Best Player in the West…

J.M. Poulard —  February 2, 2012

Last summer, ESPN solicited the opinions of FB&G’s own, Darius Soriano, Phillip Barnett and I on a host of Lakers offseason questions. One of the questions that led to a flood of my inbox was whether Kobe Bryant was still in fact the best player in the Western Conference. For some, the Dallas Mavericks’ championship was a testament to Dirk Nowitzki eclipsing the Mamba as perhaps the best out in the West; but I on the other hand felt as though Chris Paul was the best player in the conference, which led to me voting for Paul as being somewhere in the top five players in the league as reflected by his #NBARank.

Granted, I looked at Kobe’s play during the 2010-11 regular season as well as the 2011 playoffs, but also projected the inevitable decline in his game going into his 16th season given his age and the erosion of his skills.

But then something funny happened when the NBA finally resumed on Christmas day.

Through 22 games, Kobe Bryant has lost a step, but only in terms of his athleticism. His overall game remains just as impressive and effective as ever on offense while his best days on defense are now clearly a thing of the past. So far this season, Bean is averaging 30 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals on 44.5 percent field goal shooting; which translates into a PER figure of 26.4.

In case we are keeping count, should Bryant maintain this pace until the end of the season, this would be his second best statistical season, coming up a bit short to his fire-throwing 2005-06 campaign.

And with that, one must once again ask the question: is Kobe Bryant the ruler of everything in the Western Conference?

Compelling arguments could be made for the likes Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant, while Dirk Nowitzki has to take a backseat for the time being given his slow start to the season; but one still has to come back to Chris Paul.

Although Lakers fans probably hate the idea of revisiting the idea that had Paul joined the purple and gold, Mike Brown’s team would have had the best backcourt in the NBA.

Despite missing some time due to a hamstring injury, CP3 has led the Los Angeles Clippers to 13 wins in their first 19 games (good for the second best record in the conference) and has been the perfect case study for late game execution despite the fact that the Clippers do not seem to have any type of sets or offense outside of the pick-and-roll.

Indeed, when points are at a premium late in ball games, Chris Paul just seems to be at his best as he consistently drills jumpers from the right elbow or simply blows by his defender after a switch for a lay up. Let’s be clear though, as great as the former Demon Deacon has been in the clutch in the Clippers uniform, his value throughout the course of the game cannot be overstated.

Heading into Thursday night’s contest against the Denver Nuggets, Paul is averaging 19.2 points, 9.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game on 52.2 percent field goal shooting and 44.4 percent 3-point field goal shooting, which translates into a PER figure of 27.2.

Chris Paul does an amazing job of running the Clippers offense without necessarily monopolizing it. For instance, he will run a pick-and-roll with Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan and then depending on the defense’s strategy, he will figure out his game plan. If Caron Butler is open as a result of the screen action, Paul will feed him for the open jumper, or simply allow him to isolate his defender and take him of the dribble. If another more favorable option presents itself, like Blake Griffin on the low block, CP will go to his big man and let him operate.

The end result is that yes the Wake Forest product is vital to Lob City’s success because he can orchestrate these mismatches, but the players still have the understanding that they will be allowed to create their own shots as where available.

The Clippers playmaker is a savant with the ball in his hands as he perfectly understands the delicate balance between feeding his teammates and asserting himself offensively. Also, unlike other superstars in the league, it’s almost impossible to double team Chris Paul late in the ball games, because he is a willing passer and will also figure out how to get high percentage shots out of the trapping defense.

Earlier in the season, I had stated that Kobe Bryant would be my choice if late game heroics were needed because of his ability to manufacture good looks at the basket regardless of how teams chose to defend him; but after seeing Paul slowly but surely figure out how to close out games for the Clips, he is at this moment in time the player that I would feel safest steering my team to victory in a close game.

It’s a testament to Kobe Bryant’s greatness that now in his 16th season, he currently easily occupies a spot on the All-NBA 1st team and makes everyone who thought he would fall off look foolish.

As the Lakers primary option, the Lakers are a mere 13-9 (eighth best conference record) but would probably be looking at sub .500 record had he missed any significant time due to injury. The Black Mamba is playing 38.6 minutes per game simply because Mike Brown cannot afford to keep his star on the bench for too long. On the season, the Lakers are a minus-8.5 points per game when Kobe heads to the bench, and a plus-3.9 points per game better when he is on the court. No matter how the math is done, Kobe has to play in order for the Lakers to be successful.

His ability to create for teammates, score and also the added attention he draws simply by being on the court allows him to facilitate the offense and helps his teammates play within their skill set without having to do too much. For all intents and purposes, Kobe makes his teammates better.

But at this point in the season right now, Chris Paul just does that job better. His defense, playmaking and scoring are all just a little bit better than Kobe Bryant’s; but it’s still amazing to think that both are the best at their respective positions.

Ah yes.

If only that trade hadn’t been vetoed.

J.M. Poulard