Backpicks GOAT #21: Chris Paul

Key Stats and Trends

  • Combination of elite passing, efficient scoring and low turnovers led to elite offenses
  • Ball-dominance and conservatism slightly overstate numbers
  • Developed into a positive defender with decent longevity

Scouting Report

Paul erupted into his prime in 2008, a basketball ballerina who electrified the league with twirling spins and dazzling passes. His quickness confounded big men while his handle gave him unfettered access to nearly any spot on the court. He intuited the value of a rolling big man, playing deadly two-man games where he could bluetooth a bounce pass or a lob for a layup. If opponents overplayed his passes, Paul downshifted past them for an easy score, or bunny-hopped backwards for unreasonably clear jumpers for a 6-footer.

This is all on display in the game highlight below. On the first play (2:18), notice how he keeps looking for his big man, Tyson Chandler, to find a layup. Two plays later, nothing’s open so he seeks out empty space away from the hoop (a Paul special). At 3:00, he’s back to table-setting, hitting Chandler with a lob, a precursor to his Lob City teams in Los Angeles. And at 4:13, he outwits Tim Duncan in basketball roshambo, lob-faking Timmy into oblivion because Paul knows that Timmy knows that Paul will throw a lob:

This is young Paul in a nutshell. He rarely pushed the ball down the other team’s throat, but if he felt a transition chance, he would attack it. Otherwise, he was incredibly measured – the all-time Type A point guard.

His dribbling comes at a slight cost — his high time of possession can eliminate backup options when the on-ball action fizzles out — and his passing fell a notch below the all-time greats in limited film study.1 His assist numbers and highlight passes might create the appearance that he’s a flawless passer, but he takes fewer risks than the greats, and his vision is sometimes clouded by a desire to score. For instance, he misses a clear bouncer here for a layup while eagerly setting up a fade:

Paul’s OCD approach led to historically low adjusted-turnover rates, falling in the 96th percentile among all players, with only a few high-volume creators in history turning it over less frequently. He threw “bad” pass turnovers at half the rate of someone like Steve Nash, which, counterintuitively, might have held him back.2 This is the hardwood version of a quarterback who rarely throws downfield; ball-security doesn’t necessarily offset major bang-for-your-buck passes.3 Assists at the rim are a decent indicator of these kinds of high-leverage, quality dishes, and incidentally, Paul’s layups assists (as a percentage of his overall assists) were below-average every year he was a Hornet.

After knee surgery for a torn meniscus, Paul hobbled through the 2011 season at half speed. But while a shell of himself, his low-center of gravity and strength still allowed him to manipulate defenses, bouncing into certain areas before threading great passes:

Whether it was his knee healing or his conditioning from the extra girth, he was largely back to form by 2012 as a Clipper. Here’s a physically springy Paul nabbing a board and tossing an elite outlet. Notice how his feisty positioning earns him the rebound:

He’s posted three seasons in the top decile in relative defensive rebounding rate, despite standing just 6-feet tall.4 Paul started leveraging his strength on defense like this during his Clipper years, blowing up screening action or chasing loose balls like a fullback finding a fumble. His quickness and anticipation led to great defensive plays, such as the one below, where it almost appears that he baits an entry pass just so he can steal it:

He wasn’t quite as fast during the Clipper years, but those were likely his best defensively. Notice how physical he is with hands in the 50 second clip below from 2015, first maintaining contact with his own mark through screens, then by holding the big man (literally) in the lane. He’s so handsy that he high-fives Nic Batum on the following play, before subtly hooking him on a spin on the final possession of the sequence:

His defense during those years was hawkish at times, while his passing reads seemed more polished and his shot more accurate; Paul jumped over the Barry line in 2015 (hitting 90 percent of his free throws) and his 3-point shooting trended way up in his final few Clipper seasons.

As of the middle of the 2018 season, Paul is at the backend of his prime.

Impact Evaluation

Paul is a tricky nut to crack. His time in New Orleans felt remarkable, but excessive ball-dominance that outputs jaw-dropping stats can lead to diminishing returns, and some of his Hornet teams yielded non-elite offenses. Then his injured years cast doubt on his value, but as a Clipper, his team results were strong and his impact metrics were sky high, hinting at offensive value that borders on all-time greatness.

Paul’s arrival sparked a three-year turnaround for the Hornets. All-Star David West emerged in Paul’s rookie season (2006) and Tyson Chandler added defensive reinforcements in 2007. The Hornets steadily improved during these years (as shown below) before peaking in 2008 at a 60-win pace (7.0 SRS). Behind Paul, the ’08 offense glistened, scoring 5.6 points more per 100 possessions than the average team (rORtg).

New Orleans added 3-and-D sixth man James Posey the next year (whom some people thought would put them over the top), but the team regressed instead. After missing 12 games in February with a sprained ankle, Chandler was sent to Oklahoma City in what could have been a history-altering trade, but the trade was rescinded based on bizarre concerns over his big toe.5 Their defense fell off (even before Chandler’s injury) in full-strength games, and they played at a 51-win pace (3.4 SRS) with a +3.4 rORtg before being cremated in the postseason by Denver.6

In 29 full-strength games before his 2010 knee injury, the Hornets stumbled along at a 34-win clip (-2.2 SRS) with an offense just below league average. Then, New Orleans played 21 games without Paul (led by serviceable backup and rookie Darren Collison) and was slightly better overall in his absence.7 They even improved on offense, posting a +1.6 rORtg in all 37 games CP3 missed.8 With Paul back (but hobbled) the 2011 Hornets were a below-average attack (-1.0 rORtg); even with sexy box metrics, he wasn’t some miracle-working floor-raiser back then.

