Monday, November 24, 2014

Chris Paul

At 29, Chris Paul has made six All-NBA teams (four first-team), six All-Defensive teams (four first-team) and seven All-Star Games. "The Point God" is widely considered the best PG in the NBA and is a near lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection. There's only one blemish on his resume. CP3 has been in the league 10 seasons and has never advanced past the second round, despite playing on three different teams that won more than 56 games.

When you try to evaluate his lack of playoff success, there's one school of thought that says there is nothing to see, no great mystery to unravel. Shit happens in the playoffs and a few bad bounces in Game 5 against the Thunder shouldn't make a huge difference in how we perceive a great player. Paul has been doomed by untimely injuries, bad match-ups and the poor luck to play in an extremely competitive conference.

Winning or losing a playoff series never comes down to any one player, even if they are a superstar. However, the playoffs aren't a complete black box either - there are things you can learn from what happens when a guy has to play multiple seven-game series against the best teams in the world. There is a middle ground between yelling ringz and throwing your hands in the air and saying my shit doesn't work in the post-season.

Let's take a closer look at the Thunder/Clippers series, particularly the match-up at the PG position between Paul and Russell Westbrook.

In Game 1, Paul had 32 points and 10 assists on 14 shots. It was the kind of performance you would expect from an All-NBA PG - if he had played at that level all series, the Clippers would have advanced. Of course, no one can really do that, so Paul wound up averaging 22 points and 12 assists a game on 51% shooting in the series. Pretty hard to complain about those numbers, right?

The only problem was that Westbrook's were even better. He averaged 28 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists a game on 49% shooting in the series and he had games of 29, 33 and 38 points. Paul didn't have a game over 25 after Game 1. He was putting up a lot of points, but not as many as Westbrook and not in the same types of bunches. As many points as CP3 was scoring, he was giving them up just as fast, if not faster, on the other end.

The numbers are right there, once you start to look for them.

2012:

First round: Clippers beat Grizzlies in 7

- CP3: 20, 6 and 7 on 46% shooting
- Mike Conley: 14, 3 and 7 on 42% shooting

The Clippers and Grizzlies split their two first-round series, but CP3 clearly got the better of Conley. It was some of the best work he has done in his time with the Clippers - really nice numbers in the midst of two archetypal Grit N Grind series. Those games certainly felt like late 90's Knicks-Heat, especially in the paint.


Second round: Spurs beat Clippers in 4

- CP3: 13, 4 and 9 on 38% shooting
- Tony Parker: 17, 3 and 8 on 38% shooting

It's hard to do the individual match-up thing against the Spurs since they move the ball so much, but at best you can say that CP3 played Parker to a draw. Tony Parker is really good - he doesn't put up stats like Paul, but he doesn't get to hold the ball like Paul does either. Pop doesn't run a system designed to maximize his PG's statistics.

2013:

First round: Clippers lose to Grizzles in 6

- CP3: 23, 4 and 6 on 53% shooting
- Conley: 17, 3 and 8 on 41% shooting

2014:

First round: Clippers beat Warriors in 7

- CP3: 17, 5 and 9 on 42% shooting
- Steph: 23, 4 and 8 on 44% shooting

The Warriors lost the series, but this still felt like a passing of the torch to me. Paul is 29 and he has been first-team All-NBA for most of the last 5 seasons - there are a lot of hungry, young PG's out there, waiting for their chance. Steph is 26. Russ is 25. Eric Bledsoe is only 24. One day, maybe not anytime soon, but sooner than you might think, CP3 is going to wake up and play the Phoenix Suns and find out this is his life:



Second round: Clippers lose to Thunder in 6

- CP3: 22, 4 and 11 on 51% shooting
- Westbrook: 28, 6 and 9 on 49% shooting

Look at it this way - how could you tell Russell Westbrook with a straight face that Chris Paul is better than him after that series? Oh you mean the guy I just gave 30 a night too? Didn't I just send his team home? If Paul had 28 and Russ had 22, the Clippers would have won easily. He couldn't do it, though.

Take a look at what Westbrook did in the 2014 playoffs:

First round: Thunder beat Grizzlies in 7

- Russ: 26, 10 and 8 on 38% shooting
- Conley: 16, 5 and 8 on 43% shooting

Second round: Thunder beat Clippers in 6

- Russ: 28, 6 and 9 on 49% shooting
- CP3: 22, 4 and 11 on 51% shooting

WCF: Thunder lose to Spurs in 6

- Russ: 27, 7 and 6 on 41% shooting
- Parker: 13, 2 and 5 on 49% shooting

That's what a guy carrying a team in the playoffs looks like. The Thunder win a lot of playoff series for a reason - they have two guys who can just take over games against the best players in the world. When Westbrook is playing the best of the best, he thrives. 

