It feels like we’ve all forgotten about Chris Paul.
Even just two years ago, Paul’s was the first name anyone brought up when discussing the NBA’s best point guards. Obviously, Stephen Curry has displaced him at this point. And rightfully so. He and his 63-7 Warriors are redefining the game.
But after Curry now, we often talk about Russell Westbrook. We may even mention the seasons Kyle Lowry and John Wall are having. And then we get to a point where we go, “Oh yeah! Chris Paul is actually still just as good!”
Consistent greatness can become boring (See: Spurs, San Antonio). We acknowledge it, but we do so a little more begrudgingly than we did when that same majesty was new, when it was surprising.
Paul’s consistency won’t shock anyone, but he’s been carrying the 43-26 Clippers, who seem destined for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, to unexpected success ever since Blake Griffin went out with a leg injury (of the quad variety) back in December and stayed out with a hand injury (of the broke-it-while-punching-an-equipment-manager variety) shortly after that.
The Clippers offense is averaging 4.6 more points per 100 possessions since Dec. 25, when Griffin last played. The defense has been much improved over that time, as well.
Actually, since Griffin went down, L.A. has the best non-Spurs, non-Warriors net rating in the league. The team is 26-13 over that span. It was 17-13 when Blake last played.
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You can credit the Clippers attack for adjusting over that period. The team is able to spread more for DeAndre Jordan pick-and-rolls with Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, or Jeff Green playing the 4. Those guys hang on the perimeter, which leaves more room in the middle of the floor than when Griffin was meandering around the midrange area. And the Clips are attempting almost six more threes per game during the 39-game period without Griffin, over which they’re also shooting nearly three percentage points better from long range.
It all comes back to Paul, who’s taken on the burden of the entire offense with the Clippers’ other dynamic ball-handler in suit and tie.
In reality, Paul isn’t much better than he was a year ago, when he posted one of the best midrange shooting seasons we’ve ever seen. He’s merely—as the cliché goes—imposing his will on the game more than he has in any single season since his days in New Orleans. And his body has held up, too. He’s only missed five games in the process after playing the full 82 last year—both feats have come as mild surprises following a string of injuries during his initial three years with the Clippers.
That’s the real magic of Paul’s season: the usage.
He’s using a higher percentage of his team’s possessions than he has since the 2008-09 season in New Orleans. He’s assisting on a higher rate of his team’s baskets than he has since that same season with the Hornets, as well.
And that’s just on the full year.
His assist rate before the injury? 42.9 percent.
Since? An astonishing and league-leading 52.1 percent.
Many of the possessions that used to go to Griffin are now going to Chris Paul. Many of the others are going to J.J. Redick, who we shouldn’t discount when discussing the Clips’ maintained offensive effectiveness. Redick, who leads the league in three-point percentage, is in the midst of his best ever season and is posting career-best shooting numbers while using more possessions than ever before.
Much of Paul’s and the Clippers’ success comes back to the pick-and-roll with Jordan. D.J. is so much freer to roam around the middle of the lane with those shooters on the outside, and Paul is mastering lobs to him.
The Clips are still running similar stuff, but with more space. And Paul’s midrange game is so deadly, that bigs—like Mason Plumlee on the below play—end up sliding over to try to take away his patented right-elbow jumper. When that happens, it leaves the lane open for Jordan:
L.A. is still running those pick-and-roll sets when it has Jordan set a ball-screen with another player. The Clips used to run that with Griffin all the time. Now, they try it with less conventional screening weapons like Luc Mbah a Moute or Jamal Crawford:
Paul has always been the mayor of Lob City, but he’s not just throwing standard tosses, or even those quick-release, hook lobs to D.J., anymore. He’s widened his array of catapults, even developing a fake-shot, real-lob alley-oop to Jordan, as well, a play that looks like a shot when he leaves his perfect shooting form but is actually intended as a lob for his center.
And Paul doesn’t just look for Jordan on those pick-and-rolls. He uses his center’s physical-as-ever picks (Jordan is one of the best and most-active screen-setters in the league) to get to his cushy area, about 14-to-16 feet from the rim at the right elbow. He finds shooters, too. He’s even driving to the hoop more than he did over the past few seasons, per NBA.com’s SportVU data, bucking a downward trend we’ve seen from him as he’s aged.
With Griffin gone, Paul is the Clippers’ offense.
Back in the olden days of 2015, Paul was able to take a rest, actually get a breather without his team falling apart. Sure, the Clippers needed him, but Griffin is a dominant and versatile enough offensive force that the Clips could remain strong without him—on the rare occasion that coach Doc Rivers decided to stagger his lineups, of course.
During last week’s game in San Antonio, the Clippers actually held their ground through three quarters against the Spurs, who remain unbeaten on their home floor. Paul subbed out at the end of the third quarter in a tie game. By the time he had returned not too long into the start of the fourth, the Spurs had already extended a lead to double-digits.
By the end, San Antonio had pulled out a 21-point victory. Paul was the only Clippers player with a positive plus/minus.
That’s what life has been like for the Clippers without Griffin. They don’t just lose a secondary creator in the starting lineup. They lose one on the whole team.
Austin Rivers isn’t a point guard by any stretch, so Pablo Prigioni, whose skill set defines him as more of a third point guard than a second, has to act as the backup. There isn’t a wing creator on the whole roster.
And thus, when Chris Paul. goes to the bench, the offense goes to stench.
The Clippers are averaging a superlative 111.9 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor. When he’s off, that number drops to 96.0.
Does that mean nothing to you? Fine. Then, let’s make it mean something.
When Chris Paul is on the floor, the Clippers’ offensive efficiency is better than any other team’s, aside from the historic Warriors.
When Paul sits, the offensive efficiency is worse than…well, everyone’s.
That includes the Lakers and the hapless Nets. It includes the so-hungry-for-points-that-they’d-eat-your-foot-and-ask-if-that-counted-for-anything 76ers.
That’s quite the difference, and it’s due to Paul.
It’s because of his usage, because of the burden he takes on with the offense, because of how effective he’s been even while shouldering more of the load than he ever has as a Clipper.
For years, the nit-picking critique of Paul’s game has been that he isn’t consistently aggressive enough. He’d establish himself as a facilitator early and then take over late. Today, because of circumstance, he’s changed. He’s not only shooting more throughout games, but he’s shooting more during first quarters and first halves than he ever has as a Clipper. The question now is how or if he adjusts back once Griffin returns to the lineup.
Fred Katz has been published at Dime Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter: