NBA Top 50: Chris Paul (No. 2)

FanHouse's Tom Ziller argues his ranking of the
top 50 players in the NBA .

Last spring, I made a case under this banner for Chris Paul to be included in any future consideration for Next G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). People had bandied about comparisons to Isiah Thomas and suggested Paul could maybe someday find himself in the upper echelon of the game's point guards. But the overwhelming assertion from the masses: Paul hasn't proved anything, and it will be a long time before we can call him the best.

Be as patient as you like, my friends, but I'm not waiting around to crown CP3. If his performance remains even close to last season's effort (at age 22), you're looking at the future greatest point guard of the modern era. After the jump, I'll explain my rationale.

First, to the folks who imply 2007-08 might have been a fluke, that Paul's season could have been a mirage: um, what? Eighty-two games, 12 masterful playoff games ... a mirage? He hasn't proven anything yet? He just had the greatest statistical season for any point guard in the modern era (since 1980, when turnovers hit the box score). No guard has ever had a season like that at age 22. His performance was simply incredible, one of the top 20 seasons by a guard ever -- statistically more impressive than any season by Magic, Kobe, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Jason Kidd. Chris Paul was absolutely gobsmacking.

When I built the case for Paul last May, I focused on PER, John Hollinger's linear weights metric with takes your common box score and adjusts for minutes, team pace, league average performance and a few other anomalies which cloud our view of pure production. BallHype's Jason Gurney did a similar project at the time, building a tool to compare Paul to similar players and rivals and showing just how dominant Paul had been in '07-08. (That tool still blows my mind, check it out.)

But a lot of smart folks don't get PER, can't grok exactly what it means. That's perfectly understandable: it's a complex metric and poorly explained on the web ... and Hollinger's old Pro Basketball Prospectus books aren't exactly in every library. So, while building a more universal understanding of what PER is and why we use it might help the argument, I'll instead turn the discussion a more basic route and remove the metric from my argument. This is now a No PER Zone.

Let's take the two consensus greatest point guards of the modern era, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Paul gets the Thomas comp often, but most would list Magic atop any modern era list. Fair enough: those two were great, great players, a pair of the best players in our league's history. And Paul -- at age 22 -- is already on par with them.

The following graph displays some figures for the best statistical season for Paul, Johnson and Thomas. For Paul, of course, it's '07-08. For Johnson, we went with 1986-87. For Thomas, it's 1984-85. We took per-game box score statistics and made one crucial adjustment: pace. (This is something suggested by the great Kelly Dwyer.) We adjusted each player's figures to suggest what the player would be done if his team played at the pace of 100 possessions per game. If we don't make this adjustment, a player from a slow team has a material disadvantage in racking up numbers: if Player A's team has the ball for 90 possessions, and Player B's team has 105 possessions, then there are more opportunities for Player B to get a point, an assist, a steal. Adjusting for pace just evens this out.

So let's take a look at the pace-adjusted numbers.

Remember, we aren't using PER, so there's no killer, one-number statistic to point at. This is just your basic point guard rundown: points (Paul and Magic land within a tenth of a point of each other, Isiah was not as potent), assists (Isiah has a small advantage over Paul, and a substantial lead over Magic), rebounds (Magic leads the way, thanks to his large frame and enormous hands), steals (simply no contest, as Paul tallies 50% more steals than Isiah and nearly twice as many as Magic) and turnovers (Paul coughs up the ball far less frequently).

Judging by this, you'd conclude Isiah's peak doesn't quite match up with those of Paul and Magic, yes? Thomas scored really well for a point guard, but Paul and Johnson are on another level, some 16% higher. The lead over Paul in assists (about 2%) in nominal, and nothing else Thomas does exceeds Paul's performance.

What about Magic and Paul ... whose statistical peak was better? The race for points is dead even. Paul averaged roughly an additional assist per game (pace-adjusted). The rebounding edge definitely favors Magic ... but Paul saves a full possession with regard to turnovers and earns almost twice as many steals. What matters more from a point guard: two extra rebounds, or an assist, 1.3 steals and 0.9 turnovers? I certainly feel comfortable giving the victory to Paul.

And, ahem, one more note:


This was a comparison of peak seasons. The average NBA superstar guard (Jordan, Kobe, Magic) peaks at age 27. Chris Paul will play another four seasons before this expected peak season comes about. Some players do hit their statistical peak early -- Isiah was 23 during '84-85 -- but it's rare, and completely unprecedented at age 22. If Paul never had a season as good or better than his '07-08, it would be the first time in the modern era a top-flight guard had peaked at age 22. Are you betting on those odds?

Look, I'm not saying that if Paul retired tomorrow he'd go down as the greatest point guard of our time. Peak production is one piece of the whole argument -- you'll take a cat who rips the league to shreds for a decade over one who completely obliterates everything in sight for a couple seasons. To claim Greatest Point Guard status, Paul needs to sustain some semblance of his indicated performance.

But the seed is without question in place. Paul is such an order of magnitude better than any other point guard in the league and any other point guard we've seen in two decades ... it's simply absurd to deny him the respect and attention he has demanded.

The NBA isn't Chris Paul's oyster. Chris Paul is the oyster. Relax, and enjoy the pearls.

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