Chris Paul is a wizard, a magician, they say. And those who describe him that way are correct, not in that Paul possesses the ability to effect supernatural phenomenon upon this mundane plane of existence, but that he can make us think his tricks and sleight of hand exceed the bounds of logic. But when we peek behind the curtain, we can see that what makes Chris Paul so powerful isn’t a familiarity with the occult, but a practical mastery of the minutia of the pick-and-roll. That, and an shaman’s handle.
The two most productive offenses in the league belong to Miami and Denver, two teams that push the pace and generate steals and easy shots in transition. These teams create advantages in the open court, either by having more players than the defense or by putting great finishers in situations without help defense.
The third best offense belongs to the Clippers, who play at a much slower pace and rank in the bottom third in transition points. That the Clippers are able to be so efficient without a prolific fastbreak attack is impressive. That they do it without a ton of three point shooters or ever really running set plays is indeed phenomenal.
A quick look at league-wide field goal percentage confirms that in a 5-on-5 situation, NBA defenses have an advantage over just about any NBA offense. The reason teams run screen and rolls, back picks or flex cuts is to force the defense to think, to react, and to hopefully surrender that advantage by allowing an avenue to an easy shot.
What makes the Clipper half court offense so consistently productive is that when Chris Paul runs a regular old pick-and-roll, he is the very best in the league at conjuring an advantage for his team. Watch Paul use a screen, and you’ll be struck by how few times his defender is able to avoid getting absolutely wiped out by the screener. It’s hard to remember this when traumatic flashbacks of Blake Griffin annihilating a help defender cloud our minds, but those dunks only happen because his initial defender is busy chasing Chris Paul, knowing that Paul’s defender is somewhere reinserting his arm into his shoulder socket after another jarring screen.
The idea behind the pick-and-roll is that it allows the offense to play five on four, at least momentarily. Most defenses do a great job of managing that brief period of vulnerability, but when Paul makes a defender all but disappear, it’s nearly impossible to recover.
He’s like a jiu jitsu master in that way. Once he has his opponent off balance, he is expert at pressing that advantage, forcing his opponent to try to counter. But Paul knows all the counters, and when a defense sends an extra defender to the paint, or simply decides to let Paul’s defender recover as best he can, Paul is prepared to turn that slight advantage created by the pick-and-roll into an even greater opportunity.
It’s less sorcery than pure logic. Paul is the best in the league at keeping a defender on his hip, or pinning a defender behind him, as he maintains his dribble, keeps his head up and determines (often instantly) how to best leverage his advantage for an open shot. A set defense is a mysterious equation, and once Paul comes off clean from a pick-and-roll, he learns the value of one of the variables. From there, it’s a matter of solving the rest of it. Paul knows opposing defenses inside and out—their tendencies, their philosophy on rotations, and who’s in foul trouble—and all this data goes into an instantaneous calculation to ascertain the answer to “what is the best shot on this possession?”
This partially explains why Paul gets smarter at the end of the shot clock, when most players become worse decision makers. The longer a defense is working to stop the Clippers, the more mistakes they make, the more time a defense has to become misshapen, the better Paul can pick it apart.
There’s just no ideal way to limit Paul on the pick-and-roll. Defenses rightfully respect Paul’s jumpshot, so his primary defender almost always chases him over the screen. But even when a defender is able to slip under the screen, he must re-approach Paul from an odd angle, and even that shift can provide enough of a seam for Paul to deliver his viscous inside-out dribble and scoot into the lane, creating another numbers advantage for his team.
Of course, just because Paul’s trick starts with something as simple as using a ball screen to it’s maximum effect doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for artistry and illusion. His ball handling is legendary, but Paul has an even spookier talent. Like a great quarterback throwing to a receiver’s back shoulder, Paul can “pass a teammate open.” A number of times each game, he will create an angle then deliver a pass that leads his teammate to an open spot on the perimeter, or to a dunk down the middle of the lane. In this way he literally makes his teammates better, and smarter, by guiding them to the places and plays that best serve their talents. His intelligence inhabits the entire offense. It’s not mind control, but it’s close.
The Clippers are a flawed and somewhat limited team. But like the Mavericks last year, the Clippers have a player who can guarantee that they get a good shot every time down the court. In the playoffs, when the game slows down and half court execution becomes paramount, there’s no better player to have on your team–even if he’s more genius than genie.