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Has Stephen Curry Surpassed Chris Paul as the NBA's Best Point Guard?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles past Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at Staples Center on April 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Chris Paul may not have vacated his spot atop the NBA's point guard rankings, but the Los Angeles Clippers floor general no longer occupies it by himself.

Stephen Currylethal as always on the offensive end and better than ever defensively, has forced himself onto the same plane as Paul. That's an incredible accomplishment in itself, and there are no reasons to believe Curry has any intentions of stopping here.

For those willing to frame this as a single-season discussion, Curry might already be sitting in Paul's old throne.

"No point guard is playing better for his team right now," an Eastern Conference executive said of Curry, per NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "His game has come full circle. He can do it all, score and run the show. ... He's the best shooter and is improved in every other area of his game."

Former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy called Curry the NBA's best point guard "without question" in late November, per Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung. Shortly thereafter, Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas also moved Curry to the front of the line, per Leung:

Diamond Leung @diamond83

Isiah Thomas told Sirius XM Stephen Curry is NBA's best point guard. "He's also trying to dominate you on the defensive side of the ball."

"The guy has taken it to another level," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Curry earlier this season, per Leung. "I think he's the best in the NBA right now at that position."

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The sentiment for slotting Curry ahead of his point guard peers is strong. Whether it's actually justified may be a matter of personal preference.

Direct statistical comparisons between the two are tough because they play such different styles. Both can shred a defense with either their scoring or their passing, but Curry strikes more with the former, while Paul often opens his attack with the latter.

Each also boasts the skills and savvy to impact the stat sheet in areas well outside of their greatest respective strength.

Paul and Curry Under the Traditional Statistical Microscope
PlayerPTSFG%3P%ASTREBSTLTOV
Chris Paul17.949.739.29.94.51.92.1
Stephen Curry23.948.539.17.65.32.03.3
Basketball-Reference.com

Widening the lens, Curry and Paul provide nearly an identical amount of points on any given night.

Paul gives the Clippers 22.2 points a night off his assists alone, per NBA.com's player tracking data. Curry's assists add another 17.5 points to the Warriors' per-game scoring average. Adding in their individual point production, Paul has his hand in 40.1 points per game, while Curry helps put up 41.4.

It's hard to say what, if anything, that advantage actually means. Curry's number is called upon far more often than Paul's (29.1 usage percentage to 22.4), and the former gives away more possessions than the latter (14.5 turnover percentage to 12.2).

Particularly on the offensive end, Paul more easily fits with people's conventional image of a point guard.

"Paul is like a surgeon on the court, carefully creating incisions in the opposing defense with precise dribbling and meticulous passing lanes," wrote CBS Sports' Zach Harper.

It would make so much sense to dub Paul as a "game manager" if the label didn't carry such a negative connotation. He stays in complete control of a contest, knowing who to pass to and when but always sensing when he's needed to carry the scoring load.

With him on the floor, the Clippers have torched their opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions. When he has sat, L.A. has been outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. That's the difference between a league-best net efficiency rating and a mark worse than 28 of the 30 NBA teams.

Without question, Paul makes his teammates better. DeAndre Jordan is shooting 82.1 percent off passes from Paul. Jamal Crawford has cashed in 63.6 percent of his two-point field goal attempts set up by Paul. As a team, the Clippers shoot 49.0 percent from the field off Paul's passes, more than a full percentage point better than their season average of 47.8.

Curry is a completely different type of player, really a gift to the analytical crowd thanks to his perimeter proficiency. His combination of three-point volume and success is unlike anything the basketball world has seen. This has been the worst three-point shooting season of his career, yet he still ranks first in made threes (77).

Less than 56 percent of his triples have come off assists. In fact, he's been a much better marksman on pull-up threes (41.7 percent) than catch-and-shoot attempts (37.6 percent). With his rapid-fire release, he needs only a sliver of space to fire up a shot. And his handles are certainly tight enough to create all the breathing room he requires.

But he's so much more than a long-range specialist.

He has never based so much of his offense around the restricted area (20.2 percent of his field-goal attempts have come from within three feet), nor enjoyed more success from that range (71.6 percent shooting). His assist percentage is the second-highest of his career (37.9), and his turnover rate is the second-lowest. 

Defenses have to stay on their toes and try guarding against everything.

And thanks in no small part to his work with assistant coach Ron Adams, Curry no longer gives opponents a break at the defensive end. He is taking on assignments he used to be hidden from and still holding point guards to a lower player efficiency rating (11.7) than Paul has given up (13.3), per 82games.com.

When Curry takes the floor, the Warriors become the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals. Golden State has an absurd plus-19.8 net efficiency rating with him leading the charge. But once he sits, the Warriors have a Generals-esque minus-8.9 efficiency mark.

Curry's creativity and propensity to catch fire at a moment's notice puts opposing defenses under constant pressure. Combine the threat of his eruptions with the Warriors' commitment to ball movement, and it's no wonder that Klay Thompson (21.6 points), Draymond Green (13.1 points, 3.3 assists) and Harrison Barnes (11.2 points on 52.6 percent shooting) are all enjoying career years.

Curry deserves a lot of credit for those successes and for Golden State's scorching 22-3 start. The Clippers' 19-8 record isn't bad, but it's a reflection of expectations being met—not exceeded. At the very least, this should slot Curry ahead of Paul on any MVP rankings.

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers during Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, Califo
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

But is that enough to sway the debate in Curry's favor? It depends on who is voting and what their criteria is.

Paul has the better track record, even if it's light on postseason success (three playoff trips past the first round, none out of the second). He has played at an elite level long enough that it's easier to trust his production than that of any other point guard in the league.

"I'm still taking Paul as the league's top point guard," NBC Sports' Dan Feldman wrote. "He has such a long track record holding that title. ... Maybe by the end of the season Curry will have claimed the crown, but for me, it's too soon to downgrade Paul."

That said, Curry is having the better season—both on individual and team levels.

Curry has the edge over Paul in PER (26.8 to 25.5), win shares per 48 minutes (.278 to .265) and value over replacement player (7.8 to 6.1). Curry's Warriors have played a harder schedule than Paul's Clippers and still compiled a better record—despite losing both Andrew Bogut and David Lee for significant stretches.

Curry hasn't knocked Paul off the top, but he has at least opened up what was a one-player discussion. This is now a 1A-1B scenario, with Curry looking most deserving of that 1A designation.

But these positions are always subject to change. Russell Westbrook is quickly throwing his name in this conversation and the MVP race, Tony Parker saves his best work for when it matters most and John Wall's statistics are getting harder to ignore.

Even if Curry has surpassed—or will surpass—Paul, there is no guarantee his reign will be anywhere near as long as that of his predecessor. Life at the top isn't easy, despite how Paul has made it look over the past decade.

Curry will figure that out soon enough. He still has some work to take complete control of Paul's throne, and there are already a number of elite floor generals threatening to take that spot.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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