Let's play a quick game.
Here are some per 36 stats along with some shooting percentages. Does it capture the complete picture for both players? Not remotely. But play along anyways...
- Player A: 20.2 Pts, 11.1 Ast, 2.6 Stls, 48.8 FG pct, 36.9 3-pt pct, 85.1 FT pct, 15.5 FG att, 3.0 3-pt att, 4.7 FT att
- Player B: 22.5 Pts, 12.5 Ast, 2.2 Stls, 43.6 FG pct, 39.1 3-pt pct, 87.3 FT pct, 17.1 FG att, 8.0 3-pt att, 5.1 FT att
Based on this information and this information only, who would you rather have?
Is this a flawed method? Of course.
Do these numbers capture everything necessary to actually make a pick? Not even close.
And yet they should provide enough to at least illuminate some faults with one assumption looming large heading into the 2019-20 season. You likely wouldn't look at either as someone who is washed and done... far from it!
Both of these players are the same build at the same position with a similar style of play. Player A is the more efficient shooter, better on D and more judicious with the ball. Player B is a more comfortable long-range shooter and gets to the line a hair more.
Player A is Chris Paul from the 2007-08 season when he finished second in MVP voting and staked his claim as the best point guard in the league, taking the mantle from Steve Nash and ushering in a stretch of about eight seasons where he was the unquestioned Point God.
Player B is also Chris Paul.
Only that's not the 22-year-old two-way terror about to take on the league and cement his status as a Hall of Fame floor general.
Those numbers for Player B come from a 727 minute sample size last season during which a 33-year-old Paul played without James Harden.
Is it ludicrous to compare a 727 minute cherry picked sample to an entire season during which he played 80 games and over 3,000 minutes over a decade ago? Absolutely. Well… sort of. It's only ludicrous if it's done to make the argument that some cherry picked data points means he's in any way, shape or form actually better.
THAT would be ludicrous.
But what if it's done instead to pump the brakes on a preposterous, yet popular theory that Paul is somehow finished as a top-flight point guard?
The concerns with CP3
Before getting lost in Glass Half Full Land in which best case scenarios take precedence over reality, I don't want to simply discard the reasons why it's easy to suggest that 'Chris Paul, Point God' is finished.
The reasons for feeling bearish begin with well-founded concerns about his ability to stay healthy. He's missed over 20 games in each of the last three season while appearing in just over 70% of his team's total games. That doesn't bode well for a small-statured, now 34-year-old point guard who even in his prime had problems staying on the court as evidenced by the fact that he's reached the 80-game threshold just three times in his career.
To expect Paul to stay reasonably healthy and finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 game feels risky. If you're going to short Paul's stock on the basis of health, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. At this point, it would almost irresponsible to engage in any discussion of Paul's ability for a renaissance season without addressing the elephant in the room.
Then there's the history of aging small point guards which doesn't bode well. Care to guess how many players 6'0" or shorter averaged 15 points and 7 assists per game after turning 34?
Zero, zilch, nada.
Others have gotten there at that age, yet none dealt with being quite as slight as the diminuitive Paul.
The closest comparison and beacon for optimism is Lenny Wilkens, who remained a voluminous contributing player until he was 35 when he made the last of his nine All-Star teams.
The 6'1" John Stockton pick-and-rolled his way to an All-Star team at the age of 37 and remained a take-it-to-the-bank table setter until calling it quits after turning 40. He also had the benefit of a decades-old system built around him and Karl Malone, a benefit that Paul will not have either in Oklahoma City or elsewhere.
So yeah... I get it.
The reasons for optimism
"If he can only stay healthy."
Those six words are incredibly dangerous and perhaps symptomatic of denial moreso than anything else. I recognize that.
But just as it's impossible to evaluate Chris Paul in 2019 without taking into consideration his wear and tear, it's likewise impossible to do so without the other elephant in the room: playing next to James Harden.
When the Rockets acquired Paul prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, it was done with the knowledge that there would need to be some sacrifices made on the part of both of their ball-dominant point guards.
For Paul, that sacrifice manifested itself in fewer touches and more time spent off the ball. Though his overall numbers looked strikingly similar to his final year with the Clippers, he averaged 15 fewer touches and had the ball in his hands about one minute less per game. After ranking sixth in the league in touches per game in 2016-17, he fell all the way to 29th in his first season in Houston despite actually averaging more minutes. That trend continued last season as he ranked 32nd in the league in touches.
