It's hard to believe Chris Paul has been in the league for four years, 300 games, and over 11,000 minutes now. It really is. These first four seasons of CP3 have been like the discovery of an amazing, underground band, and their subsequent evolution to the mainstream. They've been like a teacher watching a brilliant pupil move on to bigger things.
Above all, it's bittersweet.
On the one hand, there's elation that the world finally recognizes his talents. On the other, there's the feeling that "I knew he was going to be this good before anyone knew who he was." I'm not going to lie; I strongly associate with the latter. I remember following CP's first-ever game on ESPN GameCast, I remember that day was my birthday, I remember watching the highlights and being blown away by the flashes of brilliance in an otherwise mediocre debut, I remember how positively tiny he looked on the court. That feeling of "but I saw him first!" lingers on, and I'm sure any supporter of a downtrodden team that has experienced success (Rays, Pistons, Colts come to mind) can relate.
I find it hilarious that LeBron James came out with an autobiography this summer (with Buzz Bissinger, no less). But aside from the "you're 24, dumbass" kneejerk reaction I had, I realized it's easy to document many player's career arcs in terms of books and storylines.
As we look forward to Year 5, I can't help but feel that Act 1 of Paul's career has drawn to a close. There was Chapter 1, where we were introduced to the main character: Chris Paul, the rookie, running away with the ROY race, captivating everyone outside the 801 area code. There was Chapter 2, documenting his first trials and tribulations, in the form of a severely sprained right ankle. Chapter 3 offered not only redemption, but the national spotlight; suddenly the media was all over him and his team's playoff run. And of course, Chapter 4 delivered a pitstop to hell- the losses of Tyson Chandler, and his team's dignity. In essence, Seasons 1 through 4 have performed the role of the traditional first section of the typical 3-act novel or screenplay: an introduction to the character, a documentation of his strengths and flaws, and the preview to his life ambitions.
And of his strengths and weaknesses, these first four years have certainly been sufficiently instructive.
There will always be the people who conflate individual success with team success. Is the goal of any individual to help his team to a title? Absolutely. However, to equate the two is to completely ignore the effects of teammates, opponents, and good old random luck. The "what has he ever won?" crowd does indeed exist in force. Their arguments don't really mean much; Chris Paul's first four seasons have been of almost unparalleled brilliance.
Six players in the history of the NBA had posted rookie PER's better than Chris Paul's: David Robinson, Arvydas Sabonis, Terry Cummings, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal. The shortest among those was Jordan at 6'6"... and he was Michael freakin' Jordan.
Short players are often among the most exciting; fans connect with them in ways they can't with 6'8" guys with 35 inch verticals. In the history of the game, there have been some exciting ones. There was Spud Webb in the 80's, whose dunk contest victory ranks among the more impressive feats in all sports. On the court, he was an underrated shooter and passer. There was Allen Iverson of the early 2000's; it's hard to think of a comparable player in NBA history, a 6 footer who could get a shot off at will over any defender in the league. There was the Hornets' own Muggsy Bogues. A 5'3" player logging over 25,000 minutes of steady NBA basketball is sheer insanity.
Ultimately though, these players were flawed. Don't get me wrong; Muggsy is in my top 3 favorite players of all time, but his height set an upper limit to what he could achieve on the floor. Spud Webb arguably could never replicate the successes of his rookie season. On top of that, he couldn't maintain his level of play upon promotion to a starting job. There were long stretches where Allen Iverson couldn't hit the backside of a barn; his annually poor floor percentages continually reflected this. Yes, he "took" his 2001 team to the Finals, but people quickly forget that he routinely fell back on his Sixers' top notch defense to bail him out of horrific shooting nights. In short, a short, brilliant player was nothing new. Sustained performance was.