The difference between the playoffs and the regular season is the level of competition. You don't see many bad or average PG's in the post-season. Just about every guy you are going to face is a high-level player, especially out West. In the last three years, Paul has went up against Westbrook, Steph Curry, Tony Parker and Mike Conley. Last season, Westbrook matched-up with Conley, CP3 and Parker. You see a lot of familiar faces in the playoffs and the deeper you go, the more likely you are to face a great player.

And if you compare Paul to his peers, to the other great players in the league instead of the average player, something jumps out at you immediately. Here's a look at the height and weight of every player to make first or second-team All-NBA in the last five years:



See the one at the bottom left? That's Paul. At 6'0 175, he's the outlier among the outliers.

Most great players are really big - the average height and weight is about 6'8 230, right around Carmelo Anthony. As a rule, they are bigger, faster and more skilled than the average player. At that point, there isn't much the defense can do to a guy. They have to give up something, either the shot, the drive or the pass.

Paul's formula for success is a little different. He has maximized every bit of his physical ability to get himself in such august company - there's no one else with his size and speed who is considered among the best players in the NBA. He is the perfect analytic player because he is operating at 100% at all times. He doesn't make mistakes or cut corners - he is always doing the most efficient thing that he can do when he is on the court.

In a sense, CP3 is Moneyball at the individual level. The market undervalues shorter players, particularly around draft time - if CP3 was 6'3+ like John Wall or Derrick Rose, he would not have went No. 4 in 2005. He doesn't have the physical tools of those guys, but he is just as effective because he has studied the game and perfected his craft. He thinks the game at as high a level as anyone in the sport and you can see that in the absurd efficiency numbers he puts up.

The one thing about Moneyball is that analytics isn't alchemy. It can't change what a guy is. Dwight Howard has height privilege. He doesn't need to deal with all that to win games. He's just bigger and faster than everyone else.

Here's a theory.

In the regular season, when CP3 is going up against a bunch of average guards who don't know what they are doing, he can absolutely devastate them. Most of them don't have the speed or athleticism to take advantage of his clutch-and-grab style defense that seems lifted from Bill Belichick's New England Patriots.

That TNT game against a short-handed Miami Heat team the other night? CP3 had 26 points on 13 shots and 12 assists on 1 turnover and the Clippers won by 17.

That shit only goes so far in the playoffs, though. As Charles Barkley likes to say, them other guys, they get paid too. When you are going up against the best of the best, the margins for error become really small and Chris Paul never had a really high margin to begin with.

When you think about it, it was always going to be hard for Paul to be the best player in the NBA at his size. The greatest players can score at will against guys who are smaller and less athletic than them - that's what makes them great. The problem for CP3 is he is smaller and less athletic than every other great player in the NBA, so he's always the underdog when he goes up against those guys, regardless of what his stats are against the rest of the league.

It's not that Chris Paul lacks the will to win and he comes up short in the playoffs because he doesn't have the heart of a champion. The problem is that he's short and his lack of size always rears its head at some point in the playoffs. If there was a bar that said you must be this tall to be the best player on a championship team, you would probably put it around 6'6. While CP3 is a franchise player, he's much, much shorter than most of the franchise players who got ringz.

Here's a look at the height of the best players on championship teams since 1979:

7'1 - Shaq
7'0 - Hakeem, Duncan, KG, Dirk
6'11 - Rasheed Wallace
6'9 - Bird, Magic, LeBron
6'7 - Dr. J
6'6 - MJ, Kobe
6'4 - D. Wade (and he has a 6'11 wingspan which makes him play like he's 6'8)
6'1 - Isiah Thomas

All things being equal in a game of basketball, the bigger and more athletic player is going to win the individual match-up. When Paul is playing most NBA players, things aren't equal. When he is going up against another All-NBA guy, they are. The problem for him is that if he's going to win a title, he's probably going to have to go up against 3-4 All-NBA guys in 4 seven-game series.

The NBA playoffs are like a video game. You get to the end of the level and you have to beat a boss. In a good game, you have or 3 or 4 boss fights against a character with as much power as your own, if not more. You had to figure out a different strategy to beat them - they were too good to beat straight up. It wasn't hard to exploit the weakness on easy or medium, but it was almost impossible to do on hard. On extreme? Forget about it. You had to play the video game almost perfectly to do it and I never had the patience for it. After awhile, I just started using cheat codes.

Chris Paul is playing the game on extreme mode. He has to play essentially perfect basketball to beat guys like Russell Westbrook - it has to be like Game 1 of the second round every single time. Otherwise, the only thing he can do is try to minimize his lack of height and athleticism as much as possible, which means clutching, grabbing and holding the other player.

Do I think it's a coincidence 6'1 Isiah Thomas played on a team that essentially broke the game? No. What puts CP3 on his own level is that he will take some very aggressive fouls on one end and then flop on the other. You can't be Reggie Evans and Manu Ginobili at the same time. It just isn't right.



