A Basket Case


Why the Hornets’ Chris Paul should be the NBA’s MVP

The NBA is a stars’ game—there is Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and everybody sports1else—and yet in its very construct it retains the quality of a sport that is entirely dependent on fundamental skills. In an age when the palmed ball is legal and the three-step hop-and-skip move is not necessarily traveling, a player who can dribble perfectly, pass efficiently and opportunistically, who can shoot smartly and move and think quickly enough in tandem to steal frequently cannot be hidden. He will dominate and lead his team to wins, no matter his endorsements. But that kind of player—the Oscar Robinsons and Bob Pettits of old—is far and few between today. Not in New Orleans, though. We have Chris Paul.

Paul had a phenomenal year last year but incredibly is having an even better one in 2008–09. Last year, Paul was mentioned prominently in the national Most Valuable Player award discussions and finished second in the final tally, but this year he has hardly received a mention. And the reason is that Paul has become a treasure island in a sea of mediocrity: While the Hornets have failed to bolster the center, shooting guard and backup point guard positions, the team has let some key young players go (J. R. Smith, Brandon Bass), not played others (Julian Wright) and in the course of doing so has frittered away what was once a promising young team into what could possibly be a one-and-done playoff cruise and a turbulent off-season. And yet what Paul has done in comparison to the likely top MVP vote getters, Bryant and James, cannot be ignored.

Consider that Paul leads the league, again, in assists at 10.9 per game, far outpacing James (7.3) and Bryant (4.9). Paul is second in the league in delivering 3.6 assists per turnover—a third better than James (2.4) and almost twice better than Bryant (1.9). Paul is again leading the league in steals with 2.9 thefts per game, better by far than James (1.8) and Bryant (1.4). Paul set an NBA record by gaining a steal in 108 consecutive games, again showing the consistency and dedication that have become his hallmarks. The relative value provided by Paul versus James and Bryant is outstanding—Paul leads them both in steals per turnover (0.95, eighth in the league) and steals per personal foul (1.09, second in the league).

Last year, Paul became only the fourth player since the steals stat was created in 1973–74 to lead the league in both assists and steals, and it now appears he will be the first player to do it two years in a row. He has the highest steals average since Nate McMillan’s 2.9 in 1993–94, and he is on the verge of an incredible 11 assists and three steals per game, the best since Hall of Famer John Stockton in 1991–92. Last year he became only the seventh player ever and the first since Magic Johnson to lead the league in assists and average more than 20 points in scoring, and now he is doing it again. Paul last year became the first player ever to finish first in assists and steals while also scoring more than 20 points per game—and he is about to do it again.sports2

Paul leads Bryant and James in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point shooting percentage. In rebounds Bryant and Paul both average 5.4 per game while James gets his sole advantage at 7.6 per game. Of course, Bryant and James are literally at the top of the scoring charts, with James scoring the second most in the league and Bryant the third most. But Paul is still tenth best in the league, putting in 22.2 points per night, and in light of his control of the court in all other aspects, it almost seems as if his scoring prowess is an accentuated threat that can be unleashed at any time rather than be a single factor that can be accounted for by opposing defenses on any given night.

His humility, along with his personal contributions to the city (like his partnership with the Al Copeland Foundation to cure merkel cell carcinoma), have become legendary and make him an even larger figure. And Paul has shown an eminent ability to dominate the court by scoring or dishing out to others who score while on offense, while minimizing mistakes and seizing momentum back on defense. That is a powerful and rare combination, the kind of ability that pares the list of names he can be compared to in the NBA’s history to approximately ten, all of whom are Hall of Famers (think: Jerry West, Robertson and Magic).

New Orleans sports fans need to stop and consider that now rather than later. Chris Paul, given what he has already done, is shaping up as a likely future Hall of Famer. Looking like one of the Greats, he is doing what had been thought to be the impossible, eclipsing Pete Maravich as the greatest skilled sportsman this state has ever seen. Sadly, Maravich has been emblematic of the pro New Orleans sports player, forming with Archie Manning the two bookends to the storied tales of players who “should have been great” but who, despite Apollonian abilities, due to tragedy or misfortune or some tale of shabby misplaced glory, which New Orleanians love to embrace and share as their own, never attained the level of true “Greatness.” Basketball and football hall of famers who spent the greater identifiable parts of their careers in New Orleans number zero. Chris Paul is changing that definitively.