As the Clippers sit at 30-9 on the season, just a half game back from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chris Paul is averaging a career-low 33.4 minutes per game, almost three full minutes less than that of his rookie season.
This, in part, is because the Clippers have dispatched of their opponents with relative ease this year. It’s foolish, of course, to play Paul in the fourth quarter of a blowout just so he can maintain his exceptional averages. That’s the price of winning, sometimes.
But, most likely, it’s because Paul has an adequate back-up in Eric Bledsoe, the shot of energy that ignites the second unit’s frenzied defense and fast-paced offense. Bledsoe has come into his own in his third season, as we’ve incessantly discussed here, so it’s not ludicrous to spell Paul more so than in year’s past. Couple that with a much more skilled team than last season’s, and it’s no surprise that Paul’s role isn’t as grandiose as before.
Yet what gets lost in the dissection of Paul’s minutes and the Clippers’ success is just how good he has been. While some may think the MVP discussion starts and ends with LeBron James and Kevin Durant, that is simply not the case: Paul deserves every bit the same consideration.
It took a 17-game win streak for Paul to garner serious MVP attention, despite his cemented place as the game’s best floor general and a top-5 player (arguably top-3). If the Clippers had taken some other route to success, say two separate eight-game winning streaks broken up by a loss, it’s unlikely Paul receives similar acclaim.
While stats are only one part of the MVP race, Paul’s advanced numbers speak volumes of what he’s been able to do this season, especially when compared to LeBron and Durant.
He’s tied with Durant for first in Win Shares per 48 minutes, third in Win Shares (behind James and Durant), 13th in Defensive Win Shares (Durant is 6th, LeBron is 20th), third in Offensive Win Shares (behind both players again), second in Offensive Rating (ahead of both players), and third in PER (behind both players).
The list goes on. Besides the two best players in basketball, there’s no better MVP candidate than Paul.
Which brings us back to his minutes. See, minutes played are important, if only because they hold so much value to the public. A fan sees the box score, or a player’s statline for the season, and immediately rushes to judgment, regardless of how of much that player is playing (or not playing). Fans do not know it, but they are suckers for this flawed logic. Though fans don’t vote for MVP, their opinion matters, because it helps shapes the opinion of those who do vote.
As Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton pointed out on ESPN.com., analysts can debate advanced stats all they want, but the sobering truth is that MVP voting will simply come down to points, rebounds, assists and wins. It’s unfair and not necessarily the most efficient way to determine an MVP, or any other award, but it doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
And based off those criteria, LeBron and Durant appear to be much better players than Paul.
LeBron puts up 26.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists, while Durant isn’t far behind with averages of 28.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Those numbers stand out above Paul’s averages of 16.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 9.7 assists (far from his career highs), although rebounding isn’t his forte given his size, and Durant and James are logging more minutes.
Only two MVPs have played fewer than 35 minutes per game (Steve Nash, 2004-05; Bill Walton, 1977-78), mainly because as minutes dip so do stats, so that’s not in Paul’s favor. If Paul averaged 36 minutes per game, like he normally has, his statline of 18.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 10.4 assists would be a lot more imposing. But it’s illogical to play the “it” game, especially in this situation.
Since he’s not going to spew out the versatile, otherworldly stats of his competitors, he’ll have to rack up more wins. The Heat (25-12) and Thunder (30-8) are also having successful seasons, so Paul doesn’t have a major advantage in the win column. The only conceivable way Paul will merit legitimate consideration is if the Clippers maintain their torrid pace and finish with the best record in the NBA.
And, if history is any indication, he has one thing on his side that would trump LeBron and Durant in that case: a strong narrative.
Whether with Allen Iverson in the 2000-01 season or Derrick Rose in the 2010-11 campaign, MVP voting shows a history of favoring small guards who accomplish miraculous feats. If Paul and the Clippers beat out the Thunder, Heat, Spurs and Knicks for the best record in the league, well, that’s quite the achievement. Frankly, no one expected the Clippers to be this good.
But, most importantly, it cannot be overstated how much Paul has meant to the Clippers over the past 13 months. No other player in the NBA has had a greater impact on a franchise in the past year.
He willingly embraced one of the NBA’s most futile franchises, if not the most, and turned them into a legitimate contender and possible title-favorite. And he’s buying in long term. If and when he re-signs with the Clippers this summer, he’ll ensure that the Clippers will continue to rewrite their own history books and likely hang a red, white and blue banner in the Staples Centers rafters.
People can point to the Clippers’ insane depth and camaraderie as the main factors of their success, but who recruited “A Tribe Called Bench” and built that family atmosphere? Paul. Who helped choreograph the Clippers’ top-5 offense and defense, and is constantly shouting out game strategy off the bench? Paul again. In big wins over the Spurs (twice), Grizzlies (twice, second time without Paul), Heat, Lakers (twice), and Celtics, Paul has been the best player on the floor.
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan may make the SportsCenter top plays, but Chris Paul is Lob City. The Clippers are a spitting image of Paul, demonstrating his poise and level of control at almost all times.
While Bledsoe’s production over the last two games, and the Clippers’ romps of the Grizzlies and Rockets don’t help Paul’s case of being “valuable,” in reality, anyone who watches this team knows that Paul’s play will likely determine how far the Clippers advances in the postseason.
Come playoff time, when the rotation tightens up and Paul is playing about 40 minutes a game, his delicate balance of scoring and facilitating will be the deciding factor. Depth is nice, but it doesn’t win championships; superstars do, as proven by almost every team in NBA history.
This isn’t to say Paul is as good as James or Durant, because he’s not. But that’s more of a compliment to the skill and stature of those two players. Though the NBA is transitioning to smaller basketball, and the center position has become less relevant in traditional terms, size still reigns supreme, and those two have unique size advantages over most opponents.
Still, that shouldn’t take away from Paul and all he has done. If he doesn’t win the MVP award, which he probably won’t, he should finish no lower than a very close third.
He’s the driving force behind the greatest show in basketball. It’s time he got his proper recognition.