This is when I knew DeMarcus Cousins was the realest dude in the NBA:
“It’s just, some players I don’t respect,” Cousins said. “Just their playing style of basketball. I don’t respect it. I feel like it’s basically cheating and I don’t respect a cheater. If that’s your tactic to winning, I don’t respect you.”
One of the things that has been lost in our celebration of the way that guys like Jordan and Kobe carried themselves as they won championships is that basketball is a gentleman's game. There are certain things you should not be doing in order to win basketball games and there are certain lines that should not be crossed. There's a right and wrong way to play this game that goes beyond winning and losing.

What CP3 does to poor Julius Hodge in this play is well over that line:


That's all I could think of during the final seconds of Game 5 in OKC. All the things that Paul gets away with on the court, all the ways he tries to tilt the playing board in order to shave the odds his way - they all came rushing back at him at once. He bent the rules of the game as far as they would go before they broke. A guy with CP3's size and athleticism trying to carry a team through four consecutive seven-game series might as well be Sisyphus. He is defying the natural order of things and there's only one way that's going to end.


Paul's teams punch above their weight in the regular season because he doesn't let up and he maximizes everyone's performance over the course of an 82-game season. When he gets to the playoffs, though, all the times that he ran up the margins against the Luke Ridnours of the world don't really matter.

He is still going to put up good numbers, but he isn't going to dominate the guy across from him. If he runs up on a bully like Russell Westbrook in a seven-game series, he's going to be fighting for a draw. The problem with the way the Clippers are set up is that Paul has to do everything for them to advance. He does his best against guys like KD and Russ, but if he's on either of those guys, there's still a mouse in the house. If he's going to get to the NBA Finals, he's probably going to need two wings like Trevor Ariza and Jimmy Butler around him, not JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford. Look at what Golden State is doing with Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala around Steph Curry.

CP3 isn't Kobe or LeBron, no matter what the stats say. Those two guys could take over a series on defense - they could man-up the opposing team's best perimeter scorer and suffocate their offense. That's the kind of thing that can turn a playoff series and it's the kind of thing that CP3 has never been able to do. He lost to Carmelo in the first round in 2010 - if that was LeBron, he would have tried to lock up Melo.

Of course, you can't expect Paul to do something like that. What it does is show you the limitations of his ability to impact the game, in comparison to some of his Olympic teammates.
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At this point in his career, CP3 is like Tom Glavine - he's a finesse pitcher who wins on control and out-thinking the other guy. He's not out there throwing 95 MPH high heat. You can be a great player with that style, but when you are going up against the best of the best, talent tends to win out. If CP3 and Westbrook had a Freaky Friday moment, Chris Paul in Westbrook's body would win 10 out of 10 times. Westbrook in Westbrook's body might only win 8 out of 10, but that's more than enough in a seven-game series.

One of the things that makes basketball different than most team sports is the way individual match-ups are embedded into the game. The same two guys are going at each other on offense and defense - I have to guard you but you have to guard me. Imagine Peyton Manning playing defense against Darrell Revis or Yu Darvish trying to get hits off Miguel Cabrera.

As great as CP3's stats are, that's only 85-90% of the equation in basketball. That last 10%? Throw away the numbers, the TV commercials and the brands and it comes down to lacing up your sneakers, stepping on the court and being better than the guy across from you.

Chris Paul is great, but is he any greater than Steph Curry? Tony Parker? Russell Westbrook? There have been too many times in the last few playoffs that CP3 hasn't been able to say that for me to think he is really a Top 5 player in the NBA. 

3 comments:

  1. Disagree a bit with the playoff performance. While it's an imperfet test, his PER in the playoffs vs regular season

    08: +2.4
    09: -14.0
    11: +5.7
    12: -7.0
    13: +2.8
    14: -2.3

    So he's had some ups and downs but has had playoff moments including killing some Rd 1 teams like Dallas (08) and Lakers (11). 2013 Clips were probably their best chance to make the WCF and he played well but Blake injury really hurt them. I don't think is a situation like David Robinson or Karl Malone where the stats clearly reflect getting game planned in the postseason. Defensively I am also a bigger fan of Paul. Considering how hard it is to stand out at that position defensively with modern rules, I'd probably put Paul in the top 5, at least he turns a few possessions a game his team's way with the steals without giving it back by gambling.

    I am a little concerned however about whether Paul's tightass and controlling style wears on his team too much. Neither the Hornets after 08 or the Clips now seemed like that happy of teams to me. Despite how their games should fit perfectly Blake and CP has never felt as natural a fit on the court as it seems. Despite his passing skills I'm concerned if CP mentally is as willing to sacrifice his game to make Blake's better in the same way Wade took a step down beside Lebron.

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  2. It doesn't matter how big his stats are if the guys he's guarding are putting up even bigger ones. When that happens to your best player in the playoffs, that's a recipe for losing. The Clippers aren't winning many match-ups at SG or SF, so they have to win at PG and he can't do it, not against the best in the world.

    The difference between CP3 and Wade is that Paul has to dominate the ball to impact the game. A 6'0 guy can't slash to the rim and play defense like a guy with a 6'11 wingspan.

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