After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.
This article is going to make a basketball prediction about Chris Paul. But first, an anecdote about Greg Oden:
“I was on the phone with the radio station back in Portland,” Oden said. “They said they stomped the floor like they won the NBA championship once they called my name.”
That’s a line from a story that the Associated Press ran following the 2007 NBA draft. The Portland Trail Blazers had the first pick that year, and so they selected Greg Oden no. 1, a thing that sounds very ridiculous to say out loud now because (a) we know from watching his anticareer unfold over the past nine years that all of his bones were swapped out for Styrofoam when he was a baby, and (b) Kevin Durant, a twice-in-a-lifetime player, was available in that same draft (selected second by the SuperSonics). But it was a less ridiculous thing to say at the time. In fact, it wasn’t even anything close to ridiculous then. Greg Oden at no. 1 seemed like a mostly good pick.
Kieran Darcy (ESPN.com’s Page 2) wrote of Oden before he declared for the draft: “Oden is poised to be a franchise center, someone you can build a team around. Franchise centers usually win championships. His name’s already being mentioned in the company of Russell, Robinson, Olajuwon, and Shaq. Lot of rings on those fingers.”
Maurice Brooks (NBA.com) wrote of Oden after he declared for the draft: “Greg Oden is the next Bill Russell. He changes games defensively, finishes with either hand around the rim, rebounds well and always appears to be in the right position.” (This is my favorite analysis of pre-injury Oden because of how steep the drop-off is in compliments from the beginning of the statement [“the next Bill Russell”] to the end [“always appears to be in the right position”]. He went from being described as the second coming of the winningest center in the history of the NBA to a guy who generally knows where to stand, and it happened over the course of only two sentences. I respect that range so much. I should’ve written my wedding vows like that. “You are the only thing that is meaningful in my life. Also, you own a hat.”)
Chad Ford (ESPN.com) wrote of Oden after he was selected: “He’s been atop our Top 100 since last July and has never moved. He’s the best player in the draft when you factor in position, defensive presence, ability to become an offensive force. Kevin Durant was a hot option, too. But the Blazers are on the path to an NBA title with Oden, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.”
Three months after the draft, the Blazers announced that Oden would miss his entire rookie season because of impending microfracture surgery on his right knee. In December 2009, he fractured his left patella in a game against the Rockets and ended up missing the rest of that season. In November 2010, the Blazers announced another microfracture surgery for Oden, this time on his left knee. In February 2012, he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and then later in the month had a second microfracture surgery on his left knee. He went from being the next great center in 2007, to being all the way out of the NBA by the end of the 2014 playoffs (he played briefly with the Heat during that season), and then to being all the way out of professional basketball by 2016 (he played briefly with a team in the Chinese Basketball Association), never once making a substantial impact on any of his teams in between.
Anyway, all of that to say this: Making (accurate) predictions in the NBA is hard.
And that to say this: Let’s make a prediction now.
This has to start with a basketball question that has been asked at the beginning of each of the past three seasons because it is very important: Will this be the year that Chris Paul, who turned 31 in May and is arguably the best point guard of the past 15 years, begins to fall off? It just might be. Here’s why.
Did you know that for the entirety of his career, the only time Paul has ever finished outside of the top four in the league in assists per game was his rookie year (he was seventh), and that he finished first four times (2008, 2009, 2014, 2015)? Or did you know that starting in 2013, the NBA began tracking a stat called assist points created, which measures how many points a player’s assists account for, and that Paul has never averaged fewer than than 23.7 over that span, which means that in addition to his regular scoring he’s also generating nearly as many secondary points per game as Russell Westbrook is scoring? Or did you know that the season before Paul came to the Clippers (2011), they rated 23rd in offensive efficiency? And that the seasons after he arrived, they rated fourth (2012), fourth (2013), first (2014), first (2015), and then sixth (2016)? Or that he’s been one of the most effective midrange shooters in the world, allowing for an offensive backup plan that’s more effective than most teams’ first-place plans?
Chris Paul is important. So important.
There are, say, maybe three teams that have a better than reasonable shot at winning the championship this year. There’s the Warriors (definitely going to win), the Cavs (hopefully going to win), and the Spurs (they probably don’t have a real chance to win but they’re my favorite team so it’s whatever, I’ma put them here). In the gaggle of teams behind those three* (*those two) are where you find the Clippers. And the only reason anyone has to take them seriously is Chris Paul.
So that’s why “Will this be the year that Chris Paul falls off?” is important. Because if he’s good, the Clippers will be good. And if he’s bad — or even if he’s less than stellar — then they’ll be bad.
There are three steps to answering this question — or, maybe more accurately, three steps to predicting the answer.
Step 1. Find similar players.
To figure out if Chris Paul is going to have a drop-off sizable enough to hurt the Clippers this season, first we have to find some comparable NBA players who came before him. If we do that, we can isolate the post-30-years-old portions of their playing careers and then extrapolate from those statistics. To do that is easy: We just look at Paul’s similarity scores, a statistic calculated by Basketball-Reference.com that finds “players whose careers were similar in terms of quality and shape.” “Shape” refers to the general outline of a player’s career, like how many years he played, how good his best years were compared to his worst years, things like that. (Mike Lynch from Basketball-Reference.com was extremely helpful in helping me cobble together this information. Thank you, Mike.)
