Since coming into the league in 2005, Chris Paul has pole-vaulted to become one of the all-time greats at point guard, but do we take his greatness for granted?
Most great players aren’t recognized as great until they retire. LeBron James is the most micro-analyzed athlete on the planet, and he’s always the subject of the GOAT debate, but that argument will remain skewed for as long as he plays. The numbers, skillset and pure physical talent cement James as one of the best, and he has desensitized us by routinely putting up numbers that few before him have. One of his contemporaries, Chris Paul, is in the same boat, except Paul’s greatness is one of the most underappreciated in NBA history.
Atop the point guard hierarchy is Magic Johnson, and I don’t think anyone is going to deny that. With five titles, three MVPs and a bevy of remarkable statistical seasons, Magic has earned the right to be called the greatest. However, it extends beyond hardware and numbers. Johnson was flashy and classy and was a player no one had seen prior.
At 6-8, Magic was a physical anomaly for the position. His passes got executed with a precision that would make any surgeon proud, and his phosphorescent white smile made him a joy to watch because he was having a blast putting on a show; the “Showtime” Lakers wouldn’t have gotten that name if it weren’t for Magic.
Furthermore, what helps separate him from all other point guards was how he, with Larry Bird’s help, revived the NBA.
HBO’s Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals covers my statement above with much more depth. Before Magic and Bird came to the NBA, the sport had a damaged reputation with mainstream America, and many citizens associated black NBA players as cokeheads who only cared about themselves.
Yes, the NBA did have a coke problem all through the 1970s, so it’s understandable why people would feel that way.
Magic came in, and he was a clean-cut, classy black guy, which went against the stereotype. That by itself is enough to make Magic the greatest, and it’s something that other point guards won’t be able to replicate.
Behind Johnson, three guys are interchangeable in their order: John Stockton, Oscar Robertson and Chris Paul.
When I construct a list of these four guys, the Big O is second, and CP3 is third. Stockton brings up the rear, but I can see why someone would have them ordered differently.
For this “comparison,” championships won’t be weighed as heavily as other debates — odd, I know. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Between the three of them, Roberston is the only champion, and it wasn’t until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970.
Robertson is the best all-around player of the three. There’s no questioning it. Of the 14 years he spent in the NBA, ten of them were incredible statistically, and his teams weren’t devoid of talent. From 1961-1970, the Big O averaged 29.3 points, 10.3 assists, 8.5 rebounds and shot 48.9 percent from the floor.
Teammates of that time are as follows:
- Jerry Lucas (Hall of Fame) – 1964-1969, averaged 19.7 points and 19.2 rebounds
- Jack Twyman (Hall of Fame) – 1961-1966, averaged 17.8 points on 47 percent shooting
- Wayne Embry (Hall of Fame) – 1961-1966, averaged 15 points and 10.7 rebounds
So, why didn’t Robertson win with help like that? It’s simple: the Boston Celtics.
Bill Russell and his Celtics were literally unstoppable and won a title each year except one. The only team to beat them in a playoff series during the 60s was the Philadelphia 76ers, and then Boston bounced back and won the final two championships of the decade.
Regardless, Robertson was the most talented guard of that era. He finished second in points scored in the decade behind Wilt Chamberlain and was first in assists.
The Big O’s biggest downfall was his relatively short career, and once those ten years were finished, he regressed drastically. A significant portion of that, though, is because he played such massive minutes, and it came during a time without all the advanced training and medical tactics that today’s athletes have.
After Robertson, Magic came along. During the 70s, the period in between the two, guards got better and better, and Pete Maravich, Walt Frazier and Tiny Archibald (among others), were the premier backcourt players.
As Magic’s career came to an end, John Stockton was the guy who took the throne from him, and Stock was, unequivocally, the best floor general during the 90s. He was a pure point guard in every sense of the word, and his nine-straight years of leading the league in assists per game cement that.
