Chris Paul is a master of deflection, and after decisive Clippers victories in his two-plus seasons with the team, he’ll commonly redirect any praise for his winning individual effort to teammates. On repeated occasions, he’s defined his role as a decoy.
“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul said last season after slicing up Chicago’s vaunted defense. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me, and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake [Griffin], and once that continues, we become that [much] more dangerous.”
For years, this is how Paul has defined his job. He’s the prototypical old-school point guard, a professional paid to distribute the basketball after leveraging the defense, something he does better than any point guard in the league.
Playing this way has always been a point of pride for Paul. It conveys savvy, selflessness -- and, to some extent, self-regard. Paul enjoys dictating the terms of the action for the other nine guys on the floor. He also likes that the defense has to respect this condition of the game. So it’s selfless, but it's also alpha.
Over the past several seasons, the league has gradually moved away from Paul's job description for those manning the 1. Chris Paul is a pure point guard. Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are scorers who happen to play the point, and their shoot-first style has radically influenced the NBA game -- and also helped their teams win a ton of games. Already you hear talking points from Orlando that the Magic have found their Westbrook in the dynamic Victor Oladipo.
Through the first five games of the Clippers’ season, Paul has defied his own doctrine and incorporated a little of that shoot-first mentality. His goal hasn’t been to make the other team think he’s trying to score. It's been to score.
This season, Paul is averaging 24.8 points per game (25.1 points per 36 minutes, good for fifth in the NBA). Per 36 minutes, he’s taking 3.8 more shots this season than last season and getting to the line significantly more (5.0 free throw attempts per game in 2012-13 versus 8.3 this season).
The book on Paul is that there’s always been a tension in his game between asserting himself as a scorer and maintaining his role as the pure distributor. The case for the latter has been predicated on the idea that if he were to look for his shot as a scorer, he’d be shelving his most rarefied skill as the commander of each possession, the point guard who can get a shot for anyone -- and people should work their strengths.
Paul’s performance in the early going suggests that the scorer-facilitator debate has always been a false choice. His usage rate so far this season is a career-high 29.2, and his assist rate of 35.8 is just a scant below last season (36.9), but considerably higher than his first season with the Clippers (32.1).
What’s going on? How can Paul up his shot attempts and individual production as a scorer without diminishing his role as the team’s facilitator?
Paul has come to realize the idea that the keeper of the ball, if he can shoot, is often the guy most equipped to get a quality look at the basket. And Paul can shoot. Last season, he drained greater than 48 percent of guarded and unguarded jump shots, which put him in the 92nd percentile in the league. This season, his effective field goal percentage from 10 feet and beyond is 54.5 percent. In his preferred range of 15 to 19 feet, he’s posting a sizzling shooting percentage of 57.9 percent. Paul is one of the relatively few players in the league for whom an open 15-foot jumper with no risk of a turnover is a smart bet.
This is high-percentage basketball for the Clippers in the half court, something Paul has embraced. Two-thirds of those 15-19-footers have been uncontested, because Paul can uncannily create a layer of space around him by bursting past or stepping back off a high pick -- and those picks from DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are sturdier this season. Truth is, Paul can create separation between himself and his defender out of nothing in traffic.
Naturally, Paul quickly turns any question about his heightened aggressiveness in looking for his shot into something else. After dropping 42 points on Golden State last week, he acknowledged that he looked for his shot off ball screens, then immediately moved into a talking point about how his aggressiveness truly materialized on the defensive end.
So far as maintaining his assist rate, there are a few factors at work. Paul’s starting small forward, Jared Dudley, doesn’t need to be fed the way Caron Butler did, and Butler frequently worked in isolation. More than half of Dudley’s makes have been assisted by Paul. Last season, only 39.7 percent of Butler’s were. The same pattern holds true for J.J. Redick, whose field goals have been assisted by Paul 63.3 percent of the time. In contrast, last season’s platoon of starting shooting guards -- Willie Green and Chauncey Billups -- had only 42.9 percent of their successful field goals assisted by Paul. Meanwhile, Griffin is making more shots, which helps Paul’s cause.
Paul’s willingness to score and his ability to deliver the ball where his teammates like it have never been mutually exclusive. By seizing this truth, the Clippers have never been more prolific offensively -- and Paul's never been a more complete player.