
Paul has the potential to make this the best season of his career, but if he doesn't, there may be some consequences.
Unfortunately, that scouting report just fuels up criticism. The words 'control' and 'flow' are also buzzwords surrounding Paul: he's too harsh of a leader, sometimes approaching the nagging range of Oscar Robertson. On the court, he's almost always jawing at someone, whether it is his teammates or an opposing ref. He's also gained quite a reputation as a flopper, something that isn't particularly popular among players.
For the most part, Paul hasn't reciprocated what one would normally expect out of the third best player in the league. He's never been to a Conference Finals, and since booting himself out of New Orleans (to find a better supporting cast), he tanked a head coach (Vinny Del Negro) and is consistently at odds with the local superstar Blake Griffin.
He currently has the best supporting cast of his career, and probably won't get it this good again. He's got a young sidekick superstar in Blake Griffin, an army of shooters that would make Rajon Rondo salivate (J.J. Redick's on a good team, at last), and a coach (Doc Rivers) who can both get his team to play defense and lead the team in ways Vinny Del Negro never could. Paul has the potential to make this the best season of his career, but if he doesn't… well, there may be some consequences.
If an NFL quarterback had an awful season, we’d consistently disregard their talents until performance picked up back to speed. If someone’s batting average went down over four months, their place in the batting order would change accordingly. Tennis players, golfers (even when talking about household names like Rafael Nadal or Rory McIlroy) are only as relevant as their last win.
However, in the NBA, the ideal superstar is wired and scrutinized in a different cloth than a superstar of any other league. Say a superstar has an unwatchable game, or worse, an utterly distasteful season — one that could marked off for bad leadership, horrific shot selection, inadequate defense, or even trying too hard to win games for the team. If a critic was especially cranky, they might throw their head into a wall while criticizing a player for a combination of these things (we’ve missed you, angry Knicks fans).
But again, there's different wiring; the NBA doesn’t lose faith in its men. Fans, as do journalists, lay faith in athleticism, defense, you name it. For every time fans, retracing memories of dominant games, correctly defend gems like Kevin Garnett, we automatically assume that players who show flashes of brilliance like Rudy Gay will fall in the same mold.
To be frank, it frustrates fans even more if a superstar underperforms, if only because fans, critics, and journalists made excuses for that superstar for years and years, only for them underperform.
All of this leads us to back to the man in the hot seat, Chris Paul.
Paul's my pick for MVP, and hopefully, his resurgent style and leadership is tinkered to take the Clips for a serious ride this postseason. The stakes for Paul are higher than they've ever been before: if he wins an MVP, he's to be reckoned with, and if he wins a title, he unseats LeBron as the best in the league immediately. Let's see if he can finally make that leap.