The Changing Face of Chris Paul’s Legacy

Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns

Chris Paul is officially out of the discussion of “greatest player never to make the NBA Finals.”

On the one hand, that’s a nice little backhanded compliment to Steve Nash, who resumes his place as the holder of that honor, depending on how you feel about Pete Maravich or Dominique Wilkins. CP3 was and is better than any of those guys, but now that he’s made the Finals, he’s graduated off the list for that dubious honor.

The question now becomes whether Paul can get over the hump, beat the Bucks or Hawks (Milwaukee leads the East finals 3-2 as this goes to press, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has questions about his own legacy, including his place on the “best never to make the Finals” list, until and unless the Bucks get over the hump themselves), and get onto the undisputed GOAT list himself.

I’ve written a comparison, heavily rooted in advanced stats, between Paul and Magic Johnson; from where I’m sitting it’s between those two guys for the greatest point guard of all time.

Sure, some people will argue for Stephen Curry, who has three championship rings and is without question the greatest pure shooter—at any position—who ever hoisted a basketball in the direction of a hoop for money.

Others will argue for John Stockton, the greatest pure passer, whose quick hands on defense meant he was also able to set the all-time record for steals, a record that will never be broken because controlling turnovers is a much bigger part of the game in 2021 than it was in Stockton’s time.

And still others will argue for Isiah Thomas or Oscar Robertson or Bob Cousy or whichever point guard happens to be aligned with their own favorite team (looking at you, Sixers fans.)

But when you look at CP3’s advanced stat profile, the totality of his abilities in every facet—shooting, passing, defense, elevating teammates—of the game for a point guard, and then account for the mitigating factors, only Magic surpasses him, and that’s only because Magic won five rings.

CP3’s lack of a title has been mainly because of the teams he’s been on. Whether it was the garbage fire that is the franchise in New Orleans, whether it was being coached by Doc Rivers, or whether it was being on the floor for the biggest collapse in a Game 7 in conference finals history in 2018, an individual fell short in a team sport…until now.

Any argument that CP3 can’t elevate his teammates went completely out the window in these playoffs. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and the rest of the Suns’ young core were perpetual lottery participants before Paul showed up. Booker’s scoring and Ayton’s rebounding and rim protection existed in a sort of vacuum from each other before this season, with no real floor leadership to elevate the individual talent of those young rising stars to another level.

If Phoenix wins the title, that will stand as more or less final proof that Paul, put in a position to lead truly contender-level talent (Booker is a fantastic scorer and Ayton has all the potential that his status as a first overall pick implies), with a coach who designs a system around him, is a champion.

Monty Williams‘ coaching legacy is at stake here as well. He was, before this year, best known as the coach who couldn’t elevate Anthony Davis to the next level as a player in New Orleans. Not for nothing have his two best seasons as a coach (a 46-36 season in 2011 and the 51-21 regular-season record, 58-24 prorated to 82 games, Phoenix put up this year) come with Paul as his point guard.

The list of “best players never to win a title” is a tougher list to top than the list of never-made-the-Finals guys. Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Stockton, seemingly countless players who were unlucky enough to have to share the spotlight with the dynasties of the NBA’s past, they all vie for that honor.

And while CP3 spent the bulk of his career in a similar position, playing second or third fiddle behind the likes of the Spurs, Lakers, and Warriors in a career spent entirely in the Western Conference, he finally got a wide-open year, and he’s taken advantage.

On some level, CP3’s legacy hasn’t changed all that much. From where this site’s sitting, it’s between him and Magic Johnson for the greatest point guard of all time.

But winning a championship? That’ll get a lot more fans making that argument, and that’s ultimately what’s at stake for CP3 as he tries to get the Suns their first championship in franchise history in their third Finals and first since 1993.