Earlier this month at Staples Center, the Memphis Grizzlies were leading the Los Angeles Clippers by two points with a minute remaining in the game. The Clippers had the ball and needed a bucket. Chris Paul dribbled quickly past a DeAndre Jordan screen at the top of the arc before he turned the corner and attacked the right side of the paint. As Paul raced toward the rim, he was dogged by Tony Allen and Mike Conley, two terrific defenders creating a situation that would overwhelm most NBA point guards. But Paul isn’t most NBA point guards.
As Paul reached the right block, he was met by Marc Gasol, the 2012-13 NBA defensive player of the year. Unfazed, Paul spun in the air and somehow hurled the ball 20 feet backward, all the way back to the top of the arc, which was solely occupied by an unattended J.J. Redick, one of the most reliable catch-and-shoot guys on the planet. The rest was merely a formality.
You’re not supposed to get wide-open shots like that against the Grizzlies, especially in such a key late-game situation. Memphis has been one of the best defensive groups in the NBA for years. But sometimes great offense beats great defense, especially when Chris Paul is running an offense; his team almost always gets good looks. He’s led the league in assists two years in a row, and the Clippers were the most efficient offensive team in the league last season. But those simple numerical accolades fail to adequately reveal just how great Paul has been.
As NBA analyses evolve, we have new means to understand how great point guards like Paul change the game. Assists are one thing. But they account only for the shots that teammates make, and that’s only part of the playmaking story. Thanks to the league’s player tracking system, we can now analyze the origin of every shot in every game. Upon closer inspection, when Paul is creating shots — either for his teammates or for himself — he blends volume and effectiveness as well as anyone in the NBA.
Most NBA fans are aware that Paul is great at sharing the ball, but few know that all those assists led to 24 points per game last season. Anthony Davis tallied that exact number as a scorer — and that made him fourth in the league in scoring. In other words, not only did Paul manage to score 19 points per game himself, but as a distributor, he also created another Davis-sized contribution as well.
The chart below shows the shooting efficiencies of Paul’s Clipper teammates last season immediately after they received a pass from him. As you can see, good things happen on the business end of a Chris Paul dime.
Last season, Paul assisted on 231 threes, and 98 of those went to Redick, making Paul-to-Redick the most prolific 3-point partnership in the entire league.1
As you can see below, Paul helped set Redick up all over the place, but those triples are clearly the pair’s signature collaboration.
The NBA is a league increasingly obsessed with creating more threes on offense, which also makes it a league increasingly obsessed with stopping them on defense. And if you’re guarding Redick these days, you know perfectly well that he is perpetually seeking out clean catch-and-shoot looks beyond the arc. You also know that it’s Paul who’s likely to deliver him the ball. But Redick is quick to point out that Paul can outwit almost any defensive approach thrown his way. “Chris is incredibly intelligent,” Redick told me. “So, a lot of times, if a defending point guard knows we’re running catch and shoot, they’ll try to shade one side (especially the left side, because I always come off the left side). But Chris is so good at keeping guys guessing, and if his man cheats, he’ll go to the basket on him. He always makes people pay if they try and cheat.”
That 3-pointer that helped beat Memphis earlier this month provides a great example. Despite the fact that Paul was careening through the paint at breakneck speed among a trio of elite defenders, he still managed to deliver Redick a perfect pass. But Paul self-identifies as a “perfectionist,” and according to Redick, it tears him up on the rare occasions when his dishes are dirty: “It’s just so precise what he does. He throws me perfect, on-time, on-target passes at all times. I joke about this with him all the time, but once every 150th pass or so, it’ll be off-target, and he’ll get so upset with himself. And I’m like, ‘Bubs, I could never get mad at you for that.’”
I could never get mad at you for that? The two bitter ACC rivals have morphed into an old married couple … an old married couple that represents one of the most lethal catch-and shoot threats on planet Earth. Still, as marvelous as that is, a quick look at the league’s most dangerous duos from last season reveals that while Paul-to-Redick was the most prolific 3-point pairing in the entire league, it wasn’t even the most prolific point-scoring duo on the Clippers.
Most Prolific Assister-Scorer Duos, 2014-15 Regular Season
- Chris Paul to Blake Griffin: 527 points
- Chris Paul to J.J. Redick: 524 points
- Stephen Curry to Klay Thompson: 426 points
In a league with dozens of point guards, Paul was the distributor in the two highest-scoring pairings. That’s incredible. And while the Splash Brothers deserve limitless praise for what they accomplished last season, Paul’s abilities as a facilitator remain second to none, and nobody knows that better than Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ top scorer.
Last season, Griffin ranked eighth in the league in scoring, averaging 22 points per contest. He was and is the Clippers’ most dangerous scorer. Still, even the league’s best scorers rely on assists on a regular basis, and last season, 67 percent of Griffin’s buckets were assisted, and 45 percent of his field goals came off assists by Paul. In other words, almost half of Griffin’s buckets are directly downstream from Paul’s passes.
Griffin has come a long way since entering the NBA as a rookie in 2010; the player we’re seeing now can do a lot more than the phenom who jumped out of the gym five years ago. Griffin had all the athletic ability in the world coming out of college, but it takes more than raw athletic ability to be an NBA superstar these days, especially at the power forward position, which increasingly is becoming one of the most demanding jobs in the game. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Love have changed the job description by using their reliable jump shots to open up the floor for their playmaking teammates. When Griffin landed in the NBA, he could jump over Kias, but he couldn’t shoot like those players.
