Even with a balky knee, can David take down Goliath?

Chris Paul
Illustration by Jesse Blanchard

It’s a classic tale of an army of Israelites taking on an army of Philistines. According to the bible (a bible?), the Israelites and Philistines fight twice a day for 40 days, or roughly three times the amount of meetings the owners and the players union had over the last two years to discuss the next collective bargaining agreement. The Philistines have a giant at their disposal. His name is Goliath and he challenges the Israelites to send their top soldier into a one-on-one battle with him. No one is willing to step up to fight the mammoth being, and it takes a confident young man named David (who isn’t even a soldier but there to deliver food to his brothers) to accept the challenge.

Goliath is not only nearly twice the size of every man there, but he’s also wielding a shield and sword. A man of his size will be able to defend just about any attack. He’s too big to take on individually and it’s unlikely you can sneak around him to go on the offense. David is a regular-sized human being at best. There is nothing spectacular about his stature. He’s unassuming and relatively normal looking. However, he’s also fearless and unafraid of the battle before him. He’s willing to fight and tell you exactly what’s going to happen before he fights you.

David’s attack was strictly perimeter at first. Take a sling and five stones against the giant’s shield and sword. He wasn’t going to go toe-to-toe with Goliath because he knew he’d be at a disadvantage. If he was going to slay this beast, he had to catch him off-guard before attacking. So he took a stone and he put it in his sling and he attacked from the perimeter. It hit the giant square in the forehead, taking him to the ground from the blow. David charged into the interior, took the sword and chopped off Goliath’s head, and presented it at a symbol of victory to the Israelites.

And that’s essentially the story of David and Goliath.

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When the #NBARank project on ESPN.com unveiled the top 5 players in the NBA, Chris Paul sat at fourth in the league and Dwight Howard finished second to only LeBron James. Whether you agree with where your favorite player ended up in a rank project, I don’t think most people would disagree with Dwight Howard being regarded as a better player in the NBA than Chris Paul.

In fact, I asked people on Twitter whom they would take for the next three seasons between Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Out of 50 responses, 39 people picked Dwight Howard. More than half of those 39 people cited injury concerns as the reason, while 13 people stated that the disparity in Paul from the next best point guard and Dwight from the next best center was their reason. Other people cited defense and a few people said age was the deciding factor for them.

Of the 11 people who picked Chris Paul, six people said he makes his teammates much better and the rest of the people mentioned he was much better in the clutch. It’s funny how the perspective of these two players has been shaped. While Chris Paul makes his team better offensively, Dwight Howard makes up for his team’s defensive deficiencies. Dwight Howard’s age is a considerable factor even though Chris Paul is only seven months older than Dwight.

The thing I found fascinating about polling people on Twitter and getting reasons for their choice is that most people didn’t take that opportunity to praise Dwight for his skills and impact. The majority of those picking against Chris Paul really were just concerned with the health of his knee. It wasn’t about him being too small to impact the league as much as Dwight or Dwight being so dominant with his size that Chris Paul could never influence the game like that. It was simply anguish over Chris Paul’s ability to hold up over an 82-game schedule plus playoffs.

It makes me wonder just how close Chris Paul is to being a better player with a bigger impact on the game than Dwight Howard.

Team Value

Looking at last season, Dwight Howard had his “breakout” career year. He averaged a career high in points, had his highest career PER and win shares, finished second in MVP voting (even if it was a landslide), and won his third straight Defensive Player of the Year award. Dwight Howard was pretty much everything you could want in a big man last season. It was also the first time in three seasons that the Magic had a negative efficiency rating when he wasn’t on the court.

As amazing as Dwight Howard has been for Orlando over his career, Basketball Value had the Magic at +1.66 in 2008-09 and +1.27 in 2009-10 when their franchise center wasn’t on the court for them. This past season, Orlando clocked in at -1.13 in net efficiency without Dwight patrolling the paint.

In comparison, Chris Paul’s season wasn’t considered in quite the same light as Dwight’s. Chris Paul was coming off of a knee injury and wearing bulky brace that was probably cumbersome enough to impede a Transformer’s movement. His PER was down from 30.0 in 2008-09 to 23.7 (bypassing 2009-10 because he only played 45 games). His win shares were down from 18.3 in 08-09 to 13.9. He had the lowest scoring average of his career. He also had the lowest usage rate of his career.

Chris Paul wasn’t exactly bad by any means. He just wasn’t the healthy Chris Paul we’ve all become accustomed to drooling over. The fact that he could put up such efficiency while essentially playing on one mobile leg is damn impressive. If you believe in win shares as a measuring stick (there’s certainly good and bad to it), he finished fourth in the NBA and yet was 13th in MVP voting.

As a defender, Chris Paul was still incredible at the top of the key, pressuring penetration and making even the most basic passes to the wing a stressful venture for the initiating opponent. CP3 was fantastic guarding players in isolation, played the pick-and-roll extremely well and even fought through screens at a high level. His biggest problem defensively was closing out on shooters. Part of that could be the brace. As someone who has worn a bulky knee brace whilst recovering from a knee injury, I can tell you a lot of times it’s hard to get that medieval contraption moving quickly when pushing off with a direct step. Also, Chris Paul is pretty short for an NBA player and it’s not exactly going to bother most professionals if he comes running at them on a closeout and pretends to do the nut shot we all tried in middle school.

