This pains me to write. It really does. Chris Paul’s influence on the game is immeasurable. His effortless manipulation of tempo and pace reveals a beauty behind the game that’s helped countless people fall in love with it (myself included). But, there’s no denying it anymore: Paul’s decline is upon us.
Lost behind his backcourt partner’s brilliant regular season, Paul’s numbers plummeted across the board this year. He posted career lows in points per game (15.6), field goal percentage (41.9), and just about every advanced stat imaginable (PER, VORP, Win Shares, you name it..). He shot below 28 percent from three in the playoffs after shooting below league average in the regular season. He posted the lowest assist percentage since his rookie year at 39 percent, before seeing that figure nosedive to a Derozan-ian 25 percent in the playoffs. And, ultimately, he posted his worst on-court/off-court differential since his sophomore year.
Certainly, the ‘Point God’ is still there on some nights. But, the inconsistency with which his body can reach that level of play anymore is troubling.
You see, that’s the unfortunate part: it’s only Paul’s body that’s declining. He still holds an excellent assist/turnover ratio. His defensive instincts are still present as ever. And the efficiency with which he creates offense for others remains elite. But, sadly, he’s lost a step. His uncanny ability to create separation out of thin air against virtually any defender is fleeting— and it’s not coming back.
Woefully, the area of Paul’s game most effected by this physical downswing is his staple: the pull-up game. Relative to 2018-19, Paul’s efficiency on pull-up three’s fell from 38 percent to a measly 34.5 percent this season despite similar volume. And furthermore, he registered the lowest efficiency on his famed midrange in 10+ years.
Considering that even in his twilight Paul is one of the faster players in the league, it was difficult to notice any drop-off in his burst this season. But, watching film from as recent as last playoffs, there’s a difference. Not a large one, but a difference nonetheless. Unfortunately, as little as a 10-15 percent decrease in explosiveness can make all the difference for a 6’0 guard who relies so heavily on creating separation to shoot over larger players.
Moreover, Paul’s physical regression limiting the threat of his pull-up is dragging down his offensive game in a myriad of other ways. Defenders aren’t guarding him near as tightly as the veteran is accustomed to, making it more difficult to manipulate their positioning against them to create an advantage.
Per Synergy Sports, compared to last season’s playoffs and regular season, Paul’s efficiency relative to the rest of the league in pick-and-rolls, isolations, post ups, and handoffs went from elite (85th+ percentile) to average this year (65th percentile>)— if not below.
So, that brings us to the ever-present question of whether or not it’s time to pull the plug on Paul and trade him before his deal balloons. I explored this possibility, among others, in an offseason primer earlier this month, and ultimately, concluded that it’s probably the right call.
The possibility remains that Paul’s astronomical basketball IQ will allow him to work around his newfound limitations, creating a late career renaissance that puts the Rockets over the top. But, even in the slim chance that happened, it’s doubtful Paul would ever return to the level that earned him his max deal in the first place. With only 2-3 years left in James Harden’s prime, retreading a supporting cast spearheaded by Paul to similar results could ultimately push the Beard out the door come 2022.
However, the disconcerting part about possibly moving Paul is whether or not the Rockets’ could get anything close to value in return. At 34, with the second most minutes of any active rotation player in the NBA, $120-ish million over three years is a tough pill for any owner to swallow. If the Rockets moved Paul, it’d be primarily to clear cap space for a 1-yard-line star free agent signing— which would require some A+ level tampering from Harden.
Potential trade partners that’ve been thrown around as of late are the Lakers and the Suns.
The Lakers almost makes too much sense considering that acting president of basketball operations, LeBron James, is known for having a blindspot when it comes his friend’s contracts. So, Rockets’ brass could likely get a rich asset return from the purple and gold, relative to other offers.
But, conversely, the Suns are a serious dark-horse since the Robert Sarver factor means a potential return for Paul could range anywhere from Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, and a first-round pick to Tyler Johnson, a goat, and a second-round pick. There’s just no way of forecasting with them.
However, during owner Tilman Fertitta’s exit interview, he told the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen, “Chris is smart. I think Chris has a lot in him to contribute in the next couple years. He’s got savvy and intelligence that helps the team.” Signalling that a potential Paul deal likely is not forthcoming.
Alas, this likely means that Rockets’ fans will probably have to spend next season similar to how they spent this one: debating after each decent game whether Paul is finally ‘back’.
However, based on Daryl Morey’s track record, it’s undoubtable that he and his staff will do their due diligence when it comes to Paul. If Harden continues to rise this coming season, Paul’s role will only become further mitigated, worsening any trade prospects. How much of Paul’s value do you think Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers could supplement if given bigger roles? You’d be a fool if you don’t think Morey is asking his staff the same question.
As sad as it is to accept, father time remains undefeated: Paul’s decline has begun.
If the Rockets aren’t realistic this summer about Paul’s future, this could be Lakers’ Steve Nash on a $45 million salary before they know it.