4. Chris Paul, PG, Clippers
One of the most agonizing debates in our process was Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook. Here were some of the factors that ultimately favored Paul:
• Control vs. explosion: Paul and Westbrook approach running an offense so differently that much of their distinction is a matter of taste. Paul is the sort of ball handler who manages everything; his job involves constant orchestration. His moves to score are deliberate. Paul knows how to pick his spots to score as much as is needed of him while still keeping all of his teammates involved in the exact spots that are best for their games. The way that Paul thinks the game and physically makes his passes (from misdirection to timing to placement) is pretty damn close to the playmaking ideal. It’s a reliable, dependable structure that can easily bear the weight of an entire offense. The same could essentially be said of Westbrook’s raw production, given that no individual defender nor team system can really stop him. Yet in deciding between the two styles, we felt Paul’s brand of cerebral playmaking both made more sense for a wider variety of teams and gave his teammates more room to work through necessary playoff adjustment.
• Defense: This is an open-and-shut case: Paul is a better defender. The more pertinent issue is how much better and to what extent it matters. Paul’s first team All-Defense selection in each of the last five years feels like a bit of an overstatement; as can happen with that particular award, star players who defend well benefit from a categorical bump. That said, the fact that he’s at all a reasonable candidate for that kind of defensive distinction moves him miles away from Westbrook, whose best defensive quality is his activity. The kind of instinctive, assertive defense that Westbrook defaults to can be smothering on the right night and self-destructive on many others. His lunges for steals constantly pull him out of good defensive position, forcing teammates to step up and contain the threats left behind. There are also moments in every game in which Westbrook, weirdly, can’t be bothered. It’s that variety of issues that makes matters worse. These just aren't issues with Paul.
• Shooting: Not only does Paul take better shots, but he shoots a better percentage at literally every distance. The gap is that between one of the game’s most reliable pull-up jump shooters (Paul manages to weave through multiple defenders before twisting into a shot with perfect balance) and one of its most erratic—not to mention indulgent.
• Trust: One question we kept coming back to in our comparison: If you were a coach of an NBA team, who would you trust to run your team? Paul was the consensus choice. Westbrook wouldn’t be Westbrook without the thrills. That makes for great television and great basketball, but it’s often easier to get the most out of all five players on the floor when they can move and operate along a particular set of principles. Westbrook doesn’t totally deny that, though a certain part of his value lies in his unpredictability. A point guard who can blow past his man at any time can always keep the defense off-balance, though in a sense he does something similar to his teammates. The majority of the time this is not a real problem; Westbrook is productive enough—and the openings he creates are obvious enough—to keep an offense afloat. Yet it’s implicit in Westbrook’s game that he will shrug off a certain number of plays as they develop for a quick, pull-up jumper. In some cases, that all comes out in the wash. In others, those shots not only bust a possession with an ineffective shot (Westbrook made just 37% of his pull-up jumpers last season, 42.3% eFG), but give opponents a look in transition when all of Westbrook’s teammates’ may be cutting and screening below the foul line. A lot goes into trusting that a player’s performance will do the most good for the team, but Paul had enough edges to help win us over.
It would be perfectly reasonable to digest all of Westbrook’s limitations and still rank him as the superior player. His play is that persuasive. We simply saw Paul as more balanced, more reliable, and more stylistically contributive to the success of his teammates. (Last year: No. 6)
+ The most efficient high-usage pick-and-roll player in the league last season
+ Independently ranked in the top three in assists leading to three-pointers, dunks, and free throws
– Can be worn down physically if his minutes and responsibilities aren’t minded
– Has a megalomaniacal streak that can sometimes rub teammates the wrong way