For Harden, that "sacrifice" manifested itself in Year 1 with a career-high in usage percentage en route to winning the MVP award. Much in part because of Paul's extended absence, he took that to the extreme last seasn as he finished with the second-highest usage rate in NBA history while uncorking one of the most dominant offensive seasons we've ever seen.
That's not in any way meant as a criticism of Harden. He's unquivocally one of the two best guards in the NBA and generally speaking, it's a good thing to have the ball in your best player's hands. Especially when paired with a second star that struggled to consistently stay on the floor, it's tough to knock Harden for doing what was necessary to keep his team in contention. Though Giannis Antetokounmpo deservedly won the MVP award, I was in the camp that believed it should have been Harden. If you're looking for Harden detractors, I'm not your guy.
Regardless, it's obvious that Paul was simply not himself when playing alongside his superstar backcourt mate. All of the things that made Paul a nine-time All-Star, future Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever lace 'em up, he could not do when sharing the floor with Harden.
And yet when given the opportunity, it's apparent he can still deliver the goods, albeit in smaller doses.
That same exact trend showed up the season prior as well to an ever greater extreme.
Putting too much into any one number carries with it some serious potential pitfalls. For starters, doing it over a span of 700 minutes is a far different beast than over 2,500 minutes as the top-billed name on the marquee over an entire regular season. Speaking of starters, there's also the key aspect that Paul did much of his damage in staggered non-Harden minutes against second units. Cooking against backups is likewise a far different beast than doing it night in and night out against other first units.
In looking beyond on-court/off-court splits which have a reputation for being notoriously noisy and are littered with "yeah, buts", Paul still operates as one of the most effective pull-up scorers in the league. Despite sharing a backcourt with someone that averaged the most points by anyone since young Michael Jordan, he still ranked seventh in the league in points per game off of pull-up jumpers, one spot behind Kevin Durant and two spots ahead of Stephen Curry. He may be slight and he may have lost a step, but there's no denying that Paul still knows how to get to his spots.
If he stays in Oklahoma City, Paul will have every opportunity to once again take the floor as the primary conductor.
While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will eventually become the focal point in Oklahoma City as the Thunder re-tool in the post-Russell Westbrook era, he's not ready just yet. The 21-year-old may play well beyond his years, but he's certainly not yet at a place where he's a reliable go-to floor general and ball handler for 35 minutes a night.
Even if Danilo Gallinari winds up leading the team in scoring, he's not exactly the type who needs the ball at all times either. After the Clippers traded away Tobias Harris to the Philadephia 76ers last season, Gallinari led the team in scoring at over 21 points per game yet among all 20-point scorers, ranked near the bottom in both touches and time of possession. He had the ball in his lands less than the likes of Pascal Siakam and Julius Randle.
As for the massive Steven Adams, you almost can't find a better screen setter to free up Paul for his patented snake back across the elbows after a high pick-and-roll. He might not be a rim runner with the hops of Clint Capela, but he's a good enough finisher and the type of certiable no-nonsense demolition man that's easy to see developing great chemistry alongside Paul as he destroys unsuspecting defenders trying to suffocate his point guard.
There's also something to be said for playing with a chip on a shoulder and out with something to prove on a team with essentially no pressure. You'd be hard-pressed to find a current player with more pride than Paul and it's not hard to envision him embracing the 2019-20 season in a way that emphatically sends a message to the rest of the league that he still belongs in that upper crust of top-tier talent.
Should he remain in OKC, defining success could be admittedly tricky for a player often knocked for his inability to make extended postseason runs throughout his career. While much of that narrative rings true given the loftry expectations of past teams, this OKC squad enters the season with an over/under win total of 31, which ranks ahead of only the Suns and Grizzlies in a loaded Western Conference. While it might be too much to ask (though certainly not beyond the realm of possible) for Paul to lead this team to a top-eight finish, a renaissance individual season resulting in a frisky, over-achieving Thunder team playing the role of spoiler could very much be in the cards.
Even if the approach over the first part of the season is to showcase Paul's talents and increase his value ahead of next February's trade deadline, a move that would be on-brand for Thunder GM Sam Presti who is on a roll with his current ability to flip high-priced stars for a seemingly endless supply of future assets, Paul is now in a positon where he has every chance to control the narrative about how he's perceived in today's hierarchy.
Conventional wisdom suggests he's just a point guard.
Unconventional wisdom suggests that he still just might be a Point God.
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