The career arcs of Chris Paul and Deron Williams have been inextricably tied since 2005 when they were in their final seasons of college basketball (Paul a sophomore, Williams a junior). They were the best point guard prospects since Steve Francis some six years earlier. Their “rivalry” was well-publicized, although it was unclear whether a rivalry actually existed beyond “we are two elite point guard prospects that are relatively similar in age.”
Paul took the upper hand early, making the consensus first-team All-America in 2005, while Deron Williams was relegated to the second team (his teammate Dee Brown made the first team over him, which seemed ridiculous then and seems even more ridiculous now), but Williams claimed it back when he was drafted ahead of Paul in that June’s draft (Raymond Felton made things awkward by being drafted immediately after Paul).
From there it went back-and-forth for the next two years. Chris Paul nearly won Rookie of The Year unanimously in 2006 – there was a single vote for Williams, who finished sixth overall (who wants to bet someone from Utah’s media team cast that vote?), but Williams led the 2007 Jazz to a surprise appearance in the Western Conference Finals (where they were thoroughly embarrassed by San Antonio, but still) while Paul and the Hornets stayed home following a sub-.500 season.
Since then, however, Chris Paul has clearly been the superior player (regardless of what anyone tried to argue in favor of Deron Williams). Paul put together back-to-back MVP-caliber seasons, and his 2009 season is easily the best all-around campaign for any point guard not named Earvin or Oscar (and even that might be selling Paul short). The only argument that even remotely seems to favor Williams is a semi-disingenuous durability claim – Paul missed half of the 2010 season with knee issues, but other than that he’s been fine. Since 2008, Williams has posted a PER of 20.5, Paul has posted 26.7. It’s no contest.
However, there’s been an interesting trend that pops up when the two play head-to-head – Deron’s team usually wins, and Williams almost always out-performs Paul. Deron’s teams are 14-4 against Paul’s, and while their scoring, assist, and rebounding numbers are pretty even, Williams shoots 51% from the floor and 39% from three to Paul’s 43% and 29%.
The common-sense answer here is that Williams is bigger and stronger than Paul is, so therefore Paul has a harder time against Williams. However, that becomes more in doubt when you look at how Paul performs against other big guards – he certainly doesn’t have much trouble against Russell Westbrook, and while his teams aren’t winning against Derrick Rose, his individual performances are up to snuff. Where Williams seems to separate himself from Rose and Westbrook is his positional discipline on defense. He doesn’t have elite lateral quickness like Paul, and he isn’t a disruptive chest-to-chest defender like Avery Bradley, but he’s smart about how he positions himself, fighting over screens well and otherwise doing his best to force his man towards help.