I’ve been around the block with Chris Paul. My first season with NBA League Pass was 2005-06, his first in the NBA. In a matter of quarters, I was in love. It was impossible to watch the 20 year-old maestro for any meaningful amount of time and not regularly toss around words like “special” and “genius.” From Day One, Paul had the look of a 10-year veteran whose sole purpose in life is to run the point. Almost immediately, a combination of speed (blinding), quickness (lightening), court vision (sublime) and basketball IQ (here’s where that “genius” part comes in), combined with a toughness and swagger reminiscent of Isiah Thomas, had Paul on the fast track to become one of the best pure point guards the game’s ever seen.
In the years since, he’s done little that suggests he’s destined for anything less than all-time greatness. In each of his first two seasons, he carried the Hornets to more than double the 18 wins they’d had the year prior to his arrival, and was the catalyst for 2007-08’s surprising 56-win team that thumped the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs and came within a single win of a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
He’s put up fantastic numbers along the way, with career averages of 18.9 points (on 47.3% FG), 9.9 assists (compared with just 2.6 turnovers) and 2.4 steals (he’s led the NBA in total steals three times and is doing so again this season). In 2007-08 (21.1 points, 4 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 2.7 steals, 48.8% FG, Adjusted PER of 30.62 and an NBA-best 11.43 Adjusted Win Shares) and 2008-09 (22.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 11 assists, 2.8 steals, 50.3% FG, Adjusted PER of 32.78 and 11.96 Adjusted Win Shares, second only to LeBron), he produced two of the best individual seasons by a player not taller than 6 feet. That Chris Paul is the best pure point guard since Isiah is indisputable.
By most statistical measures, Paul is enjoying an excellent 2010-11 season as well. He leads the NBA with 2.5 steals per game, ranks third (behind Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash) in both assists per game (9.7) and assists adjusted for 3-pointers (or “assists +”; 10.7) and sports an awesome 4.01 assist/turnover ratio, which is second only to Jose Calderon’s 4.09 mark. While his scoring is down from years past, at just 16.5 points per game, he's racking up his points efficiently, shooting 47.6/89.6/43.6 from the field, the free throw line and behind the arc. According to Hoopdata, Paul trails only LeBron James in PER and Adjusted PER and is looking up at only LeBron and Kevin Love in terms of Adjusted Win Shares.
There’s also no denying that without the help of their floor general, not only would the Hornets not have won 33 of their first 58 games, they’d likely be sharing some not-so-rarified air with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings. In short, Chris Paul is a legitimate superstar, franchise player and, based on advanced statistics, a top-tier candidate for this season’s MVP award.
With all due respect to one of my favorite players, at this point in time Chris Paul is no better than the fourth-best point guard in the NBA and by no means an MVP candidate. Despite his seemingly heady numbers, not only is Paul not living up to his own awesome standards (as good as he’s been, he’s got four-year lows in points, FG%, rebounds, Win Shares, Adjusted Win Shares and assists, as well as a four-year high in Turnover Rate), he’s having a decidedly subpar season as a playmaker.
In his first half-decade in the NBA, Paul’s been among the league’s best at carving up defenses with the dribble and getting into the lane at will, either finishing around the basket himself or setting up a teammate with a high-percentage shot. For the time being, this is no longer the case. This season, Paul is spending less time than ever in the paint, and is more dependent on his teammates for his own scoring, evidenced by the fact that 19.8% of his made field goals have been “assisted”- a five-year high.
Also, he’s attempting just two shots per game “at the rim,” down sharply from 2.9 in an injury-plagued 2009-10 and less than half of his average the previous three seasons. Considering he’s making a (DeAndre) Jordan-esque 69.3% of these attempts, one has to wonder why he’s not attacking the bucket more frequently. Equally troubling, if not more so, is the fact that his legendary ability to create easy opportunities for his teammates has also gone missing, as just 2.9 of his assists (a five-year low) are on buckets made “at the rim,” while a five-year high of 3.3 are coming on shots taken from 16-23 feet away.
Worst of all, Paul has devolved into (and this may be a bit harsh) a three-quarter player whose production actually fades in “crunch time” (defined by 82games.com as fourth quarter situations in which there are fewer than five minutes remaining and neither team has a lead larger than five points). In 86 “crunch time” minutes in 21 games in 2010-11, Paul’s shooting just 39.5% from the field and 16.7% on 3-pointers, while averaging 11.1 assists per 48 minutes (compared with his season average of 12.8 per 48), with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8.
Disheartening as all of this is, the recent past paints an even uglier picture. Over his last 10 games, eight of which have ended in a Hornets loss, Paul has averaged 15.2 points (11.6 over his last five), made just 43.8% of his shots (31.5% over his last five), attempted just 16 shots “at the rim” (just 7 in his last five), registered just 20 assists on shots “at the rim” (again, just 7 in his last five), and had a +/- better than +1 just twice, compared with -5 or worse six times.
In no game was this more apparent than in the Hornets’ final pre-All-Star break contest, a come-from-ahead road loss to a Blazers team with whom the Hornets are battling for playoff position. Here is a series of words that I NEVER expected to utter, in this order: Chris Paul wanted no part of the game, and might as well have not gotten off the bus. Read that again. Did you ever think there would be a set of circumstances under which this could irrefutably be said of CP3?
In 42 minutes on the floor, Paul attempted just six shots, five of them from at least 16 feet away, making two, and scoring just eight points. The rest of his line wasn’t much better, as he grabbed just two rebounds, handed out five assists (against four turnovers) and ended the game averaging a putrid .79 points per possession- second-worst on the team. Sorry Hornets’ fans, but tell me if you’ve heard this before: things got worse for CP3 in the fourth quarter. The Hornets entered the final 12 minutes with Paul on the bench and a 76-70 lead, and held a 78-74 advantage when he returned with 9:32 remaining. Upon his return, he was generally uninvolved in the Hornets’ offense (seriously, when does that happen?), incredibly tallying three times as many fouls/turnovers (three each) as points/assists (one each), with each of those coming in the final 25 seconds, and the game no longer in doubt.
For anyone reading and assuming that my objective here is to torch Chris Paul, I can assure you that this is not the case. I have, in the past, and continue to maintain that when he’s at the peak of his respective powers, Paul is clearly the league’s top point guard and one of the league’s three most disruptive and devastating players, at either end of the floor. However, at this point in time, it’s abundantly clear that all is not well physically with Paul’s surgically repaired left knee. Well, either that, or he’s forgotten how to play the game of basketball. I’m gonna say he’s hurt.
And while this does nothing to denigrate the talents of “healthy Chris Paul,” his current inability to play up to his potential, coupled with the stubborn pride that’s keeping him from taking some time off to rest his knee, is hurting his team. Paul’s incredible toughness and pride appear to be clouding his ability to honestly assess what his team needs most from him.
Whether it stems from being physically unable to shoulder the load or psychologically unwilling to risk public failure, the Hornets cannot survive with Paul performing as he did in Portland, accounting for less than 20% of the team’s points (points + assists) while playing nearly 88% of available minutes, and vanishing until the dying moments of the fourth quarter of a tight game. For the health of both his team and his own body (in the short- and long-term), Chris Paul’s best play right now involves swallowing some pride and taking a seat.