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What the Analytics Say: CP in the Paint

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The Point God is able to dominate a basketball game without finishing at the rim like he used to. Will it matter when the defenses tighten come postseason?

First things first: 10-1.

10-1.

10 and f&@king 1.

Yes, I remember that December when the unstoppable Willie Green-Ryan Hollins pick-and-pop game slaughtered everything in it’s path. You know who else remembers that?

But for those of us that actually watch the games, this start does feel different. The first half of this winning stretch came with the starters sleepwalking while Mo, Austin and Jesus Buttersworth (aka Ray Felton) carried the team.

And ever since the OKC loss, the starters are playing offense like they pretty much always have and defense like they’re on bath salts. The ball whipped around the floor so quickly in the San Antonio game that Greg Popovich was visibly aroused when we had possession. After this Brooklyn win, I think our point differential mathematically can’t dip below 10,000 the rest of the year.

For those of you concerned that the Clippers’ energy level may not be sustainable over the long haul of an 82 game season, I’d say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve checked the NBA bylaws, and if the season for some reason comes to an abrupt end around January 20th or so, we’d still be entitled to Larry.

What feels most different about this start as opposed to other Clipper hot stretches is that the team reeks of a genuine collective meanness that is surprisingly enjoyable to watch. It’s not too petulant, it’s not too whiny, it’s not even all that abrasive. It seems to be coming from a place that says “you know what, your team hasn’t suffered half as much as us. So to hell with you.” Or, perhaps more succintly...

As always, the tone-setter on both offense and defense has been Christopher Emmanuel Paul, whose on-court demeanor now resembles some bitterly insane blend of Gran Torino Eastwood and Training Day Denzel. Next time a referee is slow to retrieve a ball for an inbounds, I’m honestly scared Chris may just shoot him in the face.

Which makes this post somewhat counterintuitive. Chris may be playing like a man possessed, but it’s not like he’s overpowering players with an anger-fueled athleticism. That’s not his game—and for those of us who have watched him since David Stern (praise be upon him) gift-wrapped Chris to us six years ago, we know it really hasn’t been his game for quite some time now.

When you think Chris Paul, you now think a cerebral, savvy pick-and-roll player, a highly efficient midrange shooter, a gifted passer, and a borderline genius manipulator of any defensive scheme. You forget about this badass...

I’ll be honest. When I first started looking at the data for this piece this past summer, I was a little concerned. From years of watching Dan Dickau, I learned that when a point guard starts“losing it”, two things typically happen—they start turning the ball over more than they used to, and they start getting allergic to the paint.

I can’t ever see Chris being turnover-prone—like, ever. But straying from the trees near the rim? Well...

Chris’ first couple years in the league were kind of insane when you think about it. Basically one out of every three shots Chris took in his stellar rookie and sophomore campaigns came within three feet of the rim. That’s a higher percentage of shots at the rim than Lebron took in his first year in Miami (28.4%). And you can fit like four Chris Pauls in one Lebron.

Like anything involving numbers, this chart tells you something that’s happening—Chris is not venturing into the paint as much as he used to. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story of why, nor does it answer the larger and more important question: when defenses get tighter in the postseason, does this hurt us at all? Or is Chris so brilliant in managing the Clipper offense that it doesn’t really matter all that much.

TO THE ANALYTICS!!!

The lob, the jam—but not the floater

Even at his early 20-something peak, CP did not have the finishing skills of a Kyrie Irving. His field goal percentage at the rim in those years where he was constantly attacking was lower than Kyrie’s now.

On that note, it’s important to compare field goal percentage at the rim in years where there’s similar number of attempts per game for smaller players. Here’s where common sense and the eye test matter. Chris shot 62% within 3 feet last year, and 64% the year before that. Kyrie shot 58% and 61% those two seasons, but in no world would I argue that Chris is a better finisher at the rim than Kyrie. Chris is taking less shots with less degree of difficulty, which is smart—but it also means he’s lacking that dimension from his game, and smart defenders adjust accordingly.

Perhaps more worryingly, since peaking in 2013-2014 CP’s field goal percentage close to the rim dropped each of the last three seasons. And this season it’s particularly low, although that seems anomalous and will likely tick back up.

Maybe that’s why this year Chris is more inclined to give up the ball while attacking the rim than the vast majority of point guards his size. It’s still early, but 11 games is a decent enough sample size to give you at least a flavor of a trend. According to the NBA’s player tracking data, here’s where Chris Paul stacks up on drives per game versus a selection of other point guards of similar size. (Also interesting to note Steph’s drives look to be down from last year, by a significant margin).

And while he’s not bolting to the basket very often, when he does he’s giving it up—54% of the time, according to NBA.com’s player tracking. That’s the highest percentage of drives to the rim resulting in a pass of basically any point guard under 6’4 who averages 30 minutes a game.

It’s not just the contested layups at the rim we don’t see CP attempting (or converting) very much anymore. It’s also those little teardrop floaters that appeared to be a hallmark of his game earlier on in his career.

In his first year with the Clippers, CP took 22.5% of his field goal attempts between 3 and 10 feet, which is roughly that floater range (on a related note, NBA.com can we please consolidate the floater category for easier aggregation?). Last year, he was down to 12%, and this year it’s down to 10%.

Uhhh—does it matter though? He’s still really freaking good.

Yeah, homie. We’re 10-1.

And the analytics illustrating his decline around the rim probably overstate the problem.

Part of the reason Chris gives up the ball so willingly heading towards the rim are the devastating weapons around him. On your typical DJ-Chris pick and roll, if a defender is dumb enough to trail Chris too closely into teardrop territory, Ralph is going to get to say one of his catchphrases.

It doesn’t have to be a lob either. If wing defenders fall asleep, he’ll hit a cutting JJ or (increasingly) a cutting Luc with a sexy interior pass.

Not to mention how ridiculously deadly his midrange game has been since his knee surgery. I mean, here—remember that chart from earlier? If you overlay it with PER, you’re probably not concerned.

It probably does matter in late-game possessions against very good defenses

Very good defensive power forwards and centers, especially those who have seen the Clippers pick-and-roll action for years, know that CP isn’t a real threat amongst the trees anymore.

Yes, that means this butthead.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Occasionally you’ll see Chris off pick and roll action get caught mid-air in floater territory. It’s the most un-Chris Paul thing ever—jumping without a plan—but it happens. And it often happens because a good defensive team like the Warriors collapses on DeAndre but is quick and agile enough to recover and contest CP at the rim. They’ll live with Blake’s 18 footers, which is often the emergency outlet.

Which brings me to the end-of-game problem. In last possession moments where we need a bucket, Chris’ options are somewhat limited because he can’t dunk on Dwight Howard anymore. That’s why you’ll see him often subtly push off a defender (a la Patty Mills) and hoist a difficult jumper—which he’s still amazing at. But it’s not a quality shot, and normal pick and roll action with Blake often switches an even more athletic, taller defender on him.

But hey, as long as we’re up 30, that won’t really matter anyway. Long live the Point God.

As always, shout-out to the homie Connor for the beautiful ‘shops. Connor, you are the Reggie Evans to my Kenyon Martin.