Sustained excellence is boring.
Broadly considered basketball’s best point guard for the better part of a decade, the Los Angeles Clippers superstar Chris Paul has taken a back seat to younger players at his position this season. The means behind that shift is obvious: Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry are enjoying career-best and MVP-caliber seasons, while Paul has simply churned out yet another campaign reserved for only the game’s truly upper-echelon performers.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors floor generals have joined Paul’s exalted rank in 2014-2015, where there’s essentially nowhere to go but down. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are firmly entrenched as basketball’s consensus top two players, and the only challenger the public seems willing to recognize as a threat to their preeminence is 22 year-old Anthony Davis.
So Paul is stuck somewhere just below James and Durant, with Davis, Curry, Westbrook, and a couple other luminaries right alongside them. That’s by no fault of his own, obviously – the last two MVPs are among the most dominant players the league has ever seen, and being counted as one of the six or seven top performers on earth in any given field merits consensus adulation. And that’s not to say Paul isn’t still receiving it, either.
But the 29 year-old future Hall-of-Famer has quickly become underrated with respect to his peers, a development driven home by Paul receiving just three votes as the NBA’s best point guard in a ESPN survey. Tasked with ranking the 30 starting point guards in order, 25 league people divvied up their first-place votes as follows: 13 for Westbrook, nine for Curry, and the remaining three for Paul.
Those tallies pretty much align with the narrative of this season, too. As Westbrook and Curry battle with James Harden for the lead in a heated MVP race, Paul is somewhere on its periphery, surely behind James and likely behind Davis, as well. Like so much scrutiny surrounding Los Angeles’ early season “struggles,” though, Paul’s place in the award and positional pecking order isn’t exactly fair – even if he insists that both distinctions “don’t matter.”
In many ways, the four-time All-NBA First Team honoree is suffering from the same malady that afflicts James: voter fatigue. It’s just not sexy to watch an established great dominate another regular season, especially if his competition is younger and his team success hasn’t ever translated to the playoffs. His incredible collapse in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against Westbrook and the Thunder notwithstanding, the latter failing – much like the former circumstance – has nothing to do with Paul. His 23.6 postseason PER ranked third among players who went beyond the first round last spring, and was only the fourth best mark of his storied career.
None of this is to say that Westbrook and Curry aren’t deserving of such praise. Both were awesome players prior to this season tipping off, and have made even more strides over the past five months. But to say they’ve clearly usurped Paul in the point guard hierarchy is premature, a reality reenforced by the Wake Forest product’s stellar play during Blake Griffin’s recent 15-game absence.
When the Clippers’ superstar forward went down with a staph infection early last month, we legitimately wondered whether or not they might miss the playoffs. That’s how daunting Los Angeles’ schedule was, and how influential we assumed the five-time All-Star was to his team’s success. We were wrong about Doc Rivers’ squad, though, and mostly because Paul started playing like the leading MVP candidate he deserves to be.
The Point God averaged nearly 21 points and 12 assists per game on 51 percent shooting during the 15 contests Griffin was sidelined, guiding the Clippers to a 9-6 record in the process. Paul’s overall numbers since his sidekick’s initial absence on February 8 compare favorably with those compiled by Westbrook and Curry over the same time period, too.
Per game statistics only matter so much, of course, and actually don’t do Paul’s recent play justice. Despite Westbrook’s epic stat-stuffing in the past month amid Oklahoma City’s never-ending injury woes, there’s an argument to be made that Paul has been just as valuable to the Clippers as Westbrook has to Oklahoma City – if not more so.
Los Angeles, frankly, cratered when Paul was on the bench and Griffin was unavailable. The team’s 110.3 and 101.6 offensive and defensive ratings with its point guard on the floor dropped to 92.7 and 104.2 with him on the bench, a +20.2 differential that tops the Clippers’ roster by a wide, wide margin.
That we’ve felt the need to defend Paul’s merit at all is ridiculous; calling him basketball’s third-best lead guard is no slight. But it’s also indicative of just how far the narrative has swung in favor of Westbrook and Curry, and further evidence that league followers fall victim to recency bias.
Most importantly, however, this discussion should serve as a necessary reminder of Paul’s continued dominance despite others rising to his level. There’s plenty of room for other players beside Paul on the notch underneath James and Durant; just because Westbrook and Curry have ascended to it doesn’t mean its longest tenured resident has fallen off.
On the contrary, that he’s so obviously still standing there is just the latest evidence that Paul remains one of the game’s truly elite and most impactful performers.