Additionally, this "brilliance" was always a relative term. It was always so amazing that Player X could do all sorts of things... while being so short. The shortness was part of the brilliance. Remove the shortness, and Webb's dunks weren't so impressive. Remove the shortness, and Iverson's 45% eFG didn't look so cool. This was where Chris Paul deviated from the traditional short player path. Yes, it was impressive he could do what he did, at his size, but the numbers and performance also spoke for themselves. His assist numbers blew away Magic's, his steal rates rivaled Stockton's, his rebound rates were on par with Jordan's, his PER's trumped Shaq's.
|Player||WARP, 1st 4 Seasons|
|Player||Win Shares, 1st 4 Seasons|
Two very different rating systems indicate two very similar results. In the three point era, only one player has had a more impressive opening first four seasons (Robinson), and he was 28 years old at the end of Year 4. As defensive stats evolve, they are increasingly suggesting that Paul's gambling ways only aid his complete game (2nd in the last two years in adjusted plus/minus). There are loads and loads of Hall of Famers that CP has outperformed. I mean... just think about all this for a second. In the last 30 years, Chris Paul has been outplayed by one player this far into a career.
Best "point guard of all time" has become the vogue career ambition for media types to prescribe to Paul. Really? I know longevity is a huge part of the equation here, but is best point guard of all time the question we should really be asking here?
As far as the playoffs and Finals question goes... do you think Paul wouldn't have won a Finals with an early 2000's Shaq? With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen? With Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan? Team construction is an enormously integral aspect of championship contention. I know I mentioned this earlier, but to hold Paul's lack of hardware against him is to show a fundamental lack of understanding of how the sport works.
The best point guard debate is humorous on another level because while Paul's numbers are comparable to Jordan's, Duncan's, and Robinson's, you'd have to search high and low (and ultimately fail) in finding another point guard with a similar first 4 seasons.
Magic Johnson? Isiah Thomas? Kevin Johnson? In 4 years, Chris Paul has passed better, taken better care of the ball, and displayed more scoring range than any of the three ever achieved. Longevity again needs to be mentioned, but we can only judge CP on what he's done so far.
Off the court, Paul is a guy every Hornet fan would be proud to support. I love that he has no legitimate nickname (CP3 derives from the fact that he's the third C. Paul in his family, after his dad and brother). Other guys name themselves ‘Superman’ or ‘Mamba’ or ‘King,' but it feels fitting that Chris Paul is just ‘Chris Paul.’ I love that he has no tattoos, no earrings, no giant palatial mansion, no entourage, and so on. While I'm in no way against those things, it's just refreshing to have someone who doesn't feel the need to sport the same, ever-present image.
For me, the appeal of Chris Paul has only increased with his every failure. From the very beginning, Paul was always an easy NBA-er to relate to, relatively speaking. At 5'11" and a half, he's a guy that doesn't have the physical tools a lot of players in the league are blessed with. He doesn't have the insane body strength of a Dwight Howard, the athleticism of a LeBron James, the wingspan of a Rajon Rondo, or even the height and vertical combination of a Kobe Bryant. 5'11" and 175 pounds would probably be the average measurements of the guys at the gym I play at. This last year especially, we saw him battered and broken down by double and triple teams, physical defenders, and teams throwing their entire defensive kitchen sinks at him. "Failure makes you seem more human" is one of those things that was cool to say five years ago but is now a total cliche... but it's true. Paul's failures have been few and far between, but they've let me appreciate his successes more.
Basketball Prospectus does an annual projection for every single player in the league, based on similarity scores. For the second straight season this year, BProspectus was unable to use similarity scores to project Paul, deeming him "the most unique player in the NBA." Before Dwight Howard, there was Shaq. Before Kobe, there was Michael. Before LeBron, there was Grant Hill (and if you're laughing at that one, you probably didn't follow the NBA in the mid-to-late 90's). Before Dwyane, there was Clyde Drexler. Granted, some of these are "lite" versions of each other. But BProspectus' point is that there's never even been a Chris Paul Lite.
The main character's been introduced, his friends and foes stated, his ambitions laid out.
Turn the page, because here comes Part 2.