When the Houston Rockets acquired future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul last year, they knew exactly what they were getting — a great teammate, immensely hard worker and an undoubtedly respected leader. In a word — consistent. Paul has been the epitome of the point guard position for 12 years as a pro now, and he isn’t showing signs of slowing down. The 32 year-old Wake Forest product is currently putting up 18.6 points, 9.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds and nearly two steals per game during his first season as a Rocket.
All of this sounds too familiar. High teen scoring average, near 10 assist average and a 20-plus PER (Paul is currently at 25.47 for the 2017-2018 season). What the Rockets franchise and organization did not know they were getting, however, was a man who was on mission impossible — literally. The old saying goes, “No one is perfect.” While Paul has heard that all before, he doesn’t accept its truth.
“On time, on target,” Paul told ESPN.
That, in a nutshell, is his job as a passer.
It was a recent game against the Orland Magic where Paul’s teammates truly began to understand that motto. Paul drove the lane, drawing nearly the entire defense — four Magic defenders — to his ascent. In mid-air, Paul rifled a pass to the left corner where his teammate Ryan Anderson was waiting. The pass slithered through the hands of Bismack Biyombo and Jonathan Simmons, hitting Anderson just above his right shoulder.
“My bad,” Paul said as he tapped his chest.
“Really, man?” Anderson replied.
While the pass wasn’t perfect, Anderson thought it was one heck of a play. He wasn’t upset with Paul in the least. Still having plenty of time to get his shot off, Anderson drilled a three-pointer. So, Paul’s apology wasn’t necessary in his eyes.
“It wasn’t that bad of a pass at all,” Anderson said. “What do you expect? He’s special, man.”
“I’m trying to make the shot as easy as possible for the guy who’s shooting,” said Paul. “We all have a job. A shooter’s job is to make shots. My job is to put the ball on target. On time, on target.”
There’s that motto again. There is no stopping Paul from aspiring to live up to it — every single time he makes a pass. Some point guards come into the NBA having to develop the skill of being an accurate, on-time passer — in fact, most point guards don’t come into the pros as a prolific passer. Very rare is someone ready in that respect, immediately as they step on the scene. Paul entered the league as an already-elite passer, and the league knows it.
“His passes are going to get there,” said David West, who of course has played his fair share of games with Paul. “You don’t have to reach for them or anything. He’s going to hit you on time, on target so you can get in your shot.”
West’s word shouldn’t be taken lightly, as he’s helped Paul to 1,120 of his career 8,466 assists. Paul’s career number is good for 10th all-time and his career 9.9 assists per game currently ranks behind just John Stockton and Magic Johnson on the all-time list.
As if the “on time, on target” mantra isn’t enough pressure, Paul takes his pursuit of perfection to an entirely new level. He takes the time to learn where each and every one of his teammates prefers to catch the ball — not the location of their body, but where on the ball their hands catch his passes.
“They put the laces on the ball for a reason,” said the 9-time All Star selection. “It’s probably my OCD. It’s understanding how important the little things are.”
The rotation of the ball, positioning and speed of the pass and direction his teammate is heading if they are in motion — these are all things he takes into consideration. While many casual fans may think there’s only one or two things needed to make a great pass — accuracy and timing — there is a whole lot more that goes into one single flick of a basketball.
“I almost think of it like a chess player. You just sort of see it before it happens,” he said.
Paul’s teammates are continually amazed at how intricate his philosophy on the game is.
“He manipulates the game to do what he wants it to do,” said current Rockets swingman Trevor Ariza, who has previously played with Paul in New Orleans.
“It’s crazy how he’ll see it. He’ll tell you, and then it’ll happen just like he said it would,” said another Rocket forward, PJ Tucker.
Passing the ball as well as he does, Paul looks at a pass different than most. He will also try and understand the context of his pass — where his defender is leaning, which hand is his most dominant hand, etc. For this reason, Paul also ranks 13th all-time in steals with 1,957.
“Right-handed guys that pass it like that, guess what that means?” Paul said, as he showed how players reach across their bodies before attempting a backhand pass with their right hand. “They’re dribbling with their left and have to bring this other hand to pass it. So I steal it all the time.”
Paul, who has played in 24 of the Rockets’ 41 games this season, would be second in the league this year with his 9.2 assist-per-game average — second to only reigning MVP Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. What is also impressive about the Rockets is that they have another guy who is right up there with Paul and Westbrook. James Harden currently sits at 9.1 assists per game, sneaking up on Paul’s average.
Many questioned this offseason whether or not it would work — the pairing of Harden and Paul. If Harden had just come off his first season as a point guard, why would the Rockets go out and get Paul? Well, as the two are demonstrating thus far, it seems to be working just fine. As long as a veteran like Paul continues to strive toward perfection, one can be sure his teammates will follow.