Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Chris Paul ushers in our top seven, and this is where things get dicey. Any one of the next seven players could win the next MVP, and as a group, they are on another tier, based on both their ability and durability, than the players behind them on this list.
Paul has put together a career with some thoroughly impressive numbers. He’s already 26th all-time in career Win Shares. If his performance this year matches last season’s, he’ll pass Magic Johnson for No. 20. That, however, has never pushed him past the second round of the playoffs or won him the league’s most prestigious award. To wit: Chris Paul is the greatest active player without a ring or an MVP. Will this year change that?
The MVP race is more muddled this year than most. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will siphon off votes from one another. LeBron James has the help of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and there’s a good chance he skates through until the postseason. James Harden and Russell Westbrook should put up monster numbers, but their teams aren’t as likely to be a top two or three seed.
Meanwhile, Paul, precisely because he’s the greatest active player to never win an MVP or ring, has a great “narrative” argument. If the Clippers finish with the No. 2 seed, he has a fantastic shot.
He has as realistic a chance as anyone to take home the hardware, and if you define No. 1 as the MVP, his ceiling is at the top.
Because the top seven is more or less on a different level, there isn’t much chance of Paul falling very far. He and the six ahead of him are more or less fixtures at the top, so it would require someone else breaking in that tier for him to drop. There are a few players who can make that step, such as Anthony Davis (if he stays healthy) or Karl-Anthony Towns if he takes a big step forward. Others, such as Paul George, could be helped by new team philosophies.
If Paul drops, it won’t be because he fell; it will be because someone climbed over him.
On offense, Paul combines extraordinary court vision, shooting and tremendous command with the ball that makes any offense around him work. We talk about “handles” a lot, and when we do, we usually talk about a sick crossover that sets up either a drive through the lane (a la Irving) or a step-back jumper behind the arc (a la Curry).
But Paul might actually have the best in the league if we consider it just being able to navigate through traffic, hold the dribble as long as needed and use it to set up the most effective shot, either for himself or his teammates.
Paul averaged 19.5 points last season, with the majority of them coming on pull-up jumpers. He averaged 9.8 points on those per game, behind only Curry, and he did that with a 48.0 effective field goal percentage.
Paul combines that with amazing court vision to set up his teammates. His 14.6 assists per 100 possessions are second all-time, only behind John Stockton, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
And his teammates are absolutely lethal when he’s setting them up. They had a blistering 56.4 effective field goal percentage when he passed them the ball, according to NBA.com. The Clippers’ offensive rating of 111.7 when he was on the court, compared to 98.0 when he wasn’t, reveals the true magnitude of his impact.
Paul is no slouch on the other end of the court, either. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus last year was 2.44, which led his position, according to ESPN.com. He’s been a fixture on the All-NBA First Team since the lockout in 2011-12 when he went to the Clippers. Their defensive rating when he sat went up from 99.9 to 102.7. (For those keeping track, that’s a total swing of 16.6 points in net rating.) He’s sixth in NBA history in steals per game, at 2.32.
Oddly, though, opponents shot 2.2 percent better than normal when he was the closest defender on the play. There are a couple of reasons for that.
First, sometimes the best defense never ends in a shot at all, as is the case with Paul. His hawkish defense stops the dribble penetration and forces a pass.
Second, his diminutive stature does work against him. When he has to defend a spot-up shot, he’s at a disadvantage. And obviously, he’s not much help at the rim. His field goal percentage against was plus-7.7 percent inside six feet.