Resume: 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists (1st in league), 1.9 steals (5th in league), 40 double-doubles (7th in league), 34.8 minutes, 49% FG, 40% 3PT, 90% FT (5th in league, career best) … Team record in Games Played: 56-26 … Playoffs: 22.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 37.1 minutes, 50% FG, 42% 3PT, 94% FT, 6-6 record (1-1 without) … 6th in MVP Voting, 2nd Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense, All-Star
This decision to rank Chris Paul the fourth best player in the league, ahead of the former Oklahoma City Thunder trio Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, will probably come as a surprise to some. That’s what makes doing these rankings each year so much fun; I’ve never claimed that my rankings are supposed to be absorbed as fact. It’s just one guys opinion — one guy who watches a whole lot of basketball each year, spends an unhealthy amount of time each day thinking about the NBA (seriously, if the NBA were a woman I’d be guilty of adultery), and developed a specific criteria to follow when ranking the 50 best players in the NBA.
Now let me make something very clear … I’ve never agonized over a Countdown-related decision as much as I have this one, and that says a lot because I have a really bad habit of thinking way too much about this stuff. I’ll be honest, I thought clearing that up would make me feel about the decision I ultimately made. It didn’t. I’m still conflicted. But here’s the thing … I know that by ranking Chris Paul ahead of Durant, Westbrook and Harden, that means I’m backing the best point guard of the last ten years and one of the ten best point guards to ever play the game. Even if history says Paul, now on the wrong side of 30 years of age, should start to decline sooner rather than later, I haven’t seen any signs of decline yet, so there’s no reason to expect it will happen this coming season.
Even though Paul has quite a few miles on his odometer, he’s arguably just as good now as he ever has been. He coasted through parts of games during the regular season last year, but that’s par for the course if you’re a thirty year old point guard with creaky knees and plays on a team that’s going to win 50 plus games no matter whether you’re coasting or playing like it’s a Game 7 in the Playoffs. In big spots or whenever the Clippers are playing a top tier opponent, Paul is always dialed in and he’s more often than not the best player on the floor, and that’s not just evident in the box score after the game.
Paul yet again led the league in assists per game (the fourth time in his career, and the ninth straight time he’s finished in the top five), was top five in steals (the eighth time in his career that he’s been top five) and he was one of two point guards, along with John Wall, in the top ten in double-doubles. All of that is fine and good and it makes for an incredible resume that isn’t drastically different from any other Chris Paul season, but simply evaluating the numbers don’t do Paul justice. We haven’t given enough attention or credit to Paul for the level of mastery he has achieved running a pick and roll based half-court offense, or for how he’s a notably better defensive point guard than anyone else currently in the league or over the last decade, or how he’s one of the few guys in the league that is routinely referred to as overcompetitive.
When Paul runs a pick and roll it’s surgical; he methodically gets to whatever spot on the floor is best for him and he makes whatever play is best for the Clippers. He’s in the 99th percentile of everyone who has ever played in the NBA in seeing the floor, making the correct read and delivering the perfect pass, no matter the degree of difficulty or where the open guy is on the floor. He can finish at the rim at a high rate of success and just as easily get to his favorite spot on the floor, either of the elbows, and finish the defense off with his brutally efficient mid-range jumper. It’s not hyperbole to claim that Paul is the best mid-range shooter in the league, considering he led the league in un-assisted mid-range jump shots and hit them at a higher rate last year than he ever had.
Scoring with such efficiency when Chris Paul is defending … not so easy. Paul’s defensive accolades are well-documented; he was first team All-Defense last season and there hasn’t been a better defensive point guard since Gary Payton. In half of the seasons he’s played in he’s had more steals than turnovers, and there isn’t a better isolation defender at any position in the league. Paul held opponents to under 25 percent shooting in isolation situations, per NBA.com.
The stuff I’m telling you, minus the exact figures, you knew already if you’ve seen Paul play. You also know the popular narrative that Chris Paul can’t win in the Playoffs. He’s never played in the NBA Finals or the Conference Finals. He’s only a few years away from joining a prestigious, yet infamous group of players who have never won a ring. And if you watched the NBA Playoffs last year you know that Paul and the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in the Conference Semi-Finals against the Houston Rockets.
I don’t want to say that blowing that lead is forgivable, but when Chris Paul hit what I deemed to be the 7th greatest Playoff game-winning shot of the 2000s in Game 7 against the Spurs in the 1st Round, Paul became damn near impervious to stupid ring-based criticisms. It wasn’t just the shot, either … it was Paul gutting through a hamstring injury that was bad enough that he missed the first two games of the next series. It was all 27 points Paul scored in Game 7, and the 19 points and 15 assists he had in San Antonio in Game 6. It was Paul breaking down after the buzzer sounded because, as I mentioned before, he legitimately gives a shit about basketball and being the best, and he’s been damn close to getting there for quite some time.