As part of the ad campaign for Jordan Brand's new CP3 VI shoe I've been asked to write a series of posts on Chris Paul. This is an assignment I am happy to do.
When Chris Paul played for New Orleans, I knew he was good. I mean, of course I knew he was good, I knew he was great. But the Hornets weren't exactly the darlings of TNT and ESPN, and for one reason or another I frequently missed Clippers-Hornets games over the years (which is weird because I probably only miss a handful of games a year in general).
Then the playoffs would come around and I'd see how outstanding this guy really was.
But watching him game in and game out for an entire season and two playoff series has given me an entirely new perspective on Chris Paul. He is a truly remarkable basketball player -- but it's not always easy to tell exactly what makes him so special.
For instance, when you look at some of the other players at the same ultra elite level as Paul, it's pretty obvious right away, at least physically, why they are great players. Paul was third in MVP balloting last season. First was LeBron James, who is 6'8" 250 pounds with the quickness of a point guard and athleticism to rival any player in the league. Second was Kevin Durant, 6'9" with the reach of a seven footer, unlimited range on his perfect jumper and every offensive skill imaginable. Paul? He's barely six feet tall, quick enough, not super athletic, not a world class shooter. What the heck makes this guy an MVP candidate?
There are several factors I'll touch on in this series. We'll start with intelligence.
Chris Paul is, far and away, the smartest player in the NBA today. Coaches talk about basketball IQ all the time -- well CP3 is the Sheldon Cooper of the NBA. He is always thinking ahead, always analyzing the situation. He makes plays that are so smart, they sometimes look dumb to everyone else because they have no idea what he's doing.
Example: late in the third quarter of a game last season, with 27 or 28 seconds left on the game clock, a long rebound caromed out towards Paul on the defensive end. With it clear that he would get the rebound and the opponents retreating on defense, rather than grab the ball, he let it keep bouncing. He actually had the situational awareness to think "Let's allow three more seconds to tick off the game clock before I touch this ball and start the shot clock, then we can hold for one shot and end the quarter." Unfortunately, the scorekeepers and refs didn't get it -- the shot clock started when it became clear that Paul would get the ball, though he had not touched it. Again, it was Paul who was the only one who seemed to get this, and he pointed out the error to the officiating crew. He was the only one in the building who knew what was going on.
I've watched untold thousands of basketball games over the years -- I've never seen anyone make that play. Clearly it doesn't present itself that frequently, which makes it perhaps even more remarkable. It's not as if Paul has had a lot of practice making that exact play. It's essentially the only situation in basketball where the game clock is running but the shot clock is not. On the fly, he recognized what was happening, and rather than doing the instinctual thing (grab the ball!) he made a non-intuitive play to gain a small advantage.
His ability to think ahead got him into trouble a couple of times last season. Playing alongside poor free shooters, Paul recognized on several occasions when intentional fouls were coming. Against Golden State, he shot a forty footer as DeAndre Jordan was being fouled off the ball -- and made it. The refs disallowed the basket, though it's anyone's guess as to why since by the rules it should have counted. The next time down the floor, he did the same thing -- only this time the refs chose not to blow the whistle as Jordan was being bear hugged, and Paul missed the shot, costing the Clippers a possession. He made a smart play in each case, but was thwarted by the fallibility of the officiating crew.
So what does this basketball super IQ mean? The examples above mattered little in those games -- in fact one of them hurt the Clippers in the long run. So what's the big deal?
Paul's basketball IQ manifests itself in myriad ways in every game, on every possession. Whether it's knowing the matchup that is most promising, or recognizing a mismatch that resulted from a switch, or making the right decision out of a dozen options on a pick-and-roll, Paul is a basketball supercomputer on the court. When his teammate has an advantage, he knows it immediately, many times before it happens, and delivers the ball at the proper time and place. He knows which opponents are in foul trouble, which ones prefer to drive left, he always knows the clock, he is a virtuoso of the two-for-one possession. He leads the league in steals, not because he is the quickest player in the league (though that doesn't hurt) but because he knows where you're going to pass the ball before you do.
If basketball were chess, Paul would be Garry Kasparov. He is always thinking two and three steps ahead of his opponent. And it's one of the reasons that he is great.