On Saturday night, with the Clippers and Spurs deadlocked at 109, in a series tied at three games apiece, insurance pitchman and perpetually grumpy point guard Chris Paul drove to the basket on a bum left leg and lofted a floater over Tim Duncan’s outstretched arms. It hit the backboard and dropped through the net, lifting the Clippers to a win in a series that had no business being as entertaining as it was. In the eyes of many, the shot was the defining moment in Paul’s 10-year pro career, finally conferring greatness on a player they thought hadn’t achieved it. This is flat-out wrong.
If the shot had clanged off the rim Paul’s legacy would be no different, his greatness no less. He was a prolific talent before his game winner and if the Rockets send the Clippers home and he’s forced to retire after a freak nut punching accident, he’ll still go down as an all-time great. Forget rings, forget awards, forget records—all an individual player can do is play. And statistically speaking, Paul has played better than nearly every point guard who's ever put on a jersey.
The case against Paul has always been shallow—hinging on his perceived lack of clutch and on-court Oscar bait rather than anything related to his game. As he continues piling up stats a full decade into his career, and remains elite as his contemporaries fade away (see Rondo, Rajon and Williams, Deron), the case only gets worse. And now, haters have lost their go-to complaint when ripping Paul, that he’s never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. It was never a very good point anyway. Players don’t win playoff series, teams do. And until recently Paul has been on some pretty putrid teams.
For his six years in New Orleans, Paul’s best teammates were David West and PejaStojakovic. Solid players, but hardly the sidekicks an emerging superhero needs. And yet, in those six years he averaged 9.9 assists per game. For the sake of comparison, Magic Johnson averaged a slightly better 10.3 assists per game in his first six seasons. Playing alongside him? Hall-of-Famers Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and James Worthy, among others.
That isn’t to say Paul is Magic, but he’s about as close as we’ve seen. He scores, he passes, he defends and he dribbles. He’s an intense competitor, a flashy showman, and an occasional scamp. He is the point God.
Let’s start by talking about the scoring, because basketball is points, and despite his jockey-like stature, Paul can fill it up. He’s averaged as much as 22.8 points per game in a season, which happened in New Orleans. Since joining the Clippers and gaining teammates worth passing to, he’s averaged 18.7 points a game. He can score on drives, his midrange game is lethal (read this excellent analysis from Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry), he’s a solid three-point shooter and he’s automatic from the line.
When it comes to measuring Paul’s impact, you’ve got to consider the buckets he creates as much as the ones he scores. For the past two seasons (which is as far back as NBA.com’s tracking stats go), Paul has led the league is points created by assist per game. Last year it was 24.5, this year 23.8. He’s also been the best at secondary assists, which is kind of a hockey assist for basketball, and in the top three at dishing out free throw assists. For a guy slinging the ball around that much, Paul takes remarkable care of it too. He’s has led the league in assist to turnover ratio five of the last six years.
For evidence of Paul’s passing prowess, consider the nickname of his Clippers team. It’s Lob City, not dunk city, or alley-oop city, or cram city. Why? Because DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin wouldn't be feeling up the rim nearly as often without Paul’s precisely placed lobs. They are the backbone of Lob City, and Paul is the mayor.
And let’s not forget his defense, which makes him an all-around player worthy of mention alongside Magic. The traditional stats say Paul’s an elite defender—he’s third all time in steals per game—and so do the advanced ones. And then there are the gob-smacking handles. He might have been on the wrong side of this season’s best ankle breaker, but Paul’s sent plenty of defenders to the ground himself.
Like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley before him, Paul is destined to hear about rings until he has one. NBA fans are weird like that, insisting on evaluating individuals for what their team accomplishes. Maybe Paul will get his ring year. Maybe next year. Maybe never. But when evaluating his greatness, it’s not really relevant. All that matters is that at age 29, Paul can already make a case for being the best point guard to ever play the game. Give him 10 more years and there will be little debate.
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