The deliberation around Chris Paul’s legacy is one of the most polarizing sports debates ever. One side of the argument focuses on the fact he’s unquestionably among, if not the most tactical of court generals to ever lace them up. The other side of that argument emphasizes the reality that despite all the statistical efficiency and respect, his greatness has never translated to winning at the highest levels of competition. In terms of ranking and public perception, Paul splits the aisle. Some despise him for his flopping and antics with referees. Others love his passion and determination. If you’re extrapolating only the statistics and individual play in a vacuum – Chris Paul no doubt belongs in the conversation with Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and John Stockton as the best to ever play the point guard position. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. The objective of any game is the win and to be considered Top 5 ever at your position, shouldn’t you have to at least reach an NBA final? This conundrum is why the 9-time all-star is literally one of the hardest players to judge in NBA history.
Paul has long been scorned for his inability to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs (until recently while playing with 2018 MVP James Harden). Last season served as maybe the most sweeping indictment against Paul – as the Rockets were unable to upend the Warriors even after Kevin Durant’s injury left them shorthanded. Both Houston and CP3 fumbled a golden opportunity to once and for all silence critics and reshuffle the conversation around their legacies. But they failed to rise to the occasion. Like it or not. Fair or unfair. This narrative is what has mostly defined Paul’s career. I’ll address the elephant in the room early and state I don’t consider Paul a top 5 point guard of all-time which is not a slight against him. The field is simply stacked with others more deserving. As a reference, here is my top 5.
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1. Magic Johnson
2. Steph Curry
3. Jerry West
4. Isaiah Thomas
5. Oscar Robertson
Coming into the NBA, Paul was projected to be a star and even then analyst felt he would grow into the “ideal point guard.” Early on it looked as though they were right. At the age of 22-years-old, he finished 2nd in MVP voting behind Kobe Bryant (Rest In Peace). Paul’s 2007-08 season was arguably one of the best ever by a point guard. He posted a PER of 28.3 – higher than Magic Johnson’s mark the year he won MVP in 1987. He also dished out more assists (11.6) than Steve Nash did the year he took home the Maurice Podoloff trophy. All this while notching an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.6 – nearly identical to Isaiah Thomas’ first-team all NBA season of 1985. Oh yeah, he was also named NBA all-defensive second team. That same year he led the Hornets to a 56-26 record and pushed the defending-champion Spurs to 7 games. His playoff run that season was legendary, he scored 27.8 ppg on 30.7 PER. Insane. Despite Paul’s brilliance and the Hornets finishing 2nd in the West, CP has nothing to show for it. An MVP for sure would’ve fortified his individual legacy in the eyes of the sports world. In a debate any Chris Paul fan will tell you, indirectly, much of the notion about his cache is based on this season (not to dismiss his incredible body of work)
Paul had arthroscopic knee surgery in 2010. This would be the first of many injuries to hamper his pursuit of a title. Not only did injuries derail many MVP bids they also popped up at the worst times, like during the playoffs. Only one example of the bad luck which has kept Paul outside looking in on the championship picture. Let me also establish this early, I’m not one of those fans who thinks player aptitude is based only on team success. That’s ignorant. The thought of counting championships without context is a fallen logic from a bygone era. LeBron James being widely considered the best ever despite only winning three titles is proof of this. We now have analytics to help tell the story. While this is my feeling, I still believe Paul is overrated due to the limited impact of his game on producing Ws at the peak of competition and seeming inability to carry the load when everything else breaks down around him. His stature stamina in the playoffs may be attributed to his physically demanding style of play during the regular season. But most all-timers modify their game to position themselves to win a title.
His stubbornness is part of what makes him the type of player he is, but it is also maybe the reason he hasn’t seen the success many think he should have. Paul has been criticized for over-dribbling the ball and monopolizing assists. His high usage rate and rigid relationship with coaches don’t help matters. It has been said, by former teammates and analysts that he doesn’t get his assists within the flow of the offense. One thing that makes Steph Curry great is his willingness to move off the basketball and let others get involved. However, when called upon to generate offense as a playmaker Curry transitions seamlessly. The same goes for when he’s called on to score at high volume.
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Okay, so your counter-argument may be one player can’t do it on their own. Team management, coaching, player development and injuries all matter. I hear you. Yet, Paul has had his chances and did not capitalize. He’s single-handedly choked away a few legacy-defining series, fueling questions about his value. For example in 2014, the Clippers were on the verge of going up 3-2 on the Thunder but a number of late blunders by CP3 led OKC tying the Western Conference semi-final series – one they would eventually go on to win. And let’s not forget Paul and the Clippers relinquishing a 3-1 lead to the Rockets after being up by 20 points in game five with a chance to close things out. Once again, Paul went missing in a big moment. Yes, Paul did miss the first two games of that series with a hamstring injury but that is also part of the story. Paul has not been the most durable. Aside from these examples, there have been several times late in meaningful games that Paul has been extremely passive.
