Because of Blake Griffin, the most exciting in-game dunker since a young Vince Carter, the Los Angeles Clippers are one of the hottest tickets in the NBA. Monday night in Dallas was no different, as scalpers doubled their prices with the American Airlines Center filled to capacity.
You don’t need to be a sports fan to appreciate Griffin, a chiseled 6’9, 250 power forward with springs for legs. Griffin looked like he was playing Slamball at times against an aging Dallas Mavericks frontcourt, soaring 11 and 12 feet in the air with absolute ease.
In contrast, Chris Paul, a 6’0, 175 point guard, doesn’t pass the eye test. Most players his size, guys like J.J. Barea and Ty Lawson, play at an incredibly fast pace to make up for their lack of stature, pin-balling around the court and using their lower center of gravity to blow by taller opponents. While Paul no longer wears the bulky knee brace he played with in his last season with New Orleans, the knee injury clearly robbed him of his explosiveness, and he plays almost as deliberately as Jason Kidd, his 38-year-old counterpart on the Mavericks.
In most video game player rating systems, All-Star players tend to have scores somewhere in the 90’s. Many are like Griffin, a “99” caliber athlete who dominates despite having several glaring holes in his game. Paul, in comparison to guys like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, would probably score somewhere in the 60’s athletically at this point in his career. To dominate in the NBA, a player with Paul’s size and athletic ability needs a skill level of “99”.
Paul is one of the few NBA players to have absolutely maximized his physical ability. If basketball players were rated like boxers, he would be the consensus pound-for-pound champion.
He almost never misses an uncontested jump-shot and he only needs an inch of separation to get one off. Like Steve Nash with Phoenix, Paul puts on an absolute clinic when he gets a big man switched on him. He’ll dribble four, five, six times, watching his defender and waiting for him to take a half-step back, and at that point, it’s over.
He doesn’t need to blow by people to create open shots for his teammates; he can find a tiny crack in the defense, let a help-side defender take one step towards him and then zip the ball through the lane to the open man. And while Griffin has video game athletic ability, Paul plays like the quintessential video game player, someone who intimately understands all the rules of the game, and as a result, almost never makes the wrong decision.
His statistics this season speak for themselves: he averages 18.5 points per game on 50.5% shooting while handing out nine assists on only 2.1 turnovers. Only seven of the NBA’s top 20 scorers shoot better than 50% from the field; the other six -- LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee and Griffin -- are all at least 6’9. And while players like Howard and Griffin do most of their damage at and above the rim, where it’s fairly easy to score, 80% of Paul’s shots come from outside the lane.
In many respects, as Steve Perrin of Clips Nation wrote, the only real flaw in Paul’s game is that he doesn’t shoot enough. That’s why the Clippers will be able to survive Chauncey Billups’ season-ending injury, as Paul is capable of carrying a heavier load offensively while doing what Billups did far more efficiently.
He doesn’t need to dominate the ball to get a double-double; his usage rating is only 22.7. For some perspective, Kobe Bryant’s usage rating this year is 37.8. Paul’s teammates get more chances to shoot the ball than Kobe’s do, and as Shaquille O'Neal once famously declared, “If you feed the big dog, he will guard the yard. If you don’t feed him, he’s just going to walk around and get bored, and he ain’t going do s***.”
But, to return to the boxing analogy, there’s a reason the sport has weight classes. It doesn’t really matter how much more skilled Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. are than the Klitschko brothers; if the best middle-weight in the world steps into the ring with a decent heavyweight, they’re going to get killed.
Size matters in sports, especially in one involving throwing a ball through a ten-foot hoop. So while 6’9, 270+ players like LeBron can dominate the action on both sides of the ball, there’s little Paul can do to impact the game defensively, aside from his 2.3 steals a game.
In a hypothetical NBA Finals match-up, the Miami Heat could stick LeBron on Paul defensively in the same way he terrorized Rose in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. But for all his skill, Paul, almost 100 pounds lighter, wouldn’t even be a speed-bump if he were isolated against LeBron.
For the Clippers to win a championship, they’re going to need their two raw young big men, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, to start toggling their skill-level up. While Paul knows exactly what he’s doing every time he puts up a shot, Griffin, especially when playing with his back-to-the-basket, will often jump in the air first and then try to figure something out. His jumper is inconsistent at best, and he went 1-for-6 from the free-throw line in the last three minutes of the Clippers 96-92 loss to the Mavericks, with Dallas coach Rick Carlisle going as far as implementing a “rake-a-Blake” strategy on one possession.
Chris Paul is an All-NBA caliber point guard, but All-NBA caliber point guards aren’t going to win a championship without All-NBA caliber big men.
In an end-of-game scenario, there isn’t a player in the NBA who I would trust with the ball more than Paul. He’s not going to make a mistake and he’s going to get his team a good look at the basket. However, his margin of error is still zero, which is why a player with a “99” skill level still shoots four or five percentage points lower from the field than Griffin and Howard, two big men who shoot better from the field than the free-throw line.
For Paul to carry the Clippers to a championship, he’ll need to play perfectly in four consecutive best-of-seven playoff series. No one can play perfectly for two months against the best basketball players in the world, not even Chris Paul.