Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chris Paul's Been Knocked Back In Time- Let's Keep Him There

In the days leading up to the NBA’s All-Star break, I suggested that Chris Paul’s surgically repaired left knee was responsible for the alarmingly passive and erratic play we’d been seeing from the world’s best point guard. In that article, I suggested that Paul might benefit from setting aside his pride and toughness, taking a seat for a while, and providing his knee with a period of rest and recovery. Needless to say, Paul- an assassin at the point in the mold of Isiah Thomas- has little interest in taking a step back while his team battles for playoff position.

More recently, in a fantastic piece published on ESPN's TrueHoop, Ryan Schwan- one of the best Hornets observers that we have in this league (yeah, I just went Hubie Brown on you)- of Hornets247 discussed the possibility that the Chris Paul we'd come to love and count on may not be returning, and that perhaps we should reassess our expectations of him- from the "next Isiah Thomas" to the "next John Stockton." In the piece, Schwan laments the deterioration of Paul's legendary first step and suggests that the Hornets' superstar, despite still being just 25 years of age, may need to rely less on athleticism, and more on guile and his off-the-charts basketball IQ, as his career moves forward.

Apparently Chris Paul does not take kindly to the eulogizing of his greatness- even when it's drenched in empathy. Either that or he needed to be smacked back to 2009.

Now, it’s not often that you hear the case in favor of severe head trauma. However, this week, after watching Chris Paul's evisceration of the Sacramento Kings (33 points, 13-21 FG, 7 rebounds 15 assists, 5 steals, two turnovers), followed up by individually brilliant performances against the Denver Nuggets (27, on 9-16 FG, 5 rebounds 10 assists and SEVEN steals, albeit in a loss) and Phoenix Suns (26-5-9, with three steals), I would like to personally shake the hand of his concussion.

Obviously I kid.

With that said, however, Paul's March 6 collision with Cavs' point guard Ramon Sessions, in addition to providing the NBA with its single scariest visual of the 2010-11 season, carried with it an unintended benefit. In having to take a few days off to nurse his noodle back to health, Paul was forced to rest his knee. The end result- at least in the short run- has been a return to the form that few players in NBA history at his position have equalled. More on this in a second.

In the three games since his return from that concussion suffered in Cleveland, a knee-brace-less Paul is not only putting up huge numbers (28.7 points, 11.3 assists, 5 steals and just 1.7 turnovers per game, with 59% FG), the disruptive manner in which he's getting them is indicative of guy a that- in the short term, at least- is unencumbered by physical discomfort and has returned to his dominant best. Unlike in recent weeks, when he was spending much of his time on the perimeter, Paul has returned to tormenting defenses- slaloming through defenders, knifing into the lane, creating easy shots for teammates (9 assists inside of 10 feet in his first two games back, according to Hoopdata; using, I counted four more Wednesday night), as well as for himself (15 made shots from within 10 feet in the last three games). And this is not the first time in recent weeks that some down time has served Chris Paul well.

It's worth noting that in the immediate aftermath of a few days of (relative) R&R in L.A., Paul looked more like his old self than he had in some time. Though still not operating at the peak of his powers, he scored 36 points, on 14-of-30 from the field, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out 18 assists (against just three turnovers) in leading the Hornets to double-digit wins over the Clippers and Timberwolves in their first two post-All-Star Game outings. Clearly the rest had done him some good- though I’m sure the less-than-elite competition helped too. He wasn’t yet back to his transcendent 2009 self, but was at least playing at an All-Star level again.

This is admittedly based on a couple of small samples, and it remains to be seen just how long he's able to maintain his run of other-worldly play- and yes, I do realize that his 23-point, 14-assist performance in an impressive 98-91 road win over the Grizzlies on the heels of “Caveat Emptor Night” at MSG flies in the face of my theory- but Chris Paul's best runs of post-op play (the beginning of this regular season, post-ASW, post concussion) have come in the immediate aftermath of some time away from the floor. Groundbreaking stuff, I know- rest is good for achy knees.

However, if this trend holds and Paul begins to fade over the next couple of weeks, it may provide a template for to how to manage his regular season floor time going forward. I've long been a proponent of preserving a player's physical resources by limiting his games played, rather than minutes. The wear and tear on these guys' knees stems not from minutes 31-39 in a given game, but from simply preparing for a game, warming up and getting up to full speed. We're talking about some of the world's greatest athletes- once they’re on the floor and into the flow of the game, a couple of minutes here and there aren’t a huge deal. It could be hugely beneficial for the Hornets to sit Paul (I originally said this of the Lakers with Kobe Bryant) altogether for a couple of games each month, rather than asking him to go through all of his pregame preparation and go all out for 30-32 minutes (instead of 36) against the likes of Cleveland, Toronto or Detroit.

I fully realize that this knee injury could be one of the "two-year injuries" we often hear about, and would render this entire theory moot. That's the best-case scenario. If, however, Paul continues to react poorly to prolonged periods of sustained action, the Hornets will be forced into a tough decision: 75-80 games of a Stockton-esque, very-good-but-not-vintage-great Chris Paul? Or ~60 games of the guy that, along with Magic Johnson, has authored the greatest regular seasons by a point guard in NBA history?


Anonymous said...

your whole kind of went out the window when chris paul stated that he's felt more freedom in his movements since deciding to take off his brace recently. that may simply be all the explanation we needed. this is definitely not the first time a guard has expressed discomfort in wearing a brace not to mention the improved play once the brace has been taken off

Anonymous said...

I understand how you support the resting of player for games rather than minutes. But what about the fans that pay their hard-earned money to come see their superstar play? What would be a rational solution to their disappointment?