Charles Barkley said something crazy on Thursday night. I know, I know, shocking, right? Well, this particular asinine, uninformed and loud-for-the-sake-of-being-loud opinion stuck with me. It stuck with me, because may be it was true.
The single most interesting basketball-related thing that I have read this season was a tweet by Alex Dewey, who astutely pointed out that a seemingly innocuous TV parlor trick appeared to have an unintended underlying meaning.
That State Farm ad where Chris Paul is on the down escalator while Steph Curry passes him is becoming unintentionally poignant and accurate.
— Alex Dewey (@DewNO) November 13, 2014
Interestingly, there is a similar dichotomy between Paul’s on and off court personas. Cliff Paul is friendly, cheerful and helpful guy, and presumably an accurate representation of the type of person Paul is when he’s not playing basketball. On the floor, though, Chris Paul can be incredibly irritating. He’s a feisty little gnat that annoys his opponents with his dogged defense, his teammates with his perfectionist standards and some fans with his flopping.
Paul has definitely become more recognizable across American living rooms since his mustached twin was spawned, but Curry’s brand has grown exponentially over the past few months, (ironically aided by his presence in an ad campaign that used to belong solely to CP3) and his ascension to superstardom has left Paul in the dust. A year after narrowly missing out on his fourth straight all-star appearance as a starter, Paul, who drew well over a million votes every season between 2009 and 2014, dipped to just over half a million votes this season while Curry secured his second straight start thanks to the highest vote total in the league (1.5 million votes), marking the first time since 2008 that someone other than LeBron or Kobe had been deemed the most popular player in the league by fans.
Curry’s selection is not all about popularity, though. He’s legitimately been the best guard in the league so far this season, which means the fans got it right with their selection. However, I feel as if CP3 is being dismissed far too quickly during what would, in the absence of Curry, be considered yet another MVP-caliber season from the Clipper point guard. Has he been a step below Curry during this particular season? Certainly, but let us not forget that CP3 has been the undisputed champion of his position ever since Deron Williams had it out with Jerry Sloan.
We skip over Paul because he’s not as explosive or as daring as Curry, a player who loves to test the limits of his superpowers. Paul is much more pragmatic. He’s someone who challenges himself not to top his most marvelous moments, but instead to minimize his forgetful ones. Paul is a player who constantly strives to color in between the lines whereas Curry is always looking to demolish and expand his borders. They share a commonality in that they are their team’s primary ball-handlers, but comparing them as if they have the same responsibilities would be a mistake. They are both point guards, but they are two very different breeds. One is a pit bull, the other a golden retriever. One protects, the other fetches.
Of course, Paul only seems conservative when viewed side-by-side with a braggadocio like Curry. Paul is a fabulous impresario himself. Few players have ever exhibited as much control over the game as Paul does, a remarkable feat for someone who is often the smallest player on the court. Paul seemingly has the game on a leash when he is on the floor, and he’s got an even tighter grip on the ball. It’s not quite as sexy as Curry’s shock-and-awe campaign, but Paul’s magic derives from his dribble. Some of the things that Paul can pull off in tight spaces only makes sense if you believe in witchcraft, and the way he yo-yos with the ball under pressure can be spellbinding.
It’s almost like Paul was born with one of those mini-maps from Call of Duty so that he can see the exact placement and movement of everyone around him, allowing him to calculate just how much space he has to operate with and to plan out his next three steps. He takes defenders ballroom dancing on frozen lakes, shifting their weight back-and-forth with his crossover while he manages to maintain his balance. He pinpoints the weakness in the defense and, by way of a lob to his aerial big men or a crosscourt pass to a knockdown shooter, marks the spot with an “X” like he just found treasure.
