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The Chris Paul Problem Is An Analytics Problem

Photo credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty

In broad terms, the Chris Paul Problem—there is one!—is as follows: Pretty much everybody agrees that Paul is, and has been for the past decade, one of the NBA’s best players. He made nine straight All-Star games from 2008 to 2016; he has made eight All-NBA teams and nine All-Defense teams; he is the league’s active leader in both assists and steals per game. He is a superstar.

Basketball analytics say he is even more than that. According to Basketball Reference, Paul has the sixth-highest career Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of any player ever; Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48) essentially cannot tell the difference between him (.2504) and Michael Jordan (.2505); Box Plus-Minus (BPM) says only Jordan and LeBron James are his superiors. His career 122.69 Offensive Rating (OffRtg) is the highest of all time. The judgment of the sport’s holistic metrics is that he is one of the best basketball players who ever lived.


And yet! Paul’s teams, first in New Orleans and then in Los Angeles, never went very far in the playoffs—he has never so much as reached the conference finals—and mostly didn’t even put up all that ferocious a fight. That’s not supposed to happen in the NBA, a star-dominated league in which the team with the best player usually wins, and in which other teams with players as good as Chris Paul is supposed to be have pretty much never lost as consistently as his teams have.

A little over a month ago, Paul used his leverage as one of the NBA’s biggest stars to engineer a blockbuster sign-and-trade sending him from the Clippers to Houston, where he’ll join fellow superstar guard James Harden on a Rockets team that won 55 games, the West’s third playoff seed, and a first-round playoff series this past season. At least as far as basketball’s holistic metrics are concerned, a strong regular-season team just added one of the best players of all time to its roster. When a historically great player—what the analytics say Chris Paul is—changes teams, it should change history, but nobody really expects this to. This is the Chris Paul Problem.

At Deadspin we’ve kicked the Chris Paul Problem around in many, many, oh God so fucking many internal discussions over the past few years; surely we are not the only ones. Yesterday, the Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks took a look at it, in a thoughtful piece that looks ahead to what the Rockets can expect from their new superstar. Persuasively, Tjarks tracks the gap between Paul’s regular season and postseason play back to three factors.


The first is the difference in quality between regular season and postseason competition. In the regular season, Paul can build a phenomenal aggregate body of work by bringing playoff intensity to every game and making the most of opportunities to crush shitty opponents, whereas in the playoffs, he’s going against top competition matching his intensity every night:

There is no one better at taking advantage of inferior opponents than Paul. He maximizes every possession, and he doesn’t take plays off on either side of the ball. He rarely makes the wrong decision on offense, and he always puts himself in the right position on defense, where his quick hands and viselike grip make him a nightmare for average ball handlers. Paul is like an NFL cornerback who jams at the line of scrimmage on every snap. He gets his hands on guys and makes them play in an area the size of a phone booth. However, that strategy is not as effective against elite players with the size, speed, and skill to beat him at the point of attack. He is so fundamentally sound that he runs up the margins against bad players better than anyone, but there are no bad players the deeper you advance in the playoffs, particularly at point guard.


Second, in the playoffs, the ability to switch on defense becomes more important and valuable, and Paul, one of the smallest players in the sport, loses much of his defensive value because most of the players on the floor can shoot right over him:

Paul is one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, but a point guard’s ability to defend his position becomes less important in the playoffs, since teams often cross-switch bigger wings on them and switch screens more frequently rather than keep players on their original defensive assignments.


Third, in the playoffs, the defenses get much tougher and more focused, and Paul, who dominates possession of the ball like few other players, finds his perfectionism working against him as he grinds away possessions looking for perfect shots that can’t be found:

Paul can’t consistently create easy shots against an elite defense, but he’s also too disciplined to take bad shots, which limits his upside against higher levels of competition. Paul has averaged more than 25 points a game in a playoff series only once, and it was in his most recent seven-game battle against the Jazz. [Russell] Westbrook has done it nine times, and [Stephen] Curry has done it eight.


Taken together, this is as convincing an explanation as I think you’ll find for why teams built around Chris Paul routinely shit out short of the conference finals: He’s a teeny tiny little guy whose strengths are better suited to regular season play. But also, this illuminates a much larger problem, which Tjarks leaves unexamined. I’m not sure he realizes it, but if he’s right about Chris Paul, then the actual subject of his article is a blind spot in basketball analytics, and maybe a fundamental limit on the usefulness of analytics in basketball.