What made Stockton’s success so intriguing was how much of a contrast he was compared to the rest of the league. He played during a time where Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton and Mitch Richmond were some of the best guards, and all of them were big, athletic and wanted to humiliate their opponents.
Stockton was 6-1, 170 pounds and just wanted to make the proper play. He was hardly flashy; if someone can find a video of him dunking, send it to me.
Most of his dimes came on fastbreaks, out of pick-and-rolls or were outlet passes to a streaking Karl Malone or Adrian Dantley. Even without the physical gifts or athleticism, Stockton could take his opponents off the dribble because of his quickness, and that turned him into a feared pick-pocket on defense.
Stockton and Jazz were mediocre in the playoffs at the start of his career, even though Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley was a driving force of that team. Up until 1990, Utah seldom made noise deep in the playoffs but managed to get out of the first round three times.
Expectedly, their fortunes reversed once Karl Malone hit his prime. From 1992-98, when the Malone-Stockton tandem was at their best, the Jazz got eliminated in the first round just twice and went to the Conference Finals three times before going to back-to-back Finals against the Chicago Bulls in 1998-99.
The one criticism I have of Stockton is that he never had to be the team’s first option. And he was never their best player. A lot of his assists came from Karl Malone’s dominance, which doesn’t take anything away from Stock because he still needs to make the play, but how successful would he have been if it weren’t for Malone and Dantley?
He was an above-average three-point shooter (38.4 percent), but he didn’t have the vast array of moves to keep one-on-one defenders on their toes.
As we enter the new school NBA, Chris Paul is the best point guard of this generation so far, and there is a myriad of factors that lead me to that conclusion.
The first is that he is a bona fide floor general. Paul manipulates his offense better than anyone else, and he is always putting his teammates where they need to be while simultaneously reacting to the defense. After working his opponents to the point of exhaustion, Paul attacks and makes whatever play is necessary — he can make the fancy pass just as accurately as the routine one, and there aren’t any issues with him scoring from any of the three levels.
Including this year, 2016-17, Paul has ten seasons averaging 15 points and nine assists, tieing him with Magic for most all-time. Unlike Stockton and Magic, CP3 has a ton of tricks up his sleeve offensively, and he’s able to get to wherever he wants on the floor and can break ankles, launch threes and snake toward the basket at will.
Once the game shifts to a defensive focus, Paul is up with the greats on that side of the court. Not only is he a ball hawk, but he can guard almost anyone of his contemporary point guards one-on-one, and this class has more talent than ever at that position. If we take that same list — 15 points, nine assists — and add two steals to it, Paul has nine. That gives him three more than Stock and five more than Magic. (Sadly, the Big O couldn’t make this list because the NBA didn’t tally steals until his last year in the league. Such a shame.)
This final point is the most important to Paul’s argument. During his first two years, he was a solid player, and the Hornets were a below-average team. They had an excellent aggregate of talent, but no one extravagant.
Since he was a rookie in this league, Chris Paul has been his team’s best player every single year. In case you don’t believe me, let’s start in New Orleans.
In 2007-08, Paul made his first All-Star team, the Hornets finished 56-26 and lost in the second round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games. The year before that, Byron Scott’s team finished 39-43. New Orleans’ roster remained the same over the offseason, but Paul’s ascension took them over the top.
The following year, they made the playoffs again. New Orleans missed the playoffs the subsequent season, and Paul played just 45 games that year. Once he got healthy, they returned to the postseason.
He’s now with the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s slightly better than Blake Griffin is. Griffin has turned in a solid career so far. However, since Paul is a superstar, he draws attention away from BG, and that makes Griffin even more effective. When CP3 came to Hollywood in 2011-12, the Clippers won 40 of the 66 games that year after going 32-50 the year before.
Paul’s biggest knock is him not playing in a Conference Finals yet. And it’s a big knock. It isn’t necessarily his fault, though, and he’s always been reliable when it counted. Contrarily, it’s his job as the point guard to elevate the performance of everyone else.
All data is courtesy of Basketball-Reference
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