Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Chris Paul ranks No. 21
Editor's Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, "What’s Wright with Nick Wright," FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 21, Chris Paul.
Chris Paul’s career highlights:
- 12-time All-Star
- Four-time first-team All-NBA, five-time second team, two-time third team
- Seven-time All-Defensive first team, two-time second team
- 2008 MVP runner-up
- Five-time assists leader
- Six-time steals leader
- 2006 Rookie of the Year
- Third on all-time assists list
Not every legend wins an NBA title. Chris Paul hadn’t even played for one until last season, when he transformed yet another franchise into a winner.
Another unceremonious playoff ouster this season, however, leaves a 17-year career packed with achievement susceptible to being defined by the one thing it’s missing.
By traditional and advanced stats, Paul has a case as the most productive point guard of all time. Being ringless not only prevents him from ranking as the greatest but makes him tough to place historically, with much of the conversation reduced to his work in the playoffs.
"The regular-season résumé is better than the 21st-best player of all time, let’s be honest," Wright said. "The postseason résumé — and this was true before this season ended in the most inglorious fashion imaginable — is spotty.
"Now spotty doesn’t mean all bad."
It started out really well for the 6-foot wunderkind. In just his third year, Paul carried a modest New Orleans roster to the No. 2 seed and conference semifinals, where the then-Hornets fell to the defending-champion Spurs in seven games. The MVP runner-up posted 35 points and 10 assists in his postseason debut and averaged 24-11-5 while shooting 50% for the playoffs.
By Year 4, CP3 became the fifth player to average 20 and 11 in multiple seasons. Those types of numbers would become the norm for him, but so did the early playoff exits. After the NBA nixed a trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers — and perhaps maximized the last years of Kobe Bryant’s prime — the young two-way star instead ended up on the Clippers.
The league’s least successful franchise immediately became a contender.
In the 2014 playoffs, CP3 got the best of an ascending Stephen Curry in the Clips' seven-game win over the Golden State — they remain the last Western Conference team to beat the Warriors in the playoffs. Paul had a strong second round against a superior Oklahoma City squad, only to commit a slew of errors in the waning moments of Game 5 that ultimately cost his team the series.
In 2015, Paul hit a Game 7 buzzer-beater to knock off the defending-champion Spurs in the first round. A hamstring injury sidelined him for the first two games of the next round against the Rockets, who would rally from a 3-1 deficit. Paul averaged 26 and 10 and shot 51% over the last three games. In the Clippers' infamous Game 6 meltdown, he registered 31 and 11 and scored nine of his team's 15 points during a fourth quarter that saw Houston erupt for 40 with James Harden benched.
The Clips' 50-win campaigns continued but so did the late-season calamity, as injuries to Paul and/or Blake Griffin undermined their next two playoff trips. In 2017, they opted to trade Paul rather than extend him and "Lob City" was over.
"This is why it’s hard for little guys to dominate the NBA playoffs," Wright said. "He got dinged at the wrong time, he turned the ball over at the wrong time. He’s an all-time great player and analytics say he is the second-greatest point guard ever. But he needed to have one start-to-finish, unimpeachable postseason. He didn’t."
Not in L.A., and not at any of his next three stops.
CP3 did elevate the overachieving Rockets into a 65-win title contender, nonetheless. In the second round of the 2018 playoffs, he dropped 41 and 10 to eliminate the Jazz. His joint effort with Harden had Houston up 3-2 on the defending-champion Warriors, but another hamstring injury sidelined Paul for the final two games of the conference finals. The Rockets lost both games.
The two teams would meet in the semifinals the following year, and Houston blew another golden opportunity. With the series tied at 2-2 and Kevin Durant injured, Paul and Harden took turns slumping and surging in two narrow defeats. Friction between the two prompted the Rockets to trade Paul to Oklahoma City, where he willed the rebuilding Thunder to the playoffs.
CP3 was soon rewarded with a trade to the upstart Suns, whom he subsequently led to their first postseason appearance in a decade. He overcame a first-round injury to dominate in closeout contests against the Nuggets (37 and 7) and Clippers (41 and 8) and in his Finals debut versus the Bucks (32 and 9). But he wore down in the ensuing games, the Suns squandered a 2-0 lead, and he underwent wrist surgery in the offseason.
This past year, a 36-year-old Paul led the league in assists (for the fifth time), tying Steve Nash as the oldest player to win that crown. (A 22-year-old Paul is tied with Oscar Robertson as the youngest assists champion.) Moreover, the Suns won a franchise-best 64 games and looked primed for another Finals run with CP3 at the controls. He went a record-setting 14-of-14 from the field to close out the Pelicans in the first round and started out hot versus the Mavericks, before bizarrely turning in five successively bad performances upon turning 37.
That made the 2022 Suns the fifth team of Paul’s career to blow a 2-0 series lead. It’s the type of stat that, for some, overshadows him owning 10 top-10 MVP finishes; the fourth-most steals and third-most assists; a tie for the most All-Defensive selections among point guards; and the best assist-to-turnover ratio in NBA history (4.1).
"Chris Paul’s regular-season résumé far outshines Isiah Thomas’," Wright said. "It’s neck and neck, if not — as far as true point guard play — better than Steph Curry’s. If he had won a title last year or this year, he would have at least had an argument of him versus Isiah Thomas. But he didn’t, so he doesn’t."
While CP3 won’t be regarded as the best point guard in history, there are only so many at any position who have been better.
"We’re just days removed from him squandering what was almost assuredly his last best chance to win a title," Wright said. "But that should not distract us from the fact he’s still an all-time great."
The Point God, many would say.