This is what the top of the chart looks like if we measure the win shares of all the guards who have played at least 11 seasons in the NBA, which is how many seasons Paul has played:
So through 11 seasons, the players who have the most in common with Paul are Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, John Stockton, and Walt Frazier. (The “SIM” in the chart tells us how “similar” they are. A similarity score of 100 would signify a perfect match.) Now, there are two things that jump out here:
- Chris Paul is a goddamn stud. Win shares tell us the number of wins a player is responsible for. The only guy Paul routinely loses to is Oscar Robertson. You can take all that Paul Ain’t Made It Out of the Second Round of the Playoffs bullshit and stuff it in a sock and then throw that sock in the Pacific Ocean.
- The variation in height between Paul and the others needs to be considered. I stood near Chris Paul during All-Star Weekend the year it was in Houston. In real life, he’s not any taller than 5-foot-3, but he’s listed at 6 feet, so let’s go with that as his height. You take that, and you compare him to Walt Frazier, who was 6–4; Oscar Robertson, who was 6–5; and Magic Johnson, who towered above all of them at 6–9. Those are not inconsequential differences, particularly when you’re dealing with point guards, who tend to age into obsolescence faster than other players because their main assets (speed, quickness, agility) are tethered tightly to their youth.
The five guys most closely aligned to Paul are all taller than him; three of them unreasonably so.
So let’s tinker a bit before we settle on the players we’ll end up using as our sample group. If we run a search for players who are 6 feet or shorter and compare their win shares through 11 seasons in the league, Paul crushes everyone. It’s not even close.
Paul’s total WS over that time period is 144.1. Second place is Iverson, who’s way, way behind at 83.8 over 11 seasons. For context, look at Tim Hardaway and Calvin Murphy. Hardaway checks in at third with 83.0 and Calvin Murphy at fourth with 81.2. The difference between fourth place and second place is fewer than three points, but the difference between second place and first place is more than 60 points, which is like if Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash by six seconds.
If we take those parameters (< 6–0 and 11 seasons played) and replace the number of seasons played with age (≤ 30), the distance between Paul and everyone else in that cohort increases, suggesting that he is more adept at tailoring his game to compensate for the decreases in speed and agility that inevitably come with age.
Paul is just so much better than other players who are 6 feet or shorter. That being the case, I feel comfortable saying that Paul’s savviness is worth at least 2 extra inches of height. So let’s adjust the search to include players who are slightly taller. We’re looking for the top point guards per win shares through their 30th birthday who are a maximum of 6-foot-2. That gives us:
So here we are again. It’s Chris Paul vs. Jerry West vs. John Stockton.
West and Stockton are the players who are the closest physically and statistically to Paul. He’s still way out ahead, but it ain’t a runaway like before. So if we want to know what’s going to happen to Paul’s numbers, we can look at what West and Stockton did after their 30th birthdays and get a fairly decent idea.
Step 2. (Part A) Now that we have our similar players, let’s look at what each of them did.
Chris Paul is 31 years old for this NBA season, so if we want to know (or guess at) what’s going to happen to him in 2017, we can look at the post-30-years-old segment of Jerry West’s career and go from there. That means we’re looking at the portion of his career from the 1970 season to the 1973 season to see what his numbers did. (He played through 1974, but he played only 31 games that season due to injury, so let’s just toss that one out.) So we’ve got four strong seasons that West played after he turned 31. Here’s what his numbers look like:
West had the second-highest win-shares rate of his career when he was 31, and there wasn’t much of a drop from there. When he was 34, he earned a 10.6 win share rating. That’s the second highest of a 34-year-old guard in our height sample ever to play in the NBA. I’ll bet you can guess who’s in first place …
Step 2. (Part B) Cool. That’s a good sign for the Clippers. No significant drop-off for Jerry West. What about Stockton?
His numbers are even more encouraging. Stockton’s career is the one I’d guess Paul’s will most closely end up resembling. (I just don’t see Paul stopping before he’s 38, 39 years old.) Stockton gives us 10 years’ worth of numbers following his 31st birthday, working from the 1994 season up to the 2003 season.
He stays steady at or above 13.0 win shares at ages 31, 32, 33, and 34. Any of those numbers would be good for sixth best in Paul’s career. The dip you see in Stockton’s numbers in 1998 and 1999 are because he missed the chance to play in an additional 50 games in that time period, in part due to the lockout. But then it jumps right back up into the double digits all the way until the last season of Stockton’s career, when he was 40 years old.
Step 3. So make the prediction then. Is this the year that Chris Paul falls off?
No. Barring some sort of injury, Chris Paul will be as statistically impressive as he has been over the duration of his career. That’s very good news. I look forward to watching the Clippers bomb out of the second round of the playoffs in 2017 same as they do every year.