As a 90s baby, New Orleans Chris Paul remains the best point guard that I’ve ever seen play, and though a legend like Magic Johnson has many more team accolades on his resume, the advanced numbers seem to suggest that Paul’s prime was the best we’ve ever seen from a point guard. Paul’s thorough and exhaustive dominance of the game is no longer required, but it’s worth remembering just how unbelievable he was for the Hornets. New Orleans Chris Paul played 3000 minutes in both his age 22 and 23 seasons, put up PERs of 28.3 and 30.0 in those seasons, respectively, and led the league in assists and steals to boot.
There wasn’t a single weakness in his game back then and you can make the case that there still isn’t a faulty tool in his arsenal. Just about the only thing Paul is doing worse this season than we’re used to is getting to the free throw line, but he’s made up for that by shooting 40% from deep (one percent off his career high) on four three-point attempts per game. And, as always, he’s right in the thick of the race for the assist title, he’s got the lowest turnover rate amongst primary ball-handlers besides Kemba Walker and his PER only trails Curry and Russell Westbrook (who has only played 29 games) at his position.
And that’s what makes Paul’s dip in popularity so interesting to me. It doesn’t appear at all as if Paul has lost a step, and all of the advanced statistics paint him as one of the handful of players that belong in the MVP conversation. So is our collective shift to Curry’s corner all about style? There’s no denying that Curry has plenty of substance to back it up – like topping the charts in WAR and Real Plus-Minus, for example – and I’d tab him as the MVP at this point of the season. But aren’t we all forgetting about Paul a little too easily when we anoint Curry as the game’s preeminent floor general?
“Chris Paul doesn’t deserve to make the All-Star team.”
At first, I snickered and let out a chuckle the same way that I did when Barkley said that Brook Lopez was a top three center in the league. As much as I love Inside the NBA, I recognize that the show’s best moments come when the guys are playing “Who He Play For” or pushing each other into Christmas trees, not when they are trying to make credible basketball claims, because that never ends well.
But then I actually got to thinking. “Well, Damian Lillard has been incredible this season. And you won’t find a bigger Mike Conley supporter than me. And Westbrook has been phenomenal since returning from injury. Maybe Paul won’t make the all-star team.”
Never for a second did I think that Chris Paul didn’t deserve to be on the all-star team, but the fact that there are at least five all-star caliber point guards in the Western Conference is tough to ignore (and that conservative assessment deems guys like Tony Parker and Ty Lawson unfit to be all-stars, which seems so wrong). Then I snapped out of it. Then I stopped thinking about Chris Paul in an all-star context and remembered that this is one of the truly irreplaceable talents in the league. Would the Blazers crumble if you took Damian Lillard from them? Most likely. But not to the degree that the Clippers would falter without Paul. After all, the Blazers have a coherent and cohesive offensive system in place; the Clippers have Chris Paul.
It’s pretty difficult to make a case against Steph Curry as the best point guard in the league right now. This is not just an unparalleled sharpshooter, this is a deadeye marksman AND an incredible playmaker. As I like to say, Curry is the evolutionary Nash, and anytime your game evokes comparisons to a Hall-of-Famer, you’re probably the cream of the crop.
But in a glamorous, star-filled league, with a superstar teammate that plays with that flair and desire to reach new heights in Blake Griffin, Paul stands out as the master of self-control and self-awareness. On a given night, Curry can rattle of six threes in a row and put up 30 points in 25 minutes and Russell Westbrook can end a player’s career (on social media, anyways) with a fathomless dunk that leaves you speechless. Paul doesn’t offer that jaw-dropping explosiveness, and he really never has. Instead, he gives you a 23-point, 12-assist, 8-rebound outing against Phoenix, or 17 dimes against Boston, or 23 points and 10 assists in a big road win against Portland while managing not to wound his team in any way.
As Curry ardently raises his own threshold into the stratosphere, Paul continues to dazzle within the realm of possibility. Curry may very well be a more overwhelming talent nowadays, but Paul is still an astonishing author of magnificent NBA poetry. It may not be as gaudy, but it’s still just as deserving of all-star adulation. And I pray that we aren’t beginning to forget about the Point God’s many exhilarating and fulfilling parables.