Point guards are artists; bastions of creativity whose games breathe their unique style into life on the basketball court. Russell Westbrook paints in aggressive, jagged strokes—high in contrast and jarring to the mind. Tony Parker works in smooth, subtle gradations. And a Stephen Curry game is like a watercolor, free flowing with every brush stroke building on the one before it.
Early in his career, Chris Paul’s style encompassed all of the above. If the modern NBA is in the midst of a Renaissance Era for point guards, Paul was its Leonardo Da Vinci—one of a few great masters, alongside Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
Injuries and age have altered his game some, robbing some explosiveness and forcing him to take a more measured approach. At the age of 30, having defined the current movement, Paul has taken on a new style.
While much of the western world toiled in the dark ages, Muslims were incorporating advanced mathematics into beautiful Islamic mosaics—using geometry so advanced, their intricate patterns were not fully understood in the western world until the 1970s:
“When architects started using the model “girih tiles”, as Lu calls them, the work of architects across the region became faster and easier because they were able to get the shapes bang on every time.
It also became easier to make more complicated patterns, Lu said. By 1453, architects had started designing walls with perfectly overlapping quasicrystalline tiles. Quasicrystalline patterns never repeat, but are completely symmetrical. A dizzying example is on display at its medieval best at the Darb-i Imam shrine in Iran.”
Paul is still capable of producing beautiful, free flowing paintings, but increasingly his creativity is channeled through precise, technical expertise. No point guard in the NBA has the same eye for recognizing patterns and angles as Paul, meticulously chaining dribbles together to craft complex, beautiful masterpieces.
In his 10th NBA season, Paul’s 19.1 points, 10.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals were right in line with his career averages—with three of his four season seasons dribbling to the same metronomic rhythm. One difference of note was the 82 regular season games Paul played; the first time in his career he’s accomplished that feat.
Though Paul’s production is largely the same, he goes about it in a remarkably different way. In his first season with the Clippers, Paul was still able to, and often did, get to the rim at will. But ricocheting between giants is taxing for a 6’0”, 175-pound frame with a history of knee injuries. As a matter of self-preservation and the augmentation of his skillset, Paul began redistributing his shot attempts to midrange pull-up jumpers and three-pointers.
An interesting wrinkle the Clippers have added under coach Doc Rivers is extending the placement of their big men in Horns sets beyond the three-point line, giving Paul a running start, allowing the offense to flow downhill. Already blessed with supernatural point guard instincts, Paul has supplemented this with hours of study. It’s not enough to have an eye for the play, but to have an engineer’s perspective in how schemes are crafted. So duteous to his craft is Paul that he’s developed an intrinsic feel for his defender’s gait, able to utilize the brief moments between steps to create separation for his shot.
Never was Paul’s master of angles and recognition of patterns more apparent than in Game 7 of the Clippers first-round series against the Spurs. Then, a hamstring injury robbed Paul of seemingly everything else as he somehow willed his team to victory:
“With roughly eight seconds remaining in the game, Paul squared Danny Green up with a hesitation, as if to prepare to use the approaching screen from Griffin. It wasn’t much of a feint, but it was enough to gain a step for a point guard who’s spent an entire career wringing every bit of production out of even the slightest advantages.
Unable to shift directions or speeds as effectively on his ailing hamstring, Paul instead leveraged that first step by using Green’s momentum against him, stopping on a dime to pull-up as Green was caught between steps. The ability to create separation was amazing enough, but Paul also had to somehow loft a hook shot over the outstretched arms of a rotating Duncan, the ball kissing softly off the glass and settling through the bottom of the net.”
Looking at the visual representation of Paul’s scoring methods, you can see how tilted his own offense is towards that shot, and how stunningly efficient he is with them:
Now incorporate Paul’s passing into those numbers and overlay the chart on top of the Clippers’ overall production, and it’s apparent how much of the offense flows from Paul:
From our own Kelly Scaletta’s introduction of his scoring and influence charts:
“And here are the raw numbers for Paul’s production vs. the rest of the Clippers, combined:
Category Drive Close Catch and Shoot Pull Up Free Throws Paul (Including Assists) 2.9 9.1 15.9 10.3 3.5 Clippers (Independent of Paul) 8.6 3.7 12.7 13.7 17.9
In the three areas where the Clippers concentrate their offense, Paul generates 35.3 points; the rest of the team has just 21.1. Think he might be an important part of what they do?”
Paul’s ability to operate so effectively in what the modern NBA has deemed as no-man’s land forces defenses to commit resources to areas of the court they don’t normally account for, distorting their schemes beyond any recognizable structure.
Chris Paul’s technical mastery also allows him to maintain his standing as one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, which helps him keep pace with the younger generation of point guards whose athleticism and scoring bursts can exceed his own. Like an art critic, Paul is able to deconstruct his opponent’s work to its most basic components, figuring out how certain things flow together in ways perhaps they’re not even consciously aware of. Quick feet and an understanding of angles helps Paul reroute opposing point guards off the path of least resistance; quicker hands promise to rip the ball away cleanly at the briefest moment of inattention.
If there’s a drawback to Paul’s brilliance, it’s that his attention to detail knows no equal, leaving him with few peers to connect with. His demanding nature can grow wearisome over the course of an 82-game season—which contributed to the Clippers almost losing DeAndre Jordan this summer.
But genius is often misunderstood, and few art movements are truly appreciated until long after the artists have ceased to produce them. Within the Clippers’ league-leading offense is a series of sophisticated patterns and formulas that only make sense through the machinations of Paul.
Let the other point guards paint their murals across the highlight reels. Paul now crafts his masterpieces through meticulous precision and technical expertise. The creativity remains, but the work takes more than the eye to appreciate fully.