But Griffin is no fool, and he knew that to become great at his position, and prolong his career, he needed to develop his jumper. Griffin has worked endlessly with Bob Thate, the Clippers’ shooting guru, and all that work has paid off. As a rookie, only 15 percent of Griffin’s shots came from between 16-feet and the 3-point line; he made just 34 percent of them. So far this season, 37 percent of Griffin’s shots are coming in this zone, and he’s converted 48 percent of them. For context, the league as a whole makes 40 percent of its shots from this area. Griffin’s improvement has improved the entire Clippers offense — just ask Paul. “Blake having that shot now makes defenses worry about one more thing,” Paul told me. “You gotta worry about his roll to the basket, his passing, and now that shot. Now it’s like, ‘What can’t he do?’”
Paul has a bit of a reputation for getting mad at his teammates, but according to him, the only time he gets angry with Griffin is when Griffin is too passive with that improved jumper. “I’m probably harder on Blake than anybody about taking his shot,” Paul said. “I told him, the only time you’ll see me get mad if I pass it to someone is when they don’t shoot it.”
Griffin’s jumper has come so far so fast that Paul seems more confident in it than Griffin does. “I think it’s going in every time,” Paul said. “And that’s a tribute to all the work he’s put in.”
You don’t become the most efficient offense in the NBA without versatility, but the NBA is still a pick-and-roll league. Griffin’s emergence as one of the game’s most versatile bigs has enabled Paul to attack defenses in multiple ways. After all, it’s still Paul at the controls, and it’s his ability as a catalyst that has enabled the team to coalesce into something more than the sum of a bunch of NBA parts.
While we all know that Paul is among the best distributors in the world, his ability to generate his own shots remains arguably the most unheralded section of his game. He’s one of the best unassisted scorers in the world. It’s that particular skill that lends the Clippers offense one of its most lethal — and most primitive — options. Not every possession will end with a tidy catch-and-shoot sequence, and when defenses disrupt the Clippers’ pre-orchestrated plans, they still have to deal with Paul, one of the most effective off-the-dribble scorers in the league.
It’s no secret that point guards, as the chief ball-handlers of NBA offenses, dribble the ball more than any other position. In turn, they are much more likely to shoot in unassisted off-the-dribble situations, shots that we’re beginning to understand are statistically much more difficult on average. It’s not rocket science, but generally speaking, catch-and-shoot jumpers are much more likely to go in than their unassisted, off-the-dribble counterparts.
League-wide, just about half of all field goal attempts qualify as unassisted. Many times, as possessions unravel over time, some offensive player will have to “create his own shot,” and any players who can do that reliably and efficiently present their teams with a huge offensive stopgap. When Paul needs to, he can create a decently efficient scoring chance at-will, meaning that when he is on the floor, the Clippers’ “last resort” is a pretty efficient option.
Paul has been one of the league’s top point guards for years now. But he hasn’t been the same player the whole time. Back in his days in New Orleans, he relied more on his speed and less on his smarts. “Once upon a time, I was all downhill, you know, obsessed with getting to the basket — like Dame [Lillard] and stuff like that — but then I realized in New Orleans I need to get this midrange down,” Paul said.
There’s that perfectionism again. The way he describes it, you might think he was terrible. As a rookie, Paul already had a reliable elbow jumper and hit that key shot at rates that would make players like Russell Westbrook or John Wall envious.
During Paul’s rookie year, just 9 percent of his shots came between 10 and 16 feet; he converted only 33 percent of them. Last year, 23 percent of his shots came from this area, and he sunk an incredible 53 percent of them.
Paul is arguably the best midrange shooter on the planet right now. And, yes, that planet also includes Nowitzki and Curry. And while that may seem like hyperbole, the numbers back up the idea that nobody can blend volume and efficiency in the midrange as well as Paul can, especially when you consider that most of his attempts in that area are those unassisted, higher-level-of-difficulty shots.
But Paul makes those shots look easy on a regular basis. Not only did he lead the league in unassisted midrange field goals last season, but out of 61 players who attempted at least 200 of those shots, he ranked first in field goal percentage, by a country mile. The following scatterplot leaves little doubt just how extraordinary Paul’s midrange prowess has become:
A quick comparison of Paul’s rookie shot chart with last season’s reveals that the biggest upticks in his game have come from downtown. As a rookie, only 19 percent of his shots came from beyond the arc, and he converted a ghastly 28 percent of them. Last season, those numbers ballooned to 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
Practice makes perfect, and in an era defined by a glut of incredible point guards, Paul still stands out as one of the best of the best. His basketball portfolio is incredibly diversified; he’s an incredible passer, a creative genius, one of the game’s best midrange shooters, and he’s one of the most consistently great defenders at his position too. Still, any discussion of Paul in 2015 must address the elephant-sized trophy not in the room: As great as he and his numbers have been, he’s never played in the conference finals, and his last two playoff exits have been brutal. It weighs on him, and he doesn’t want to go down as some “statistically great” point guard who never won. “All that’s good and well, but it doesn’t matter unless it translates to wins,” Paul said.
A few weeks into this new season, Paul and the Clippers remain a threat to win it all. With a reloaded roster and one of the most talented teams in the league, they have the potential for greatness. And Paul is hopeful that he and his teammates can turn their recent frustrations into motivation to finally get over the hump. “We got a lot guys with something to prove, a lot of guys that got a chip on their shoulder,” Paul said. “I think with that combination, we can make something special.”
That obviously remains to be seen. But Thursday night, the Clippers host their bitter rivals from Oakland, who are led by their own superstar point guard and just happen to be the hottest basketball team on the planet right now. Paul and the new-look Clippers have an early chance to prove something.