Explaining Chris Paul's Dominance as NBA's Premier Point Guard Stopper

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2015

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Barely six feet tall with a panache for hounding opposing ball handlers, Los Angeles Clippers commander-in-chief Chris Paul has solidified his reputation as the NBA's premier point guard wrangler. 

That sentiment has been confirmed by four All-Defensive first team appointments and two All-Defensive second team nominations. A spotlight on counting stats also does Paul's status as an all-world defender favors. 

Six of the last seven seasons—and four years in a row—Paul has led the league in steals per game. That's a defensible and perfectly legitimate way to defend his status as a defender of the highest caliber in any water cooler debate. 

However, with mounds of data and archival footage at our disposal, it's easier than ever to dive into the methodology behind Paul's brilliance.

And visually, Paul's play is striking. Unlike some defenders who choose to lurk around the perimeter and hawk lazy passes like a cornerback playing off-coverage (think Asante Samuel), Paul assumes the form of an aggressive corner who excels in press coverage (a la Richard Sherman).

For such a diminutive presence, Paul is remarkably physical. He's almost always acting as the aggressor, seeking out contact as a way to disrupt paths to the basket or the punctuation of half-court sets.

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His single-handed annihilation of Corey Brewer in transition encapsulates the fury with which he approaches each and every defensive assignment: 

Active hands and fundamentally flawless footwork anchor Paul's pesky proceedings, but those qualitative assessments have never been quantitatively backed in particularly meaningful ways. 

Until now. 

Thanks to some enlightening new findings from Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry and his colleagues, Alexander Franks, Andrew Miller and Luke Bornn, we have samplings of new defensive metrics that can supplement our visual understanding of what makes Paul the league's most esteemed point guard stopper.

"According to Franks and Miller, Chris Paul is the best perimeter defender in the NBA," Goldsberry wrote. "They have empirical evidence that the Clippers point guard suppresses and disrupts shot activity as much or more than any other guard in the league." 

To their point, Goldsberry and Co. indicate that Paul led all backcourt players last season by allowing just 10.8 points per game.

So not only is Paul a pickpocket of the highest order, but his general approach lends itself to bothersome tendencies that drive opponents mad. 

His performance as the closest defender against some of the game's best one-on-one scorers underscores just how effective he's been in isolation situations.

Reinforcing that notion is the fact that Paul's allowing just 0.66 points per possession as an isolation defender. According to Synergy Sports play-type data, that ranks in the 83rd percentile among all players. 

While most defenders would be helpless out on an island against a lethal and lanky marksman like Kevin Durant, such tasks don't faze Paul in the slightest.

As Durant learned the hard way, trying to beat Paul with a quick crossover is equivalent to playing with fire. Paul doesn't just push up on opponents to cut off driving lanes and impede their forward momentum. Once he does so and ball-handlers try to maneuver laterally, he's always in pristine position to swipe the ball away and squash their countermoves.  

More recently, Paul has been using his defensive savvy to protect the Clippers' standing among the conference's elite. When it was announced on Feb. 8 that Blake Griffin would be sidelined a minimum of three weeks after undergoing elbow surgery, the team's short-term prospects dimmed. 

But thanks in part to Paul's wondrous defending, the Clippers have gone 5-3 sans Griffin and held five of eight opponents under 100 points. That includes the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies

According to NBA.com, Paul has limited opponents to conversion rates 8.5 percent lower than the league average in that span, including 12.6 percent lower from three. 

He's also holding opposing point guards to a player efficiency rating of 14.3, per 82games.com, pushing his net PER to plus-11.5. 

Beyond the tenacity in isolated situations, Paul is also insanely instinctual.

In an early-February sequence against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul starts out guarding MVP candidate Russell Westbrook. But from the beginning of the sequence, Paul has the play progression snuffed out. His head is constantly swiveling with an eye on incoming screeners, but the pick never comes. 

Credit: NBA League Pass Archives

After Serge Ibaka sets an off-ball screen, clearing Andre Roberson to the weak-side corner, Paul knows exactly what's coming next. 

Credit: NBA League Pass Archives

He quickly leaves Westbrook and scampers over to disrupt the Durant-Ibaka pick-and-roll, which is designed for Durant to hit his agile 4 with a pocket pass.

Credit: NBA League Pass Archives

Credit: NBA League Pass Archives

As soon as Durant attempts to skip a bounce pass through a tight window, Paul's ready to pounce. He swipes the ball away, gains control and a transition opportunity opens up for the Clippers.

Paul gets credited with a swipe there, but the statistical tally is a byproduct of anticipation, awareness and foresight. 

Given the variety of ways Paul has proved capable of putting opponents in a vice, it's no wonder head coach Doc Rivers—all bias considered—heaped tremendous praise on his starting point guard during the first round of last year's playoffs, according to 95.7 The Game: 

Whether he's cutting off ball-handlers' driving lanes, contesting jump shots or lurking in the shadows ready to pounce, Paul's going to make his presence felt.

And at a time when the game's most heralded point guards are praised for their offensive contributions, Paul is the rare breed capable of playing conductor on both ends of the floor.  

All statistics current as of Feb. 28 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise.     

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