Chris Paul: Greatest Point Guard Ever?

Way back when I was writing my “Which Advanced Stats Make the Best GOAT Lists?” article in April of 2019, most of the results produced some version of the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan argument, as any good GOAT discussion ought to.

The weird thing, though, was that while combing through the data, one name kept coming up as one of the top ten if not top-five guys of all time, and it wasn’t who you’d expect.

Chris Paul is fourth all-time in Win Shares per 48 minutes, fifth in Box Plus-Minus, 10th in Value Over Replacement Player, and fifth in VORP per 2500 minutes played.

He ranks ahead of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in BPM. He’s got a higher career WS/48 than LeBron. And for VORP/2500MP, the four guys ahead of him are Bron, Jordan, Charles Barkley, and David Robinson.

In terms of advanced stats, Chris Paul is not only a top-5 or top-10 all-time player, he outclasses Magic himself.

Indeed, the only reason more people don’t recognize Paul’s legacy is because he spent the vast majority of his career on teams that never went anywhere in the playoffs—the only time he’s even been as far as the conference finals was on the ill-fated 2018 Houston Rockets who missed 27 straight 3-pointers in a do-or-die Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. Had Houston won that game, CP3 may have at last gotten his ring against an atrocious Cavaliers team that by rights should’ve lost to the Pacers in the first round that year.

Oh yeah, about that whole playoffs thing? Spoiler alert: Any narrative you may have in your head about Chris Paul, Playoff Choker is about to be blasted out of the solar system by the time this article’s done. Let me just plant that idea in your head so it can be allowed to cook for awhile and be ready to come out of the oven in time for the stat drop.

But first…

The Regular-Season Legacy

Chris Paul is a career 47.1 percent shooter who has made 37 percent of his 3-point shots.

He also has a better touch from the midrange than anyone in today’s NBA should even practice trying to approach; he’s hit 48.5 percent between 3 and 10 feet, 48.1 percent between 10 and 16, and 46.8 percent of two-point shots beyond 16 feet.

In Oklahoma City in 2019-20, Paul hit 55.4 percent of his 2-point shots, including over half of his shots between 3 feet and the arc, a rate of efficiency he kept up from all three midrange zones on the floor.

Granted, his 36.5 percent 3-point shooting (a .548 eFG%) was better than even that stellar, almost Jordan-like touch from midrange, showing once again what a terrible shot the midrange jumper is that even the best guy in the league at shooting them was still more efficient shooting barely league-average beyond the arc, but at the same time, for nearly the same average points per shot, CP3 hit half of his 2-point shots rather than just over a third of his 3-point shots. It takes fewer possessions to “break even” when the variance in a shot’s effectiveness is lower; lower risk, but slightly lower reward is an entirely valid way to play basketball.

Once again: Chris Paul is so good at 2-point shots that he justifies taking them instead of threes. That is, frankly, insane in today’s NBA, and it speaks to just how good CP3 is that he can collapse a defense, making it easier for his teammates to make those longer shots.

Also, when Paul was with New Orleans, he put up a 54.5 assist rate in 2008-09.

Only two players in NBA history have put up a higher AST% than that. John Stockton did it three times, and Russell Westbrook did it during his insane 2016-17 season that broke advanced stats.

Stretching the AST% list out to the top 12, the list includes Stockton (7 times in 7 consecutive seasons from 1989 to 1995), Paul (twice), Steve Nash (twice), and Westbrook (once.)

CP3 also has another talent that was rare for a player during the tail end of the NBA’s Dark Ages. League stats from the aughts are littered with guys who got a ton of steals but weren’t actually great or even particularly good defenders; they’d gamble for steals, fail to come up with the ball, and watch as their man drove to the basket or splashed a wide-open shot, the hoop equivalent of an NFL defensive back jumping the passing lane, not getting the interception, and having to turn and watch his man take the ball to the house.

Paul led the league in steals per game six times in seven seasons between 2008 and 2014, and yet in all but one of those years, he had a DBPM of at least 2.0 (he was at 1.6 in a 2009 season in which he played in only 45 games.)

Indeed, he led the league outright in DBPM in 2008, a sign that the steals were just part of a balanced defensive breakfast and that he never let himself get caught out of position just because he didn’t take the ball the other way. In football terms, he got his interceptions, but he did so because he was effective enough to break up a pass and come up with the ball, not make the big risk play in search of a reward.

