What's changed about Chris Paul's game?
"He's been more aggressive this year," Doc Rivers says.
#Wellactually, Paul's free throw attempts, a typical indicator of offensive aggression, have dropped to a career-low 3.5 per game. He scores more points off pull-up jumpers than anyone in the league (9.3 points per game). And his usage rate of 22.4 percent is the lowest it's been since he came to Los Angeles in 2011.
David West, who played with Paul for six seasons in New Orleans, says he sees Paul getting the ball out of his hands a lot quicker these days. Except Paul's time of possession per game is virtually the same as it was last season, according to NBA.com's SportVU data. A slight uptick, to 7.4 minutes per game, actually.
It's not that Chris Paul has changed that drastically, it's that the definition and expectations of the point guard position have changed, diverging from the traditional way Paul has always done it, altering the way that he's viewed. The days of simply bringing the ball upcourt and initiating the offense are over. When you think of a point guard these days you think of Russell Westbrook assaulting the rim or Stephen Curry launching 3-pointers. And those are the guys who come to mind of late when ranking the top point guards in the NBA.
"The argument and debate has always been, 'Can you win with a scoring point guard?'" Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas said. "The noise around that was so loud that it made a lot of guards conform to not scoring. I was a nonconformist. I scored the ball and I assisted. Consequently, we won. When you look at the point guards today, they are more apt to play that way than the traditional way of pass first, go stand in the corner."
On a recent NBA TV segment, Thomas and Greg Anthony (who have a total of 24 years' worth of experience as NBA point guards between them) gave their lists of top five point guards in the game today. Thomas had Paul third. Paul didn't crack Anthony's list. It could be a long overdue acknowledgement of Tony Parker's success. He rarely comes up in the best point guard debate, but he's the one with four championship rings, even if he has had only one season in which he finished in the top 10 in assists. It used to earn him demerits in the point guard discussions. Now his style is emulated.
"When I look at the position right now, to me, still, because Tony Parker is the champ and has been the champ," Thomas said. "You have to say over the last 8-9 years, even though we say Paul has been the best, I think that's really debatable. Because Parker's been winning, and winning does matter."
Paul remains the best at the twin tasks of protecting and distributing the ball, an attribute that used to make him the default No. 1 at the position. His 4.75-1 assists-to-turnover ratio this season is the highest of his career and leads the league. That's not enough anymore. Increasingly people expect, well, points from their point guards.
That mentality has spread to the Clippers' locker room as well.
"I'm always going to say he should shoot more," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I'm a coach who believes in aggressive point guards. Chris wants the right balance, but I'm sure I drive him crazy at times. I'm a believer in aggressive point guards, because I believe it puts so much pressure on the defense every time."
Jamal Crawford has often been a vocal proponent of Paul looking for his shot.
"He knows he has a lot of weapons [around him], but there's times we need him to be more aggressive, because that opens up the floor for everybody else," Crawford said. "He's picking spots. That's for sure. I think he's doing an excellent job at it. It's a fine line."
There's a new voice in Paul's ear urging him to shoot more. It's the distinctive Baltimore bark of Sam Cassell, a former point guard who had twice as many field goal attempts as assists during his playing days and now is an assistant coach with the Clippers. As a result, Paul is a little quicker to shoot 3-pointers this season, and is as close as he's ever come to attempting four of them per game. He's made 40 percent, his best accuracy as a Clipper. It's also a percentage point better than Curry.
But Curry has taken almost twice as many 3-pointers as Paul and made 34 more. We think of Curry as a shooter, even though he also has become a fixture among the league leaders in assists. Curry beat out Paul in the fan voting to get a Western Conference starting spot in the All-Star Game last season, and this season is the first time he's on track to post a better PER than Paul (26.92 to 25.58).
Curry came up as a shooting guard, and spent the early part of his NBA career learning to be a point guard. Now it's Paul who is in the process of relearning the point guard position in a continuously evolving league.