Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul has been unofficially linked to the Trail Blazers since former Portland GM John Nash passed on him on NBA Draft Day 2005. As the Blazers struggled to find their point guard of the future for the entirety of the Brandon Roy-era, jokes of "But how does this get us Chris Paul?" in response to every roster move became a coping mechanism for Blazer's Edge commenters to help get over the missed opportunity.
Since Damian Lillard's arrival in 2012, and subsequent ascendance to All-Star status, fans have slowly forgotten the 2005 draft. The Blazers now have their point guard so it's no longer necessary to dream that every personnel move is a covert ploy to somehow steal Chris Paul. Thus, it's symbolically appropriate that in Lillard's first year as the undisputed leader of the Blazers, Portland will match up against Paul (and the Clippers!) in the playoffs for the first time.
With that history in mind, let's examine what has made Paul a top point guard in the league for the last decade, and whether or not the Blazers are still going to regret Draft Day 2005 after this series concludes.
How Good is Paul?
Several analysts around the basketball blog-o-sphere have taken to calling Paul the "Point God" as a testament to his seeming-perfection of the traditional point guard role.
For his part, Paul has defended that title this season by averaging 19.5 points, 10 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game in 32.7 minutes. Despite turning 30 earlier this year, these numbers are virtually identical to his career averages, showing that Paul has remained as effective as ever this season.
The advanced numbers are similarly kind to Paul. He has a net rating of +11.9, TS% of 57.9, assist percentage of 50, and an assist to turnover ratio of 3.8(!) while maintaining a usage rate of nearly 27 percent. For context, Paul's stats would place him first or second on the Blazers in all these categories.
On the other side of the ball, when Kirk Goldsberry, Alexander Franks, and Andrew Miller published a Sloan Conference paper re-defining how defensive impact is measured, Paul was highlighted as the poster child for effectiveness. This paper supported what most NBA insiders have known for years: Paul is a defensive terror for opposing point guards. He has a reputation for being physical on the perimeter and picking up a high number of steals with his quick hands. Paul is a master at taking away a players' preferred shots/moves and forcing opposing point guards into uncomfortable situations. Media members have accordingly voted Paul onto one of the All-NBA Defensive teams in seven of the last eight seasons.
What makes him so good?
On offense, Paul sets himself apart with a top-level midrange scoring game, and with passing ability.
Paul's midrange game is predicated on elite ballhandling and strength. He can out-dribble nearly anyone in the NBA, and has impeccable footwork, which allows him to get defenders off balance and create space for step-back jumpers.
Paul is also deceptively strong, despite his diminuitive 6-foot, 175-pound frame. He often creates contact when he uses his crossover in the midrange, forcing the defender out of position (Note: Paul repeatedly pushes the limits of legality with this move - technically as long as he does not extend the arm to push the defender it's legal). Paul's physical strength enables him to play through this contact while staying balanced and in control of his body.
For opposing players, this willingness to create contact creates a conundrum - Paul is also excellent at drawing fouls by instantly shifting into shooting motions when the defender enters his airspace. When he drives and initiates contact in the midrange most defenders must immediately disengage or risk sending him to the line. The problem is, backing away from Paul's contact helps to create the separation he needs to sink a jumper.
Paul is regularly among the NBA leaders in assists. He has elite court vision and nearly always notices when teammates are open. More importantly, Paul has mastered getting teammates the ball in a position where they are immediately able to shoot. Notice how nearly every pass in the following video breakdown is in the "shooting pocket" (i.e. the receiving player doesn't have to stretch or bend over to receive the pass) and perfectly timed such that his teammate can immediately shoot without dribbling:
Additionally, Paul has big man DeAndre Jordan as a teammate. By combining the passing precision of the former, with the length and athleticism of the latter, the Clippers have created a two-headed monster that can exploit holes when the defense doubles Paul after he beats the primary defender with his ballhandling.
Much like on offense, Paul stays elite on defense with his fundamentals and strength. He has great defensive footwork, a dying skill in the NBA, so he is always able to stay in front of his man. Paul also has very quick hands, which he uses to cause even more discomfort for the offensive player. Similarly to Celtics guard Avery Bradley, Paul bodies up to opposing players on the perimeter and refuses to easily give up position - another advantage afforded by his strength (Jalen Rose once compared running into Paul to "kicking a fire hydrant").
In the era of no handchecking, many players are not accustomed to this hard-nosed defensive package on the perimeter and have a hard time adapting.
Paul is also known as an ardent consumer of game tape; as a result he knows the tendencies of everyone he's guarding, leading to disrupted passes and steals.
How does Lillard match-up?
Lillard has not matched up well against Paul historically. As in, avert-your-eyes "not well." Here are there head-to-head numbers:
Paul leads convincingly in virtually every individual category. To make matters even worse, while Paul has dominated the individual matchup the Clippers have dominated the team matchup by winning nine of the last 12 meetings between the two clubs.
Paul plays the type of defense that Lillard struggles with and few guards are capable of emulating. Blazer fans saw Lillard flounder against the physical defense of the Memphis Grizzlies' Tony Allen last spring in the first round of the postseason and have seen similar struggles with this type of defense when facing Paul and the Clippers.
Offensively, Paul presents significant challenges for the Blazers' defense. He is efficient at getting into the lane and the Blazers guards have had trouble staying in front of their man on the perimeter. Combine Paul's excellent passing which he uses to find the open man when the Blazers are forced to help, and a super athletic DeAndre Jordan who finishes nearly perfectly around the rim, and you have a pairing that is basically kryptonite to the Portland defense.
The Blazers will likely see many similar Paul to Jordan plays throughout this series. Paul is fifth in the NBA with a pick-and-roll percentage of 51.9, and he is in the 89th percentile for points per possession on those plays. The Blazers' defense, on the other hand, has been second-worst in the NBA at defending the pick-and-roll. Unless Portland coach Terry Stotts and his staff can significantly improve on that number, Paul will continue to torch Lillard and the Blazers.
Overall, Paul has proven himself to be a very tough matchup for Lillard and the Blazers. How the Blazers adapt over the course of this series will be crucially important. Defensively, Allen Crabbe or Gerald Henderson may be called upon to guard Paul while Lillard hides on one of the Clippers' weaker small forwards to save energy. Offensively, the Blazers will need to find ways to get Lillard open looks despite Paul's hounding perimeter defense - perhaps by having McCollum initiate the offense while Lillard plays off the ball and tries to create switches. Stotts is a master of adjustment and, over the course of a seven-game series, should be capable of facilitating Lillard's offense. Either way, given how both teams succeed/fail in accordance with their point guard, Lillard will need to find some way to get going during this series or the Blazers will start regretting the 2005 NBA Draft all over again.