First off, let me get this out of the way: Chris Paul is no worse than the 4th-best point guard in the NBA. On some days I’d take Deron Williams over him, some days Tony Parker, some days Chauncey Billups. Other days, I’d take CP over anybody.
BUT, in the name of playing Devil’s advocate, there’s a question that’s been building up that I’ve been kicking around the Dime office to no clear answer:
Is Chris Paul more of a “product of the system” than we previously thought?
When you pose an argument for CP as the world’s best PG, what’s your opening statement? Numbers. Paul is routinely leading the League in assists and steals, and before this most recent knee injury he was averaging 20.4 points, 11.2 dimes, 4.6 boards and 2.3 steals this season.
You use numbers because, at 24, Paul is young enough to not yet be criticized much for his postseason shortcomings (first-round exit in ’09, second-round in ’08). And just about everybody agrees that his supporting cast in New Orleans has gotten worse over the last couple of seasons, to the point where if the Hornets wound up in the 2010 Lottery with Paul playing all 82 games, he wouldn’t have been blamed. Plus, other than ball-handling, is there one single thing that CP does better than any other point guard in the League? Jason Kidd and Steve Nash are better pure passers. Monta Ellis and Tyreke Evans are better pure scorers. Chauncey and Russell Westbrook are better man-to-man defenders. Nash and Mike Bibby are better shooters. Paul is great because of the total package, because of intangibles like heart and competitiveness, and because you can’t argue against his numbers.
Or maybe you can. Because as CP has been sidelined this year, his replacement, rookie Darren Collison, has been putting up impressive numbers of his own: 18.1 points, 8.3 dimes, 4.0 boards and 1.5 steals in the 19 games he’s started. If Collison continues to do this for the rest of the season and CP doesn’t come back from knee surgery, Collison should be included in Rookie of the Year talk, as the Hornets (9th in the West) are still in contention for a playoff spot.
With every monster game Collison has — like last night when he dropped 22 points and 10 assists on the Cavs in a close loss — he threatens to makes it look like any good PG can register sick numbers in New Orleans. Ask those who support Deron in the “Who’s Better?” debate with CP: One reason CP has the statistical advantage over D-Will is because D-Will plays in a regimented system under Jerry Sloan, while Paul — previously under Byron Scott and now with interim N.O. coach Jeff Bower — is given complete autonomy like Nasty Nelson in Boomerang.
With that same freedom of expression, Collison has put up numbers equal to or better than Nash, Billups, Derrick Rose, Parker and Deron.
Now, there is one simple answer: That Collison is just better than people realized. Coming out of UCLA, the 21st pick in the ’09 Draft didn’t have much hype coming into the League despite multiple Final Four appearances. He was the 10th point guard selected in a PG-heavy class, and as a four-year college player, he had the label stuck on him that he didn’t have as much potential or was maybe less-talented than one-and-dones like Tyreke or Jrue Holiday, or Euroleague imports Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings. In fact, the reason Holiday didn’t play the point at UCLA was because Collison never let him have the spot — and yet Holiday was drafted four spots ahead of Collison (as well as accomplished four-year senior PG’s Ty Lawson and Eric Maynor).
This would reveal more of a flaw in the NBA Draft philosophy than a loophole in New Orleans that allows any ol’ point guard to look like an All-Star. And honestly, that’s what I would argue on behalf of Collison and in defense of Paul. Collison flew under the hype radar and was simply a draft steal for the Hornets. Rather than a system that creates statistically productive PG’s, the Hornets just happen to have two very good PG’s.
But it does make you wonder, even if just a little, about that system. Remember how for a while every Denver Broncos running back was cranking out 1,000-yard seasons? Or how any Texas Tech quarterback will throw for 4,000-5,000 yards per year? Or how in basketball, anybody who currently plays for the Warriors or Suns is accused of having “inflated” numbers thanks to the run-and-gun system? Those players have had an asterisk put next to their achievements. Should CP have one? How many PG’s do you think would be able to drop 20-10-2 numbers playing in New Orleans with no restrictions?
Again, I’m not saying Chris Paul isn’t an elite talent in this League and one of the best at his position. I think this is more of a result of Collison exceeding expectations. But I wanted to at least put the question out there.
In your opinion, does the success of Paul’s less-talented, smaller, rookie understudy take a little of the sparkle off CP’s stats?