Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chris Paul: Basketball Wizard

Chris Paul has taken his game to new heights early this season. (flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

In 2009, Chris Paul pieced together the greatest all-around single season for a point guard in NBA history. He had the highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for a point guard ever, and he became the only point guard in history to average 20/10/5 (points/assists/rebounds) on at least 50% shooting. People remember 2008 as Paul's finest season (the year he led New Orleans to 56 wins and finished as the runner-up to Kobe in the MVP voting), but in reality, 2009 was superior, almost across the board.

However, that doesn't matter anymore, because he's going to blow them both away this year.

It might seem very #HotSportsTake-ish to assert that Paul is going to "blow away" the greatest statistical season from a point guard in league history, and it would seem even more #HotSportsTake-ish to do it just four games into the season, but there's been something about Chris Paul so far this season that is jarringly different from his last two years with the Clippers.

It's not just that Chris Paul is eviscerating his opponents with particular flair, it's that he's doing it effortlessly. This is easy for him. He's doing things on the court that just haven't been done before (and may even be illegal in a few states). He's shooting 52% from the floor, and averaging a 26.5/13.3 through four games, but it hasn't even looked like he's broken a sweat yet. Every shot has been a wide-open, no-brainer, it-would-be-an-irresponsible-basketball-play-for-me-to-NOT-shoot-here look. Every assist has been an easy, uncontested pass, either in the flow of the offense to create an impossibly open shot for how simple a set-up it was, or an uncontested lob for a highlight dunk.

At the beginning of last season, Vinny Del Negro gave a troublesome but candid characterization of his offensive scheme, calling it "The Chris Paul Offense." The positive spin on this would be that Del Negro was saying that it's important to have the ball in the hands of your best player as much as possible. The negative spin (and one that seemed closer to the truth) is that Del Negro was basically admitting "I have no actual plays or progressions, I just give Chris Paul the green light and hope that he can create something worthwhile."

And he did. Last season the Clippers were the fourth-most efficient offense in the league, an effort spearheaded by Paul, who finished third in the league in PER and third in Offensive Win Shares.

Now, the Clippers have Doc Rivers at the helm, and there's an actual offensive scheme in place that goes beyond "Hey, Chris, do something basketball-y, will ya?" There's an actual progression of plays and counters, as opposed to in previous years where Del Negro would effectively play "Battleship Basketball" - calling a random play and hoping it would hit if the defense wasn't expecting it. Under Rivers, the offense actually has fluidity. The first possession of the game for the Clippers usually involves J.J. Redick curling around a screen towards the left wing or corner for a jump shot, and the offense is built brick-by-brick on top of that action. If the defense switches and jumps out at Redick, all of a sudden the screener has a free dive towards the basket. If the defense rotates to take away that dive, all of a sudden the other big is setting a back-screen for Jared Dudley in the weakside corner.

Through four games, Paul has torched two Western Conference rivals in Golden State and Houston. Both teams are expected to be in the mix at the top of the playoff bracket along with the Clippers, so these convincing head-to-head wins at the beginning of the season are good indicators going forward. But the best indicator is probably how easy it has been for Paul to manipulate the back line of those defenses, even those populated by defensive stalwarts such as Andrew Bogut, Dwight Howard, and Omer Asik. The Clippers haven't gone up against one of last season's elite defensive teams, like Memphis, Indiana, or San Antonio, but based on what they've done through the first 4.8% of the season, there's no reason to think the results won't be up to snuff.

Coming into the season, many pundits predicted that the Clippers would have the No. 1 ranked offense, the Clippers would be a legitimate contender in the West, and that Paul would be a likely runner up to LeBron in the MVP race. Based on the (admittedly small) sample so far, the first prediction looks like a lock, and the second two might actually be underselling. Despite some legitimate question marks surrounding their defense and their frontcourt depth, the Clippers could be the team to beat in the West. And with LeBron winning four MVPs in the last five years, voter fatigue may settle in. And if Chris Paul is averaging a 25/12 (he'd be the first player ever to do it), he may be the pick.

Chris Paul entered this season already holding the belt for "Best All-Around Single-Season Point Guard Ever." Not only will he retain that belt, he's got a great chance to raise the bar even higher.

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