The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.
Don’t touch Chris Paul’s head. He hates that. Like when Pau Gasol gave the then-Clippers point guard a condescending pat in the waning seconds of a 2012 matchup. Paul responded with extreme rebuke, reflexively mussing up Gasol’s mop top before reaching to the back of his own head as if to assess how much blood had been lost.
And definitely don’t back him into a corner while trolling for sound bites. He really hates that (and, well, so does everyone else).
Paul’s many grievances—as well as the ones opponents, fans, and referees have for him—have come to define the point guard almost as much as his basketball excellence. The 32-year-old’s fastidiousness, on and off the court, can sometimes feel anachronistic in the age of pace-and-space and AAU broism. It’s been pointed to as a notable component in the very slow, very public unraveling of a potentially great Clippers team. It’s no surprise that Blake Griffin lives his best basketball life in a faster, freer environment. It’s also no surprise that the Rockets’ existential crisis involves blending Paul’s typically stringent approach with Mike D’Antoni’s proclivity for up-tempo improvisation.
Paul is all about control. He has long been known to defer early in games, building his own environment with the precision of a Wes Anderson scene before looking for his own shot. Even before dunking on the reporter in the aforementioned clip, Paul pauses for four full seconds—count it out; it’s a painful eternity in real time—to read the situation like he would a defense. The slightest imperfection, whether it be an off-target pass or a nagging canker sore or a jarring question, is almost an affront to his very being. The biggest blunder of his 12-year career (trying to draw a foul on the other end of the court while up two on the Thunder in Game 5 of the 2014 playoffs) is, at its core, a failed attempt to manipulate his situation. It’s Chris Paul being too Chris Paul.
But more often than not, that obsession to detail is what makes Paul so brilliant. He can’t shoot like Steph Curry. He can’t attack the basket with the force of Russell Westbrook. He might not even be able to defend one-on-one better than John Wall at this point of his career. But even after 12 seasons—six each with the Hornets and Clippers; God forbid even his tenures with teams not be perfectly balanced—he remains the class at point guard because he is the only one capable of high-level execution of everything the position requires. He’s the total package. He’s Mario in Mario Kart.
Last season, he was seventh among point guards who played at least 60 games in assist ratio (behind six pass-first PGs, all of whom averaged under 12 points a game), fourth in true shooting percentage, and seventh in rebound rate, despite only the 16th-highest usage rate. He may not hit the same peaks or even the sheer volume of the younger guard, but he seamlessly wedges the best of Steph (41.1 percent from 3) and the best of Russ (60.3 percent at the rim, per Basketball-Reference) into his already diverse repertoire. All told, he was fourth at his position in PER, and ninth in the entire NBA, marking 10 straight years without ever dropping out of the top 10. And while his individual defense and the Clippers defense took a noticeable step back from the season prior, it’s worth noting he finished first in defensive real plus-minus for the second year in a row and was named first team all-defense for the sixth year in a row.
It’s all there, and all deployed with the calm and poise of an experienced tactician. It’s just harder to appreciate adroit chess moves as Curry reels off shots CGI’d by Benioff and Weiss and Westbrook barrels full-speed like a monster truck. The past two MVPs inject all sorts of wonder into a routine Tuesday night; Paul’s game, meanwhile, is all about being one step ahead in order to snuff out any potential surprises.
But being a model of consistency has also become something of a cruel joke. Paul’s individual success has assured him a spot in the Hall of Fame, but he’s simultaneously lost the grip on his career’s narrative after a series of playoff meltdowns. Even as he persists as the shining example of how we traditionally define the position, players with modern spins like Curry and Westbrook have reached greater heights, both on the awards circuit and in the postseason. So it is shocking to see the figurehead of a generation of point guards attempt to extend his title window by teaming up with James Harden, perhaps the best point guard, statistically, in the NBA last season despite not technically being a point guard. After a decade-plus of handling the position like an accountant, Point Dad bought a Harley and is hanging out with a guy with a Mohawk. But the best route to getting better—which he alluded to after another crushing Game 7 defeat this past April—may be more about approach than execution.
Who can understand that plight better than Harden, the MVP runner-up last seen capping a banner year by noticeably running out of gas in the second round of the playoffs? Though Harden prides himself on being uniquely weird, the Paul-Harden partnership feels less like an odd couple and closer to the Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme incarnate. There’s an obvious dynamism to what he and the Rockets do on the court, especially when propelled by D’Antoni’s NOS canisters, but the Harden experience can often feel like watching a card player grinding out the rent money. Paul, perhaps more than anyone outside of Daryl Morey, would appreciate the cold, hard efficiency.
There is still much to sort out. Both players can’t manufacture a trip to the foul line on the same possession. But Paul has already seen the mixed results that come from demanding sole possession of the throttle. He’s spent the bulk of his career as auteur, barking and finger-gesturing teammates into the structured playset he sees in his mind’s eye. Maybe instead of a team built in his image, what he always needed was another version of himself. A shooter like himself to kick the ball out to. A distributor to set him up for the same shots (Paul shot 50 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, per NBA.com/stats, but took only 68 of them). Someone to orchestrate the offense in his absence, long the bane of his Clippers teams.
A point guard in today’s NBA has to adapt on the fly as much as he dictates. To reaffirm his place among the league’s elite, Paul must make the right read once again.
After all, every good point guard knows when to give up the ball.