He then moved to LA and made an immediate impact; the Clippers rORtg leapt from -0.7 to +3.9 and they played at a (then) franchise-best 49-win pace (2.8 SRS), up from a 36-win pace (-1.7 SRS) in 2011.9 While LA excelled, the Hornets didn’t fall off much given that David West departed too. (New Orleans added Eric Gordon, a solid scorer, and Chris Kaman, a fringe All-Star post-scorer.)

In 2013, the Clips moved into high-society, crossing the 60-win threshold when healthy for the first of three consecutive seasons. LA’s offense peaked at +6.8 in 2015, the 21st-best relative efficiency ever and the height of a five-year run in which the Clippers averaged a +4.6 rORtg. (Only ten teams have produced better five-year stretches.) They weren’t regular-season pretenders either, posting a playoff relative efficiency of +5.7 from 2013-17. Instead, it was the defense that tailed off in the postseason, as LA dropped two razorthin series in consecutive conference semifinals.

Paul’s regular season box stats peaked in his early years, but his defense improved later in his career. According to adjusted-plus minus (APM), his defensive value went from slightly below-average in his breakout seasons to excellent as a Clipper; his five-year scaled defensive APM was the 14th-best among non bigs and 50th overall.10 His offensive plus-minus was even better, posting the eighth-best five-year peak on record, about a point behind Nash and LeBron James.

Per the scouting report, CP3’s refined floor game improved over the years, and his playoff statistical profile peaked years after his voluminous ’08 and ’09 regular seasons. His three-year peak from 2014-16 stacks up well against some of the all-time greats:

There’s a tendency to anchor Paul to Nash or other ball-dominant QBs, but these Big 4 shapes reflect the scouting report: Paul is far more conservative than Nash, and this style doesn’t automatically unlock elite offense.

Though overwhelmed by San Antonio and then the Golden State dynasty (to say nothing of Oklahoma City), Paul’s Clippers were viable title contenders at their apex. Those teams, like a few in New Orleans earlier, posted monster offenses behind Paul’s orchestration, although some of his lesser results suggest that he was a hair behind other ball-dominators on this list as a floor-raiser. Like Magic, he also suffers from needing the ball to be effective, limiting some of his ability to jell with other on-ball talent. Although, Paul’s accurate shooting and basketball acumen have helped him retain solid value next to another ball dominant star in Houston.

Paul’s defense is tricky to pin down; his APM values move from subpar to elite, but his true impact is probably closer to the middle. The more physical version of CP3 was bulldog-like, and that strength has value when pushing guys off spots, rebounding and fighting through screens.11 Despite being a clear positive defender, I think in most situations he wouldn’t move the needle too much on that end.

Despite some durability glitches, Paul has logged eight all-league seasons by my count, including five fringe MVP years, making him by far the best 6-footer in NBA history. His combination of scoring and passing demonstrated on film, along with healthy box and impact metrics indicate a strong peak, in the running for third-best among point guards and one of the 25 best overall peaks in NBA history. I could see valuing him a touch less, bringing him as low as 26th or 27th (at worst), but I’m more sympathetic to inching him up slightly. He needs another good season to reach the 19th spot, but for now he lands at No. 21.

Star Player Effects on Teammate Efficiency

I had some fun playing with nbawowy.com last night. I promise, it’s not as dirty as it sounds.

Using available data from the last three seasons, I set out to answer a simple question: How does teammate efficiency change when star players are on or off the court? In other words, what impact does the presence of a player have on his teammate’s shooting?

There are a number of players we could do this for, but I wanted to visualize five in particular, four of whom are ball-dominant creators (James, Paul, Harden and Westbrook) and Steph Curry, who is renowned for his court-warping gravity off the ball. Here were the results using players who played at least 1,000 minutes with the player in question, with all five player graphs stacked side-by-side of comparison:

 

Surprise! LeBron had the largest effect of the group (expected based on more holistic analysis like RAPM. Eight of his ten teammates improved by at least 0.05 points per scoring attempt (or at least 2.5% in True Shooting efficiency). Of the five players who improved by at least 0.15 points per attempt, three played with LeBron. Of course, all the normal caveats apply here as there may be cofounds within the lineups and these numbers aren’t opponent-adjusted. Still, it’s a nice snapshot to have.

Steph Curry had the highest floor (no regular teammate below 1.12) and the highest ceiling (1.34) — no surprise there, as the Warriors have a strong candidacy for greatest offense in NBA history. He also had a hugely positive impact on Kevin Durant this year, who scored at 1.24 per attempt this year without Curry, right in the ballpark of his previous two seasons without Russell Westbrook. (Note that Durant was less efficient alongside Westbrook.) Among star teammates, only Kevin Love (with LeBron) came close to the boost Durant and Klay Thompson experienced when on the floor with Curry.

Finally, I’ve included the individual graphs below for all five players in order to see each specific teammate.