Commentary

PER Diem: March 11, 2009

Will Chris Paul one day rival Magic Johnson in the pantheon of great point guards?

Originally Published: March 10, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Chris PaulDavid Dow/Getty ImagesChris Paul has carried the Hornets into playoff contention without much help.

We love to celebrate little guys in this game and, in particular, pure point guards who make the guys around them look so good.

So it's weird to me to see that probably the best player ever of his kind is playing right now … and yet he's weirdly gone unheralded. We couldn't wait to throw MVPs at Steve Nash and Allen Iverson and darn near gave one to Jason Kidd, too. But Chris Paul? Somehow, it doesn't seem everyone is totally on board with him.

To an extent, it's understandable. Paul hasn't played in June yet and plays in a small market, and his game, in many ways, isn't as spectacular as the highlight Holy Trinity of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.

So once again, I feel a certain responsibility to remind everyone of just how good Paul has been these past two seasons and how unprecedented it is for a point guard to dominate the game on this level.

It's worth noting, for instance, that Paul is about to set the mark for the best player efficiency rating by a player at this position since the ABA-NBA merger … and that he's breaking the mark set by none other than Paul last season.

Yes, it's easier for a small guard to dominate today's game than it was for John Stockton and Isiah Thomas to dominate in the '80s, and it's true that we don't know whether Paul will have the longevity that the players above enjoyed.

Nonetheless, compare Paul's first four seasons to the first four seasons of any point guard from the postmerger era, and one conclusion becomes evident really fast: The only player who can even plausibly compare to him is Magic Johnson.

This season, CP3 has been better than ever. Despite earning hardly a whisper in this season's MVP discussions after coming in second last season, Paul is actually having a better season on several fronts.

"I'm a little surprised by it as well," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "I would think Chris would be in the conversation somewhere because of the way he's played all season long, with the injuries we've had, and to be where we are right now is pretty remarkable."

Where the Hornets are is only a couple of games back of where they were a year ago, even though center Tyson Chandler has missed 22 games and has struggled when he has taken the court, wings Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson also have dealt with injury problems and the bench has been composed of a roll call of other teams' castaways.

Monday's loss in Atlanta was a good example. Paul hardly had his best game, as he finished with 24 points and 10 assists but shot 8-of-19 and committed six turnovers. Yet what stood out more was the glaring absence of any help. New Orleans got seven points from its bench and two from Chandler in an 89-79 loss.

But the Hornets are still on pace to win 51 games, and the reason they're hanging in the race has been Paul. He's looking to lead the league in steals and assists for a second straight season and ranks a close third behind James (31.29) and Wade (30.51) in the PER race after finishing second behind James a season ago.

Which takes us back to the historical comparisons. Paul already is on a trajectory that would stamp him the best player shorter than 6-foot-4 in league history. If he comes anywhere close to matching his career numbers for a few more seasons, Stockton's longevity would be the only counterargument left. I alluded to this possibility more than a year ago.

But with this season's performance, we're left to consider even loftier heights -- such as whether Paul can rival Magic in the pantheon of great point guards.

And despite their obvious differences -- Magic was 6-9 yet the most dangerous open-court player in league history, while Paul is barely 6 feet yet may be the best half-court pick-and-roll player in eons -- Scott says he sees more than a few similarities between his current point guard and his former Showtime backcourt mate.

"The obvious difference is the height, but they are so much alike in so many ways," Scott said.

"Number one, both of them were extremely competitive; neither one could stand to lose. Both of them were the most giving guys I've ever seen on the basketball court. That was their whole thing, was being a true point guard. They look for their teammates first, [especially] the first two quarters.

"Chris has taken a page out of Magic's book, as far as most of the time in the second half I tell him, 'You have to be more aggressive.' Earvin was great at that, getting everybody involved in the first half and then being a little more aggressive in the second half and trying to take over, and Chris is starting to do that."

Of course, there's one huge difference between Magic and Paul, and it's something that may be tough to rectify as long as he's in New Orleans. Johnson won five championships, while Paul's team hasn't gone beyond the second round of the playoffs.

There are good reasons for this -- Johnson was a teammate of not only Scott but also Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo. Although Paul has two teammates who have made the All-Star team (David West and Peja Stojakovic), his cohorts pale by comparison.

As a result, Paul may stay a cult hero for a while longer. Yes, he gets a few scraps of national TV exposure and the occasional endorsement, but he remains mostly a League Pass legend known best to TiVo junkies and his small band of admirers on the Bayou.

Thus, I must implore you again: Watch this guy, and appreciate him while he's in his prime. Those in the know are seeing the best point guard since Magic Johnson and arguably the best little man of all time. The lack of attention to his exploits continues to bewilder me.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.