This season was supposed to be Chris Paul’s triumphant return to point guard supremacy. Injury behind him, we expected Paul to return to MVP form and lead the Hornets on an improbable playoff run.
But things haven’t gone exactly as planned. While Paul is hooping at a high level, other point guards like Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook are playing better than ever, cluttering the ever more contentious debate over who the game’s best point really is.
So what are we to make of Chris Paul’s season thus far?
The statistics and anecdotes tell a conflicting story.
By many accounts, it’s been a successful year. Paul is leading the league in PER, assist/TO ratio (4.15 per game), and steals per game while averaging the highest True Shooting % of his six year career. He’s become the league’s fifth best three point shooter at 45%, its sixth best free throw shooter at 89.7%, and is third in the league in assists per game. Breath. Those are incredible numbers.
The total efficiency in his game is second to none, as born out by these conventional and advanced statistics. But somehow it doesn’t seem like enough from the dominant player we saw in 2008-9 season, Paul’s last healthy year.
Perhaps some of this has to do with the six footer’s ongoing recovery from his 2009 knee injury. Paul, who claims to be healthy, seems to lack his typical burst in the open court, though in the half court his strength and explosive lateral quickness still allow him to penetrate nearly at will. That is, in short distances, Paul remains elite, though his full court sprint is no longer as impressive.
And though Paul is producing more efficiently than ever before, he’s also producing less. His point per game average of 16.5 is Paul’s lowest since his rookie season, and his assists per game are under 10 for the first time since 2007.
Is it possible Paul is playing better but doing less?
This season, despite regaining his stature as the NBA’s pick and roll practitioner par excellence, Paul’s Usage rate has plummeted (Usage percentage is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor). In the season before his injury, CP3 had the second highest Usage rate amongst point guards and sixth highest overall at 27.9 (Tony Parker was at 30.1). This year, Paul’s 22.7 Usage rate is the 22nd highest for his own position. Among point guards with higher Usage rates are usual suspects Westbrook, Rose and Williams (who ranked one, two, three in this metric), but also Rodney Stuckey, John Wall and Brandon Jennings.
The only point guard in Paul’s class with a lower Usage is Rajon Rondo, which isn’t at all surprising considering that Rondo hunts shots like a gazelle hunts lions.
Paul’s peculiar play raises an interesting argument over whether it’s better to play less efficiently but have a greater impact on the game or play as efficiently as possible without ever forcing. At times this year it seems the Hornets may need him to be more aggressive, especially at the end of games.
The real issue is that Paul is disproportionately taking fewer shots at the rim, a hint that despite signs to the contrary, something could still be bothering him physically. Paul is shooting at the rim just 2.1 times per game this season compared with 4.4 times per game in 2009. As a side effect of Paul’s inability or unwillingness to drive consistently (he could still be recovering his confidence after his knee injury), he’s also shooting about two freethrows fewer this year than in his last healthy season.
In the Hornets’ most recent game, Paul could not muster his sublime former ability to take over the contest when his team needed its best player to do just that. In the fourth quarter, Paul checked back into the game after a brief rest with his team winning by one point and 9:15 left to play. Over the next nine minutes and change, the Warriors outscored the Hornets 26-18 and Chris Paul took two only jump shots (missing both), four free throws and had two assists.
The way he finished, no one would say he played a perfect game. Yet he finished with a near flawless stat line of 24 points, 13 assists (two TOs), and six rebounds on 6-12 shooting.
As a result of moments like these, I find myself confused as to whether Paul is really back, even though he may well be the game’s best point guard. He’s cruising through this season beautifully, but doesn’t appear to have yet found the extra gear that made him so, so special.