When you don’t take advantage of your opportunities in a league like the NBA they may never come around again. Especially in an always stacked Western Conference. His uncharacteristic mistakes in the playoffs is just one reason why I don’t rank him Top 5 – I support my argument further by looking at the accomplishment of his peers. How many point guards passed Paul in terms of individual and team success during what many consider his era of dominance? Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, some may say Damian Lillard. Simply put, other point guards outshined Paul on his watch. Regardless, Paul finds himself just outside the top 5.
6. Chris Paul
7. John Stockton
8. Steve Nash
9. Jason Kidd
10. Russell Westbrook
Low and behold John Stockton, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd are not a bad group to fall in. Paul leads this second tier of all-time greats in my book. Now for a little history lesson – the common use of the phrase “point guard” began around 1975. Prior to this time, there was no such designation for players like Bob Cousy and Jerry West who tyrannized the perimeter. Not only was the label non-existent, many counting stats such as assists had not yet been formulated to help track player performance specific to a role. As Jalen Rose frequently states, “positions were created so that a novice can follow the game.” Supporters sometimes caveat Paul’s status by saying he’s the “best PURE point guard ever.” They lean undividedly on this sort of undefinable phrase to verify his prestige. But what does that mean … “pure point guard?” I suppose we can define it as a player having the elite ability to do the following: pass, shoot, defend, change speed, use excellent timing on the pick-and-roll, great decision-making skills in the open court, and patience. My phrase for it is “shift gears.” I concede here.
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The term point guard just means a player’s been limited to a specific role – that by either the coach of his own skillset. The modern perimeter player must be able to be just as dynamic play-making as he is scoring (i.e. James Harden, Russell Westbrook). Paul’s ability to play the game at a ridiculously consistent level throughout his career has never been a question. Where pundits punish Paul is his reputation for NOT elevating his team or his play when the pressure’s burden is heaviest.
You will find no argument from me, Paul is maybe the most complete point guard the league has ever seen. In addition to this, he is a 9-time first-team all-defensive selection. So he plays both ways with rare mastery. I give credit where it is due. But we can’t always ignore that his highs are never quite as has as others I placed in the top 5. Historically, players 6-foot-1 and under haven’t had much success leading teams to championship glory. What does that mean? No offense to Paul, but for all his greatness, he’s incredibly limited in terms of overall winning impact. Before the angry mob attacks me, consider this – Paul is not transcendent in any one aspect of the game. Steph Curry is a circus-act with the three-point shot. Just because Tracy McGrady never made it out of the first round or Carmelo Anthony never made it to the NBA Finals doesn’t mean they aren’t still two of the greatest scorers ever. But because of this, it is fair for us to question their all-time ranking – because after all it is a team game and the objective is to win. So, no team success isn’t the only factor in my ranking of Paul. It just isn’t smart for us to base how good a player is based on his role. LeBron transcended his position, so did Russell Westbrook. Position-less basketball has become more prevalent. There is less emphasis on a player’s position.
CP3 has one of the best assist to turnover ratio of all-time. He’s also amassed the 7th most assists in NBA history. Yes, assists are an important stat for quantifying the impact of a “point guard.” Someone whose role is to facilitate the offense and create easy shots for his teammates. But we live in a different era of basketball. Point-forwards are 7-feet tall and bring the ball up the court with regularity. 6-foot-3 shooting guards that we define as point guards. 6-foot-8 point guards that we call small forwards. What does this mean? It means that we have players that, now more than ever, are redefining what it means to play their position. You can’t say that even though Steph Curry is averaging 30 points a game that John Stockon is a better player at that position because he “played the position better.” So the question should be, who is the best player to ever be labeled “point guard.”
While I do believe Chris Paul is a great player, I think his perception has grown to overshadow what he’s accomplished on the basketball court. It may sound harsh but evaluating all-time greats requires some hairsplitting. Either way, what he’s doing in Oklahoma City at the age of 34 is incredible. Written off during pre-season the Thunder are now 27-19 and currently sit in the 7th seed out West. Paul is averaging 17 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds on 58% shooting during the crusade. A 9-time all-star, the point textbook point guard has already had some incredible flashback moments this year. Hopefully, for Paul’s sake, a trade to a contender can give him one last shot at championship glory but for now, Paul’s face doesn’t quite break into the point guard Mount Rushmore.