At one point or another, we’ve all engaged in the great point guard debate. The usual names come up. Magic. Stockton. Isiah. But just as you’re ready to jump in with your opinion, this always seems to fly in first:
“Are we talking about true point guards?”
You see, it’s in this bubble of truth that players of unusual size or versatility can fairly be dismissed. Score-first point guards need not apply, either. The pure, true point guard is viewed as a selfless table-setter, a pass-first player who was born to play point guard and nothing else.
By that definition, Clippers point guard Chris Paul is indeed the truth. But while Paul’s greatness is widely accepted, explaining it often leads one grasping at the immeasurable. There is no jewelry to point to, no scoring titles to bring up. We just know that Paul’s biggest strength is his ability to make the players around him better.
But the question is: how much better?
The Chris Paul Bump
For as misguided as the “true point guard” qualifier may be, there is plenty of evidence that suggests Paul positively impacts his teammates’ performance like no one else in the league.
Let’s start on the team level. Last year, with Chris Paul on the floor, the Clippers posted an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 116.5. For the sake of comparison, the Oklahoma City Thunder was the league’s best offense with a rating of 112.4.
Compare Paul’s 116.5 rating with other players on better teams with better coaches, and he still shines. Tony Parker, a popular non-Paul choice for the best point guard throne last year, registered a 110.5 number. Russell Westbrook was at 113.7. Kevin Durant? 114.1. LeBron James? Tied with Paul at 116.5.
To that point, Paul has largely been saddled with average offensive players most of his career, but he’s made nearly every single one of them better.
When they’ve shared the court with Paul over the last two years, Jamal Crawford, Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, Willie Green, Chauncey Billups (11-12) and Randy Foye (11-12) have shot a combined 3.3% higher on 3-pointers than their career averages.
It’s Crawford who might be the best example of Paul’s influence. Without CP3 on the floor last season, Crawford shot just 32.9 percent from behind the arc. But with Paul next to him in the backcourt, his percentage jumped all the way up to 42 percent.
The effect in boosted 3-point percentages shows on the team level as well. In 2011-12, the Clippers shot 34 percent from behind the arc without Paul on the floor. With him on, that number jumped to 36.4.
The numbers were similar in 2012-13, where the Clippers shot 33.9 percent without Paul and 36.3 percent with him.
Location, Location, Location
All assists aren’t created equal.
Paul’s ability to get his teammates the ball in the right spots on the floor is a major reason why his teammates see an up-tick in efficiency when they share the floor with him.
A notorious chucker like Crawford transforming into a highly efficient scoring machine next to Paul is no random occurrence. You can go back and ask Rasual Butler or Marco Belinelli, two players who recorded career highs in 3-point percentage when Paul was with them in New Orleans.
Paul puts his teammates in positions where they can succeed, and those positions tend to be in the most efficient spots on the floor -- at the rim and from the 3-point line. Paul’s combined 6.8 assists per game in those two areas bested everyone in the league last year, with Rajon Rondo being the only other point guard to record more than 6 combined assists from those areas.
Although things like help-defense, ball pressure, and fighting through pick-and-rolls are tougher to quantify, we do know that teams score at a higher rate off turnovers, and Paul creates plenty of those.
CP3 has led the league in steals the last three seasons with his strong, quick hands, and any player who can get out on the break with him has benefited. That’s part of the reason why Matt Barnes, at age 32, recorded the highest point-per-game total of his career.
Paul’s biggest strength is probably his ability to suck the defense in and create open shots for others. When you think about it, that’s one heck of a recruiting tool. Free agents and potential trade targets can look at the Clippers and know they have a good shot at having a career year shooting the ball. More points lead to more dollars, and so players can take a temporary paycut (and call it an investment) for a chance at a ring and the spoon-fed looks that lead to the inevitable stat bump.
With the additions of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley on the wings this offseason, maybe the cycle has come full circle. Paul has proven over the years that he can turn all sorts of average wing players into good shooters, but that’s no longer the objective. Can he take great shooters and make them elite? Can he take a great roster and turn it into a championship one?
To be the best -- not the truest or purest -- the answers will have to be yes.
Statistics from ESPN.com, NBAwowy.com, Hoopdata.com and Basketball-Reference.com were used for this piece.