When heading over to Basketball Value for the on/off net efficiency numbers, you see that even though Chris Paul had a down season in terms of raw statistics and ligament maneuverability he was trending upward, back to the impact he had on the Hornets in the 2008-09 season. In 08-09, New Orleans was +6.69 in net efficiency with CP3 on the court, which doesn’t seem like an astronomical number. However, they were -12.96 with him on the bench. During his injury-plagued 2009-10 season, the Hornets suffered without him on the court (-5.43) but barely benefited from him playing (+0.77).

This past season, Chris Paul’s impact on the court was a +4.29, while registering at a staggering -9.05 when he wasn’t in the game. And it’s not like the Hornets had Luther Head backing up the All-Star point guard either. They had Jarrett Jack, one of the better backup point guards in the entire league, behind the All-Star guard.

To see that the Hornets are a better team with Chris Paul running them than anybody else isn’t really shocking data, but to see that the impact of Dwight on and off the court isn’t some astronomical juxtaposition really is surprising. It doesn’t mean that Dwight Howard isn’t important to his team. But maybe Stan Van Gundy’s system deserves a little more credit than what it’s been given?

The thing we start to get into – and the thing that can only be speculated on and not really quantified yet – is whether or not Chris Paul means more to his team’s system than Dwight Howard does to his own respective system. The Orlando offense adjusted from having fading perimeter players trying to give the same ole attack to a more Dwight-centric game plan. And for the most part, it wasn’t really that bad.

The Orlando offense dropped from a rating of 111.4 (4th in the NBA) in 2009-10 to 107.7 (14th in the NBA) in 2010-11. It sounds like a dramatic drop, but it all can’t be blamed on the Dwight focus as the perimeter players for Orlando failed to be consistent for the team for much of the year. Defensively, the team actually got better.  They posted a defensive rating of 103.3 in 2009-10 and it dropped to 101.8 last season. Looking at the four other guys that were usually out there with him, it’s impressive they became an even better defensive team from the previous season. And that’s where the majority of his value comes into play.

Interestingly enough, the Hornets were worse offensively last season (106.2 during CP3’s full year back from the knee injury) than they were the year he played just 45 games (107.4). However, their defense was much improved with Chris Paul pestering the initiation point of the opposing offense and Monty Williams making sure the team clamped down defensively, as New Orleans improved from 110.1 to 105.2.

Clutch Argument

While it’s hard to measure just how much each player means to their respective team, we should at least be able to figure out if Chris Paul is a lot more conducive to leading his team to victories in the clutch (clutch being defined by the 82games.com definition of “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points”) than Dwight Howard is.

Over the past three seasons, Chris Paul has been a maven of the clutch. The Hornets are 73-44 (62.3%) in games that come down to this situation with an offensive rating of 117.6, 110.4, and 100.2 from 2008-09 to 2010-11, respectfully. The Hornets are usually one of the most efficient and successful offensive teams in the clutch because of Chris Paul’s ability to create for teammates and his accurate shooting (47% from the field).

One of the biggest knocks on Dwight over his career has been the inability to count on him for a basket when your team really needs it in a tight game. But that hasn’t stopped Orlando from being a very deadly team in the clutch. Over the last three seasons, the Magic are 66-42 (61.1%) in these close games. Orlando has also never dropped below 110.1 in offensive rating during this period.

While it might have had little to do with Dwight in the past, Orlando used him much more as a scoring option and a threat in 2010-11. He averaged a career-high of 9.9 clutch field goal attempts per 48 minutes and connected on a staggering 71.9%. His previous best was three years ago when he made 61.1% of his 6.3 attempts per 48 minutes. And his ability to protect the rim and change shots at the end of games almost exclusively turns his opposing team into a jump-shooting squad at the end of games.

It’s easier to credit Chris Paul with his team’s end of game success, but it might not be the immense gap we’ve all assumed during their careers.

So what does all of this mean?

Would I take Chris Paul over Dwight Howard over the next three years if I had to build a team?

Even though this has often been a big man’s league and you never trade small for big, I’m leaning toward Chris Paul being the guy for me here. The real question is the health of Chris Paul’s knee. It’s amazing to me how many people think that Chris Paul’s injury is a career-debilitating one. He had a torn meniscus and while it can be awkward and painful to get over, it’s not nearly as bad as ripping up your ligaments. Chris Paul was able to still be the efficient floor general he always has been while in a recovery year for his injury.

The thing that gives me pause in taking him is the growth Dwight Howard has taken offensively over the past three years. He went from a guy with three limited post moves to a post presence with a face-up game, three or four solid moves from each block, and Gregory Hines-level footwork.

Personally, I don’t think Chris Paul’s knee is that bad. In fact with the extra rest of the lockout, I’d be shocked if Chris Paul wasn’t the same 30.0 PER-having point god of three seasons ago. This league has transformed into a perimeter-oriented league. With the help defense rules, it’s very easy to essentially zone up against the post and take away a player’s positioning.

It’s easy to get caught up in the physical presence of Goliath. The Goliaths of this league have often ruled the land and won the battles before them. However in this case, picking David in the form of Chris Paul seems too hard to pass up. Paul is fiery and yet unassuming, much like David was. He’ll tell Dwight just what’s going to happen in this battle and then execute the plan to perfection.

When it comes down to a final showdown, I trust Chris Paul’s ability to sling a clutch stone at Dwight’s forehead to bring down the giant.

Related posts:

  1. Is Chris Paul still The One?
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