Chris Paul: Player on the decline?

Chris Paul

PaulWhile Chris Paul has been at the forefront of trade discussions over the last few weeks, one question has been drowned out amid the rush to acquire the six-year veteran: is he in decline entering his age-27 season?

No matter what the arc of his performance, Paul remains one of the best players in the NBA. But whereas he was a surefire top-3 NBA player just a few years ago, that is not clear entering 2011-12.

Indicators Trending Downward

While Paul ranks among the leaders in many advanced statistical categories, his play relative to his own track record has been declining since 2008-09. This applies to just about every facet of his game – shooting, passing and overall efficiency.

While he’s still known as a great passer -- deservedly so -- he’s not doing so with the effectiveness of his prime. In the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Paul posted assist percentages of 52.2 and 54.5, respectively, both of which led the league. Over the last two seasons, those numbers have fallen to 45.4 and 45.8 percent.

Chris Paul Usage Rate
Last 3 Seasons

While Paul has rarely been the sort of guard who routinely drops 30 points, he has always been an effective scorer. However, his true shooting percentage has steadily declined -- from 59.9 percent in 2008-09 to 58.4 percent in 2009-10 to 57.8 percent in 2010-11.

Paul’s usage rate, which essentially measures the percentage of team plays in which a player is used, has dropped precipitously over the last three seasons. In 2008-09 it was 27.5, the 14th-highest mark in the league. It dropped to 22.2 in 2009-10 and 21.1 last season, good for just 73rd in basketball.

From Legendary to Just Very Good?

At one point in his career, Chris Paul was not only among the best players in the league, he was putting up some of the greatest seasons in NBA history. According to the metric Player Efficiency Rating (PER) -- an overall rating of a player's per-minute statistical production created by John Hollinger -- Paul’s 2008-09 season was among the Top 10 since 1990-91.

Chris Paul, Last 4 Seasons

Paul’s peak is surpassed only by the best seasons of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal and one season each from David Robinson, Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady. If you extend the time frame to the 1979-80 season, the only player who pushes Paul further down is Jordan.

The problem, however, is that Paul is not anywhere near this level currently. While his PER marks over the last two years place him comfortably inside the top 10 in the league, he is not approaching the historical significance he was in 2008-09.

Point Guard Gap Closing?

For an extended period of time, Chris Paul was clearly the best point guard in the league, according to most advanced metrics. Not only that, but the gap between him and the second-best point guard wasn’t close. Now, however, it’s not even clear Paul is the best point guard in the league.

Paul vs 2nd-Best Point Guard
Last 3 Seasons, by PER

Not only is the gap rapidly closing, but the two players closest to Paul last season were Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, who posted PERs within 0.5 percent of Paul’s. Westbrook and Rose will both be 23 in 2011-12, meaning the gap is likely to close completely -- or reverse itself -- this season.

No matter where Chris Paul ends up, that team will be adding an impact player, one of the 10 best players in basketball. However, Paul is no longer the historically great player he was in 2007-08 and 2008-09.