The Rotation: Chris Paul Has No Ceiling
The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller.
Chris Paul, basketball messiah of New Orleans, has the rapt attention of the world right now ... and he's still being underrated. "He can be the best little guy ever." "He can be the best scoring point guard ever." No, no, no.
He can be the best ever.
There's no ceiling for Chris Paul, no limit on his eventual peak. Don't compare him to Deron Williams and Steve Nash and Isiah Thomas. If he keeps this up, we'll be weighing his abilities against LeBron and MJ.
Paul lost the MVP award to Kobe Bryant this season. It'd be a crime if the MVP award had any relevance to reality. The arguments are stilted, the rationale incredibly subjective. How else do you explain Nash hoisting two before Kobe's wrapped his hands around his first? As such, let's ignore that debate for now. I think Paul deserved it, other folks picked Kobe. I'm comfortable being in the minority on this.
I'm not, however, comfortable with the continued lack of perspective on Paul's otherworldly talents. Before the season, a die-hard Hornets fan I very much like/respect argued Chris-vs-Deron was a toss-up. A toss-up! Meanwhile, based on PER (the best linear-weights measure we've got) Paul had the best season by a guard not named Michael Jordan in the history of the NBA. Better than Kobe's best season, better than Magic's best season. Nash, Isiah ... not even in the same region. On defense, Ryan Schawn of Hornets247.com documented Paul's impact well, refuting claims that the PG's size makes him an inferior defender.
This is the measurable stuff. On the intangible front, the guy is a fantastic teammate and an incomparable locker room leader. (Bill Simmons has a great anecdote about Paul's interactions with his team near the end of his MVP column.) Paul's never been in trouble, he's a hard worker, he's fearless, he's said to be extremely coachable. Still looking for that dent which would explain why he'll never be more than a good point guard ...
Oh, there it is. I found it. It's his personality. He isn't placed on the same pedestal as Kobe or LeBron because he's not on every NBA on ABC commercial, he doesn't pitch Nikes, he doesn't dunk hard or score 30 a night. Paul's strength is his incomparable efficiency, and efficiency just doesn't sell.
MIchael Jordan was efficient -- deathly efficient. MJ shot remarkably high percentages for a two-guard, and once he turned 26 had cut his turnovers down to near the bare minimum for such a high-usage player. Also, MJ had Nike's machine getting him on TV year-round, was an outrageous scorer with outrageously magnificent games, dunked like a champion, and carried himself with more swag than Reagan. MJ is considered the Greatest of All Time because he was an enormously successful player and because he had the off-court persona to match.
LeBron is already an enormously successful player and has MJ's machine. Paul's a year younger, and just completed a season almost statistically even with LeBron while leading the fourth best team in the league. People do not hesitate to mention LeBron in the same breath as MJ -- hell, people compare Kobe to MJ, and even Kobe's individual peak doesn't approach LeBron's output of late. Yet Chris Paul can't break out of the imposed basement of 6-footers? Even in an age where we rush to decree this or that the Best. <Noun>. Ever?
Paul's not better than LeBron yet, and he's not up to MJ's standard yet. But he belongs in that conversation a lot sooner than he does in debates regarding guys like Deron and Isiah and Nash. Paul's got to do it for another half-decade or so, and there's room for improvement (he's 22, for goodness sake).
But we could be watching a potential G.O.A.T. grow up before our eyes. Show some respect.
Mapping the NBA gives Excel spreadsheets some balls.
Using John Hollinger's PER, here are the top 20 NBA seasons for all guards. The highest PERs will be found on the right (yes, MJ has the top seven seasons by a guard). The y axis represents age. The youngsters (of which Chris Paul in 2008 is the youngest) are at the top; the elder statesmen (MJ at 33, MJ at 32, Magic at 30) sit near the bottom.
Two things to notice here. First: No guard's had a top-20 season earlier than the age of 23 ... except Chris Paul, who is 22 until Tuesday. Second: Look at MJ's progression. He saw a massive jump between his age 23 and age 24 seasons, then a slight regression for age 25, then a climb back up to his zenith at age 27. Kobe peaked at 27. Magic peaked at 27. Sense a pattern? Chris Paul is five years away from turning 27.
If any guard's going to approach The MJ Zone in the next decade, the numbers say it's Chris Paul.