Theoretically, the purpose of viewing basketball through an analytic lens—and of all the exotic holistic advanced basketball metrics produced by that effort—is to look through and beyond noisy counting numbers and nail down the actual relationship between the shit a basketball player does in a game and the success or failure of his team. If those stats are calibrated correctly—if they measure the right stuff at the right weights—then they should have a strong and clear positive correlation with basketball outcomes: All other things being equal, if one player scores better than another on the holistic metrics, then his team ought to beat the other guy’s team. It ought to win more often than the other guy’s team in general.


So here is the thing. Broadly speaking, those holistic metrics say Chris Paul occupies a level of basketball excellence that he shares with dudes like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and pretty much nobody else. Aside from Paul, these are not only some of the most productive players in NBA history, but some of the most successful, as well; in their primes, all of them were fixtures in the NBA Finals.

This is to say that, according to the stats at least, Chris Paul’s peers are players who did not have flaws that capped their teams’ hopes at the second round of the playoffs. If Paul—as his own record demonstrates and Tjarks’s article persuasively argues—is not the type of player who can be the centerpiece of a genuine year-in-year-out championship contender, whether because of his size or because of differences between regular season and playoff basketball or because of the particulars of his playing style, then an accurately-calibrated metric designed to nail down a player’s discrete basketball value should be able to tell the difference between him and, say, Jordan, or James, or Abdul-Jabbar, who self-evidently had no such limits.


That difference should be pretty huge! Even if it’s just because each of those players is/was a lot bigger, physically, than Chris Paul, each of them attained a level of excellence that translated from regular season to postseason and made them, in their primes, nigh-invincible in both formats. Definitionally, that means they were more valuable than Chris Paul! And if the metrics designed to gauge player value can’t capture that difference, then their shit is all fucked up! The very least you might hypothesize is that they’re probably placing too much value on efficiency, and not enough on just being a lot taller than Chris Paul.

Paul’s isn’t the only value on trial here. In baseball, the analytics movement has been able to unearth some genuinely hard and surprising truths: Guys who batted a hollow .300 with no range on defense were discovered to be bad players who made their teams lose; passive hitters who took walks all the time instead of attacking the ball were discovered to be not lazy bums but engines of offense; the myth of Derek Jeter, Good Defensive Shortstop received a definitive debunking; Tim Raines made the Hall of Fame and Jack Morris did not. By its nature, baseball is a sport where individual greatness and shittiness could hide in plain sight, trees obscured by the forest, until a smart look at the data illuminated them.


In basketball, analytics have provided useful tools for, for example, comparing different five-man lineups, or capturing the positive impact a role player might have in areas that escape the box score’s notice. But a five-man sport in which a team’s best player exerts massive influence over that team’s fortunes may not allow enough room to hide any truly big secrets about who qualifies as transcendent: The canonical dumbest argument—RINGZZZZ!!!!!11!1!!!—poses a serious and legitimate challenge to any counterintuitive conclusion the metrics might reach about who belongs in the discussion of historical greatness. It’s depressingly circular: Absent some clear inequality of supporting teammates, if one superstar player carries his team to the Finals year after year and another doesn’t, then the former self-evidently possesses some value the latter does not; if the holistic metrics designed to measure player value can’t suss out and capture that value gap, then they are not working properly; and if they’re working properly, then inevitably their ordering of history’s best players will tend not to tell you anything that contradicts all that sharply a list of guys who’ve won Finals MVP awards.

The alternative explanation, in short, is that Chris Paul truly is as good as Michael Jordan, and in 12 pro seasons has suffered from 12 discrete strains of fluky misfortune so severe that instead of six championships he has zero conference finals appearances, and that none of this can be explained or unified by any theory of him or his basketball abilities, and so therefore there is nothing for the metrics to capture and pin on him. (In which case Tjarks would be wrong, I guess?) That’s too bleak to think about, but more importantly, it’s unconvincing. Paul’s career metrics say he is as valuable as players who could not be kept out of the NBA Finals—that the Spurs and Warriors and so forth should have lamented the misfortune of peaking during Chris Paul’s reign over the West and not vice versa—but pretty much by definition, his teams’ playoff performances prove he cannot be as good as that.


In any case, if, after a long career of fanatical perfectionism and well-deserved acclaim, Chris Paul’s greatest contribution to the history of the sport turns out to be prompting a fine-tuning of the metrics that for a time had him incorrectly pegged as perhaps the greatest player who ever lived, that would be both fitting and extremely funny. In the meantime, I will bet my right hand against yours that he won’t play in the 2018 Finals.


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