Since the beginning of his career, Chris Paul has annually ranked among the league’s best finishers in assist-to-turnover ratio. Entering this season, Paul had completed 4.09 assists for every turnover he committed, a truly elite rate.
This year Paul is taking his mastery of the Clippers’ offense to another level: he’s at 6.33 assists for every turnover. When he’s been on the floor this season, the Clippers score 113 points per 100 possessions, good for the second-highest rate in the league (behind the Dallas Mavericks at 115.9). When he’s off the floor, the Clippers are down to 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which would only rank 18th overall in the league. Even with other gifted offensive players like Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, Spencer Hawes, and J.J. Redick on the team, Paul is the difference between an elite offense and a below-average offense. In other words: Paul is absolutely worth the $20.1 million the Clippers are paying him this year.
Registering 6.33 assists per turnover doesn’t mean that Paul is making six good passes for every bad pass. No—he’s making many, many more good passes for every bad pass. First, consider that actions like offensive fouls or traveling violations also count as turnovers. The valuable statistics site 82games.com helpfully separates passing turnovers from turnovers of over varieties. Looking at Paul’s player page, we see that Paul has actually delivered 8.1 assists for each of his passing turnovers. This is outstanding.
What you also have to remember about the assist, as a statistic, is that Paul—same with any basketball player—can’t control whether he gets an assist or not. The teammate has to make the shot, and this doesn’t always happen, no matter how brilliant the pass was to spring the teammate open. With Griffin and Redick both putting up career-worst shooting percentages so far this season, we will see tape below where Paul’s excellent pass leads to a missed basket—or a teammate declining to take an open shot and tentatively sending the ball elsewhere. Not every great pass Paul makes gets counted as an assist, but every mistake he makes does get counted as a turnover. Basically, Paul is constantly making great plays to free his teammates.
Let’s look at some of the specific decisions that Paul makes on plays that leads to his stratospheric efficiency.
Anticipation, Timing, Trust
The essential YouTube game-film channel How U recently assembled a montage of a Clippers set called Dribble Drag Back Cut. In the video below, you’ll see a lot of variations on the same set play. A shooter (usually Redick) runs from the baseline, off a screen, and to the arc, where he receives the ball from a passer (usually Paul). Note that this video contains footage from both the 2013–14 and 2014–15 seasons, so the personnel changes a bit from cut to cut:
There’s a great rhythm to this play, and I think it’s because Paul will fire the pass towards the shooter before they’ve even emerged from the other side of the screen. Like this:
Getting that pass off quickly is very crucial; it’s the difference between Redick having an open three or not. Paul’s timing and confidence with his teammates is impeccable.
The Griffin Connection
One play the Clippers run a lot—because it’s next to unstoppable—is a pick-and-roll with Paul and Griffin. Both players are skilled passers and shooters, and the disrupting screen is usually more than enough for one of the two to get off a great shot. Note that Paul and Griffin work to create three great plays here; the fact that Paul only earns one assist is totally besides the point:
Creating Fast Breaks from Nothing
Even in the NBA, even with good NBA point guards, sometimes players don’t initiate a set until about 10 seconds have ticked off the shot clock. The big collects the rebound, looks around for the point guard, passes to the point guard, they both jog to the other end of the floor, the point guard calls the play, and then they go.
Not so with Paul. By keeping his eyes down the court, Paul constantly finds teammates when the defense is perhaps at its least organized—heading back to the other side of the court after a shot attempt. The camera crews, used to the (relatively) slower point guards, can’t always keep up with Paul’s quick, long passes:
Again, Paul only receives credit for one assist, but these are three great plays. You can tell that his teammates are used to these bursts in tempo as well. DeAndre Jordan knows that there is urgency in getting the ball in Paul’s hands, and guys like Griffin and Matt Barnes are hustling down the court, knowing they will get the ball if they get open.