Win Shares per 48 is a stat that disproportionately favors big men. If you can rebound and block shots, you’ll pad your counting stats enough to fool the WS/48 algorithm; consider that in 2015-16, Boban Marjanovic had more WS/48 than Stephen Curry did on that 73-win Warriors team on which Curry hit over 400 3-pointers.

Chris Paul led the league in WS/48 in 2008. He posted an even higher mark (.292 vs. .284) in 2009 but finished second behind LeBron, who had an insane .318 WS/48 (7th-best in NBA history; CP3’s mark was 16th) that year.

Consider that of the top 34 seasons in the history of the NBA for a stat that favors big men, Chris Paul has four of them, and then consider just how insanely above the norm that is.

A baseball outfielder can hit 50 home runs and post better than 1.000 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) and it’s a great season but not necessarily the greatest season by an outfielder.

CP3’s WS/48 is like a shortstop hitting 50 homers. Much more rare, and much more exceptional relative to his positional average.

The only two point guards with even one season in the top 34 all-time for WS/48 are Steph (twice) and Oscar Robertson (in 1964.)

Oh, and did I mention that CP3 is also a career 87 percent free throw shooter who has topped 90 percent three times in his career, including in 2020? Add it all up and Chris Paul is tied with Manu Ginobili and Jeff Hornacek for 58th all time in True Shooting and sits tied with Kevin Martin for 32nd all time in free throw percentage.

Interestingly, ten guys who are ahead of Paul on the all-time FT% list are active players, a clear sign of how players now more than ever have devoted themselves to practicing not leaving points on the floor; nobody wants to choke away a game with a missed FT these days.

But the moral of the story here is that if you look at all the stats in their totality, Chris Paul is the greatest regular-season point guard ever to play the game; his insane combination of efficient shooting, a nose for the ball on defense, and his uncanny ability to find his teammates in the perfect spot for the assist speak for themselves in ways that not even John Stockton or Magic Johnson can match.

Which leads into…

The Playoff Legacy

I am not going to stand here and say that a guy with an unbelievable run of regular-season greatness across 15 (and counting) seasons of NBA basketball gets to claim the GOAT crown without considering the playoffs.

And indeed, when you count the rings, it’s very hard to argue against Magic as the point-guard GOAT. Chris Paul never had Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. He never had three epic Finals matchups in four years against another Hall of Famer who was an all-time great in his own right; Magic had Larry Bird, but CP3 never got to have LeBron James as his foil.

But the numbers don’t care whether your team won when those numbers are considering your individual contributions in an effort to win those rings.

Chris Paul has twice led the league in Box Plus-Minus in the playoffs. He has led the playoffs in WS/48 three times. Posted the best playoff PER three times. Posted an insane 60.2 assist percentage in the Hornets’ ill-fated attempt to get out of the first round in 2009, the highest such mark of all time.

Three of the top 10 assist percentage marks in NBA playoff history belong to Chris Paul. Nobody else—not even Stockton—has more than two.

CP3 is a career 47.1 percent shooter who has hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers in the regular season.

He is a career 47.8 percent shooter with a 36.5 percent 3-point accuracy in the playoffs.

A guy who is not a particularly adept rebounder nonetheless has three career playoff triple-doubles, including a heroic effort in Game 7 of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff defeat to the Rockets, Paul’s former team, in 2020.

If that doesn’t summarize “guy who is ringless more because of his crappy teammates than because of anything he did or didn’t do”, what more do you want?

You expected him to win rings on the Pelicans? On the Clippers? Yeah, not happening, chief. That those teams were even good enough to be a second-round playoff out is all on the shoulders of the Point God who powered them to a much better record than they had any business achieving when he was there.

This is a guy who, in his 13th season in the league, at the age of 32, playing a position that tends to sharply decline after a player’s 30th birthday, put up .265 WS/48 on a team that made the conference finals and then suffered an absolutely unprecendented meltdown, hoist on the 3-point petard that got them as far as it could.

We’re supposed to blame CP3 for that?

So sure. Maybe when you consider his five rings, eight overall Finals appearances, and overall legacy in both regular and postseason, Magic Johnson is still the greatest point guard who ever lived.

But you can’t tell me Chris Paul doesn’t have a case. He might be the most criminally underrated player in NBA history, because if he retires without a ring, it’s going to be between him and Karl Malone for the greatest player ever to retire without having won a title, and it’s not even close between CP3 and anyone who has ever picked up a basketball for the greatest player never to make a Finals appearance.