With the trade for Kevin Durant the Suns have become a betting favorite to win the NBA championship, and it’s entirely possible that they have the ability to put the most talented 5 players on the court in the NBA. Coming off of a recent finals appearance and 64 win season adding Durant to that mix of their top 3 certainly gets attention on paper. The problem is they haven’t been as good this season, and Chris Paul is where the most notable slippage has taken place. It started almost from the time he turned 37 in last year’s playoffs.
Any champion will need some good play from their primary ball handler. With a lack of overall depth how well Paul plays anyway will be a big part of how well the Suns play. It’s an important position and role he fills already, but a team constructed this heavily in the top 4 needs all of their top 4 to step up and justify the salary. No one questions Chris Paul‘s legacy, he’s easily one of the greatest to ever play the game. The question is how good is he today as the Suns make this run and try to get him his first NBA Championship. He’s likely going to have to contribute to that positively if it happens.
I’ve always thought Chris Paul could age similar to how John Stockton and Steve Nash did the way he passed and shot the ball. Point Guard is an interesting position because you need speed to keep up with athletic younger players which declines for everyone. Offensively Stockton and Nash did enough to overlook the defensive decline as they aged. Stockton was elite as the all time steals leader as well that gave players something they had to slow down and concentrate on protecting the ball. He also had a better chance playing in an era with less space and three point shooting. It was a little harder for Nash as the game evolved to have to guard out farther on the perimeter.
As you can see there was almost no decline in Stockton’s game. Nash aged well for a long time, but when it went it, it went fast. That was nearly at the identical age Chirs Paul is now. Also like Chris Paul he had improved some after a bad season before as well. Stockton was the model of consistency. His numbers at 40 were nearly the same as his peak.
Chis Paul feels those same effects, more today than Nash did in the modern spaced out three point game. The game only continues to get pushed out farther with more space. For many years hacked the system by being smart and using his bulldog strength to switch on and guard bigger players closer to the basket and in the midrange. Everyone remembers the times he would get switched on Durant on both the Warriors and Thunder. He did as good of a job as you will ever see for a small guard. He can still use his strength positively but the overall defense is on decline from the lack of speed and perimeter defense and three point offenses of today demand.
Among PG’s this season Chis Paul is 21st in Real Plus Minus. Most of his value this season is being contributed from the defensive end rather than offense. That makes me the most hopeful about his prospects. It’s easier to see the offense bounce back than if he were a complete defensive liability and trying to get better there. There are more foundational things breaking down usually on defense, than just not getting quality shots or missing some shots, although age can affect those as well.
As you can see there is a noticeable decline this season from the last 3. One encouraging aspect though along with his defense still being the stronger part of his game is that he’s game has slumped before and bounced back. Even as I thought he could age like Stockton or Nash 10 years ago, I also thought he might be on decline at the age of 33. It’s an age a lot of players only free fall and there were clear signs of decline then as well. At the time the trajectory appeared to be heading the wrong way but he turned it around once before at an advanced age. I wouldn’t put it past Chris Paul even now to turn it around again this season.
The offensive part of Paul’s game is still where older players can best compete. They can get shots and passes using their experience and IQ. It was just last season when he led the NBA in assist and posted his 2nd highest per possession assist rate ever. Having Durant only helps that part of his game that has slumped. I would expect the assist rate to improve the rest of the season. He should also get easier individual shots as well as teams try to figure out how to guard Booker and Durant, and he has less pressure to score and will get more open looks. His True shooting percentage should improve as well.
Conservatively I think Chris Paul right now is a top 60 player in the NBA. Most metrics support that. Some of the metrics last season he was in the top 10 like Real Plus Minus. For his age and lack of size top 60 is still impressive. With Durant being added I do believe we will see a renaissance from Paul the rest of the season. If he can get back in the top 40 type of range heading into the playoffs that’s probably good enough if they all remain healthy to get them into the Finals again.