Nylon Calculus, The Step Back

Chris Paul in the playoffs and his complex legacy

In the last several days, an incomprehensibly long-running NBA offseason talking point has reared its ugly head yet again. Why can’t Chris Paul win in the playoffs? Is there something inherently wrong in our assessment of a player who, by stats or film otherwise, rates as one of the greatest point guards of his generation?

Paul has made it to the postseason nine times, yet somehow never reaching the Conference Finals even once. Make no mistake, this will be a hole on his resume held against him until rectified, right or wrong, same as LeBron’s inability to win in the Finals was held against him when discussing matters of legacy. When a player is nicknamed the “Point God” and touted as perhaps one of the greatest ever at his position, this type of nitpicking is bound to occur.

Well, Chris Paul’s base numbers certainly don’t set off any alarms. In fact, many of his statistics actually improve from regular season to the playoffs, including the wholistic Box Plus-Minus metric. His career regular season BPM is 7.6, but his career playoff BPM jumps a little bit to 8.5.

Read More: Five lineups we can’t wait to see next NBA season

However, criticisms of Paul center around a few specific points — that he shrinks when it matters most, that he lacks a killer instinct, or that doesn’t have enough of an impact on the game. Deconstructed, this simplifies to something that often gets conflated: the difference between a team’s best player and best scorer. It’s a distinction that is usually applicable when discussing point guards. Chris Paul’s prototype roster construction has been such that he would never need to be the primary or sole scoring option. He was supposed to be able to lean on David West in New Orleans and Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. It’s the same role and duality shared by one of Paul’s contemporaries, Steve Nash, in Phoenix. While helming the 7-Seconds-or-Less Suns, Nash could rely on the scoring brilliance of Amar’e Stoudemire.

But lack of scoring doesn’t hurt our perception of Nash. And another of Paul’s contemporaries, Jason Kidd, never averaged over 20 points per game in the regular season, only hitting that mark once in the playoffs (just barely, at 20.1 points per game in 2002-03 with the Nets). When Kidd finally won a ring in Dallas, he was not much more than a secondary option and facilitator to Dirk Nowitzki. Whether you think they are properly rated, underrated, or overrated, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash don’t receive the kind of backlash for their postseason performance that Chris Paul has. Which is a little strange, if you compare the three of them side by side:

Does Kidd get a pass simply for making the Finals twice in a mediocre Eastern conference? Put another way, rewarding Kidd more simply for making the Finals several times while Paul’s postseason numbers have largely outclassed his would be making the reductive mistake of rewarding the end result over the process. Chris Paul’s playoff statistics have largely been better than both Kidd or Nash, all while his usage rate was higher than either of theirs as well.

This is not to suggest that Kidd or Nash deserve blame or played poorly. Rather, it’s the opposite, and highlights the different standard that Paul seems to be held to. As for the criticism that he shrinks when it counts? Using Basketball-Reference’s Shot Finder tool, I calculated Chris Paul’s effective field goal percentage in postseason situations where there was less than five minutes left in a fourth quarter or overtime with the score margin within five. His clutch playoff eFG% came out to be 0.525. That’s horrendous compared to his overall playoff eFG% of…0.532. Never mind, carry on.

It’s also not the case that Paul has never had to do any heavy lifting in the playoffs either. In fact, he’s carried his teams through lack of talent, injuries, etc. as impressively and consistently as can be expected of any non-LeBron James player. It’s something that players like Russell Westbrook are lauded for, but for which Paul rarely gets heralded in the same way. Look no further than his 2011 playoff work with the New Orleans Hornets:

Two similar situations, yet two strangely divergent narratives. Just like Westbrook, Paul was the only rotation player on his team to post a positive offensive BPM, managing to somehow steal two games from the defending champion Lakers. The Hornets’ second-best player that year was Trevor Ariza, capable in his own right but nobody’s idea of a star.

So Chris Paul has been consistently effective in the playoffs, hasn’t shrunk in the clutch, and has shown himself to be capable of carrying mediocre teams. He’s not bad at defense either. In fact, he’s one of, if not, the best defensive point guards in the league, which adds a unique layer of value, as I’ve written previously. A team’s defensive upside is driven by its wings and big men. Paul is a good defender at a position which today has largely rendered that side of the ball secondary at best and left it for dead at worst. Furthermore, think back to the point guards on the championship teams of the last several years — Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker. Not exactly players contending for spots on NBA All-Defense teams.

Yet, when discussing matters of legacy, Chris Paul’s seems to be shrouded in far more controversy than peers that he compares favorably to. I’m reminded of a quote by Benjamin Morris of 538 in this piece on Steph Curry:

“Outcomes and statistics change dramatically from year to year, value typically doesn’t.”

Would Chris Paul be any greater or lesser a player if Robert Horry doesn’t drop a people’s elbow on David West in 2007 and the Hornets advance to the Western Conference Finals? Would Chris Paul be any greater or lesser a player if Josh Smith doesn’t go on a freak shooting tear in the semis in 2015?

While it is inconceivable that a player of Chris Paul’s caliber hasn’t been able to string together a deep playoff run, we shouldn’t downplay his legacy in a results-driven manner. But the opposite side of the coin can be true as well. Although mitigating factors like injury can’t be ignored, they can’t be used to explain away 100 percent of his playoff results. It is certainly fair to ask if a modern championship-contending team can have a point guard as its best player but not its best scorer. While teams like the Steve Nash Suns and Jason Kidd Nets have made deep playoff runs, there aren’t really any good examples in this century of a title-winning team being built in such a manner. You could make a case for Chauncey Billups on the 2003-04 Pistons but would also need to contend with the counterpoint that Ben Wallace was their best player. Tony Parker might be the closest example, as the scoring load on the 2013-14 Spurs was relatively balanced, although he too would need to contend with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard jostling for “best player” honors.

As frustrating as it may be, a more patient, nuanced approach is necessitated when trying to evaluate Chris Paul and see if he can finally break through this year. He certainly has as good a chance as ever. This coming season, Paul will play alongside James Harden, the best teammate of his career, and be surrounded by versatility and depth. Jason Kidd never won a ring until his 14th season in the league, and he did it as a role player. Why hastily put a referendum on Chris Paul’s career so soon?

*All data courtesy of Basketball Reference

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