In a recent piece at SBNation, Eddie Maisonet suggested that Chris Paul is the NBA's new Teflon Don, the player to whom criticism doesn't stick. There's some merit to this argument, and in fact it's an idea that citizen Divine Beast had suggested just days earlier in a series of comments.
Does Chris Paul deserve his number three ranking (on #NBARank)?
His stats were pretty subpar last season by his standards and his team exited the playoffs early.
I have no doubt he'll have an incredible season this year but going off last year did he really perform like the third best player in the NBA?
I just wonder if Chris Paul gets too much of a pass as far as his lack of success as the leader of a basketball team.
I myself touched on Paul's ability to transcend controversy and criticism during the 2008 playoffs when he was still with the Hornets. I still find it fascinating that while Paul is clearly one of the most ultra-competitive and downright mean players on the court, his charming demeanor with the media for the most part trumps that. When pundits comment on the juxtaposition of his two personae, it's invariably presented in a completely positive light: "Despite being such a nice guy off the court, Paul is the ultimate competitor during a game." It would be just as easy to spin that negatively, along the lines of "Paul's charm in the interview room is designed to manipulate the media, but don't be fooled -- this guy is ruthless and will stop at nothing to win."
I won't go so far as to agree with Maisonet that Paul deserves more criticism (if indeed that is what he's suggesting). I will say that I find it surprising that he hasn't received more. The nature of the punditry is to nitpick and analyze, and in order to get attention you often need to be critical. So compared to players like LeBron James and his own teammate Blake Griffin, it is indeed surprising how "teflon" CP3 has been. Again, not that he deserves more criticism, but LeBron and Griffin and others get far more criticism than they deserve, so Paul does seem to be inoculated in some way.
While I think it's clear that he handled his situation in New Orleans better than LeBron in Cleveland or Dwight Howard in Orlando or Carmelo Anthony in Denver, the fact is he did force his way from a small market to a big one -- while taking a fraction of the heat that was leveled on those other stars. He's also leveraged his position on the Clippers to stock the team with players of his choosing, and probably had a hand in the departure of Vinny Del Negro (not that it was a bad decision). Other players get the "coach-killer" label -- but not Paul.
So yes, Paul has managed to skate on a couple of things -- again, as compared to other players; there is not right or wrong amount of criticism. Where I vehemently disagree with Maisonet's position is in the basketball critique. There's a very good reason that Paul is considered the best point guard in the NBA -- because he is the best point guard in the NBA.
The idea that Paul's lack of postseason success (he's never been beyond the second round of the playoffs) or that his head-to-head record against other premier point guards somehow proves that he's not the best is incredibly simplistic and frankly silly. Does anyone think that Paul's New Orleans teams were better than the Spurs? Isn't a 6-9 record against Tony Parker pretty much a good thing?
It turns out, Paul also has a losing head-to-head record against Derek Fisher, 10-15; in fact, his record is 5-11 when you include head-to-head games while Fisher was with the Lakers. Does anyone in their right mind believe that means that Fisher is better than Paul? Or do they think that maybe the Lakers teams that were going to three straight Finals, the ones on which Fisher was at best the fifth best player, were better than the Hornets?
As for playoff success, no one wants that more than Paul, but if the point here is to challenge Paul's claim to the title of "Best Point Guard in the NBA" then wouldn't the challenger need to have the ultimate playoff success?
Here is the list of starting point guards who have won NBA championships since Paul has been in the league: Fisher, Rajon Rondo, Mario Chalmers, Jason Kidd, Jason Williams and Tony Parker. Is Fisher better than Paul? Is Chalmers? Rondo is a terrific player, but he was the fourth best player on that Celtics title team. Jason Williams has done something that Paul hasn't done, so clearly that means he's better, right? Other point guards who advanced deeper into the post-season while Paul was just twiddling his thumbs include Jameer Nelson, Larry Hughes, Mo Williams, Devin Harris and Chauncey Billups. Guess what? Paul has had Williams and Billups as his teammates since being in Los Angeles, and they're not better than he is, despite the fact that they've been to the NBA Finals. Quelle surprise.
There are some who argue that Parker is the best point guard in basketball -- a cyclic argument that factors playoffs wins into the equation. Parker's great, and has as good a claim to the title as any other challenger. But does anyone seriously believe that the Spurs wouldn't trade Parker straight up for Paul, or that somehow Paul's presence would doom Duncan and Ginobili et al to failure?
Paul is pretty widely held to be the third best player in the NBA at present, and frankly, it's hard to argue otherwise. There are various and sundry methods for trying to calculate the total value of a basketball player so that players can be measured against one another. None of them are foul-proof, but Paul comes out near the top of the list in all of them. For the 2012-13 season, he was third in PER, third in Win Score, third in Wins Produced, second in Adjusted Plus/Minus. Basically, if there's a cumulative measure that says that Paul wasn't the best point guard or the third best player in the NBA last season, I'm not aware of it. Other than "Titles won" of course, which says that Mario Chalmers was the best point guard, and that Juwan Howard was among the best players.
As of this moment, there's really no statistical case to be made against Paul. People can pull head-to-head data or playoff records, but do I really need to point out that basketball is a team game and that one player can't win a playoff series by himself? Isn't that self-evident?
Back to the original question, I do feel like Paul manages to avoid criticism more than his peers, and I think there may be some reasons for that.
- Paul is not dominant physically. There is a tendency when looking at the power and athleticism of James or Griffin and others and to think "He's so amazing, he really should do more." Or perhaps it's to look at the combination of size and grace and scoring ability of Kevin Durant. Paul is barely six feet tall and only marginally athletic by NBA standards. How can you criticize the guy for not achieving more, when what he achieves seems so unlikely?
- Paul is a pure pass-first point guard. Raw numbers in the NBA tend to inflate a player's value. Everyone notices scoring, but at some level, if you take enough shots, of course you're going to score. Russell Westbrook, one of the Paul's rivals for "Best Point Guard", is a spectacular athlete and a much more prolific scorer than Paul -- but he is heavily criticized in some circles for taking too many shots and for not being a better distributor, one of the main jobs of a point guard. Paul manages to compile incredible PER number and other stats -- while being a completely unselfish player on the court. In fact, Paul's biggest weakness is probably that he is too unselfish, and he would probably help his team more if he were to shoot more.
The funny thing about this discussion is that Derrick Rose won the MVP award in 2011. Was Rose better than Paul in 2011? Not for my money, but he was voted the best player in the league, not just the best point guard. If Rose is again healthy and plays like he did before, he could very well claim the title of best point guard very soon. And Paul will gladly give it up in exchange for more post-season wins.