During the Phoenix Suns first-round series win over the New Orleans Pelicans last spring, Chris Paul witnessed virtually the entire gamut of defensive coverages thrown his direction. CJ McCollum, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Naji Marshall, Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III and Devonte’ Graham all spent time as his primary defender. 

The Pelicans played drop coverage. They trapped. They switched. They hedged. They iced him to try and siphon off the middle of the floor. They stationed their big man at the level. 

They kept rangier defenders in Jaxson Hayes and Larry Nance Jr. as the big in ball screens. They elected for more size and brawn with Jonas Valancius at other moments. They applied full-court pressure. They picked him up immediately past half-court.

None of it consistently proved effective. Paul’s decade and a half of NBA experience, headlined by 23 playoff series and more than 1,100 regular season games, forged him for those trials. 

Throughout Phoenix’s six-game victory, the veteran point guard averaged 22.3 points, 11.3 assists (1.5 turnovers), 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He netted 56.7 percent of his 90 field goals and registered a 66.3 percent true shooting clip. It was a 221-minute clinic on point guard play and how to dissect an array of coverages.

New Orleans, much like everyone else around the league, knew Paul wanted to wiggle himself to the (right) elbow for his longtime, patented midrange pull-up. But the Pelicans couldn’t unearth an answer the entire series. Despite Paul’s status as a 36-year-old, 6-foot guard in his 17th season, he dominated, riding his scrupulous shot profile to bountiful success, much like he’s done for years upon years. 

The bedrock of this prolonged success stems from his ball-screen wizardry. Last season, per Synergy, including passes, he ranked in the 89th percentile in points per possession on pick-and-rolls (1.108 PPP). A year prior, he ranked in the 90th percentile (1.081 PPP). This season, he ranks in the 78th percentile (1.063 PPP). 

“With Chris, it's a hyper-rational mind, it's a very logical individual who understood exactly how to run a pick-and-roll and the reads that come out of it,” said Ryan Resch, Suns Vice President of Basketball Strategy and Evaluation. “Like, he almost was built to do exactly what he does mentally, which is run a very rote, hyper-efficient, systematic pick-and-roll system.”

Just as he did against New Orleans, Paul is regimented and stellar about reaching his spots on the hardwood. To do so, he brilliantly sets up screens, largely rooted in his slippery, economical and functional handle. He loves to ram defenders into picks and create an angle to the elbows -- usually, on the right side. It’s not uncommon for Paul to dart side to side, sending the opposition through a funhouse of screen navigation.

All of his dribble moves are purposeful. There is nothing wasted about them, no crossing over or dancing around for the sake of it. From in-and-outs that bait his defender into leaning the wrong way to shifty crossovers, Paul is constantly weaponizing his handle for pick-and-roll creation. It’s a major component in how he ventures where he needs at his size, with his physical tools. Dribbling is second-nature, which enables him to focus on everything else that confronts his thought processes on the basketball court.

“When it just becomes rhythmic for you to dribble the ball, it does free your mind up to just focus on what's in front of you,” Resch said. “That's his form of creativity, ‘can I get you to bite on something ridiculous now and open up a different kind of passing lane?’”

Compounding Paul’s potency is how well he scans the floor once he does arrive at his preferred destination, which he routinely does. His recognition and understanding of how to manipulate angles for himself and others is among the league’s best. He’s a technician at engaging the requisite defender(s) to fashion passing windows and immediately delivering reads when they become available. 

Opponents respect his immense midrange gravity and that frees up tiny, precise openings to rollers often when the big defender steps up to contain his scoring. His nearly 4:1 career assist-to-turnover ratio is a testament to this marriage of passing talent and decision-making.

“The thing about passing is that it's deceptively simple, when it comes to it being a skill,” Resch said. “And that's what Chris understood so inherently, is just mastering the absolute simple fundamentals of the game.”

Although Paul is experiencing an outlier down year from midrange (43 percent, per Cleaning The Glass), he’s been a posterboy for its utility spanning a decade. Since 2012-13, he’s shot at least 50 percent from midrange seven times, including 52 percent or better three times. Between 2012-13 and 2021-22, he ranked no lower than the 85th percentile and finished in the 97th percentile or better five times. 

If Kevin Durant is running away with this era’s title of midrange maven, Paul is routing the rest of the field for second. He knows exactly where he wants to be and holsters the means to do so, headlined by his pacing and ball-handling. Once he gets there, he’s equipped to strike as a playmaker or scorer.

“The passing is opened up by the elbow jump shot. If you drop against Chris, he's really good making that shot,” Resch said. “And by the time you start adjusting to him making that shot, it's what opens up all the passing lanes.”

In each of the past three seasons, Paul nabbed both an All-Star and All-NBA berth. When he made All-NBA Third Team a year ago, he joined John Stockton as the lone 36-or-older guard to earn such an appearance. Across all positions, the other players to do so are Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and LeBron James. 

Paul’s candidacy and sustained excellence are the result of his meticulous, prolific ball-screen prowess. It helped guide the Suns to a pair of top-six finishes offensively in 2020-21 and 2021-22, and is the nucleus of their pick-and-roll-centric scheme. 

Whereas fellow pick-and-roll dynamos like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard win on the basis of the long-range bombs and downhill burst, Paul is a different flavor. Fifteen years after his first All-Star Game, he’s still draining elbow jumpers, anticipating rotations and moves before others can, and weaving punctual pocket passes inside to befuddle defenses. 

“Chris' inherent understanding of that, I think, is really what gave him an advantage over all this time,” Resch said. “He just became a master at it.”