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Chris Paul grapples with time amidst uncertain Suns future

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 19, 2023

At exit interviews last Friday, Chris Paul seemed tired. Not physically tired, being that he was unable to play in the Phoenix Suns’ elimination Game 6 the night before due to a left groin strain. Not mentally tired, despite another tumultuous season falling short of the ultimate goal while being limited by another frustrating injury.

Paul seemed “fed up” tired — as a player in his position is wont to do when the season ends so abruptly, so emphatically, and said player’s absence once again becomes a main talking point.

“It’s funny, you do these interviews one day after the season, and you ain’t even had time to analyze what’s what, you know what I mean?” Paul lamented. “So I think we’ll take some time and figure all that stuff out.”

A week later, the Suns probably feel the same as their starting point guard did in that moment as he fielded questions about his age, his contract and a year of adjustments. Because as integral as he’s been in building this organization back into a Western Conference power, Chris Paul’s future in the Valley feels as uncertain as ever.

Injuries prove the Point God’s mortality

The biggest knock on Chris Paul at age 38 remains the same as it’s ever been. While he clearly took a step back this season, it wasn’t his age, effectiveness or pace that was most worrisome, but rather, his availability.

Paul suited up for 59 games, missing significant chunks of the season due to injuries that were originally labeled as “day-to-day.” When the playoffs rolled around and his minutes were dialed up, that inevitable, frustrating playoff tradition struck again. The body he diligently prepared year-round for these moments failed him, this time in the form of a pulled groin in the second half of Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets.

“I talked to him a few times yesterday,” former coach Monty Williams said after the injury. “He’s frustrated, for sure. I mean, you train your whole career for these types of moments.”

Paul was getting close to returning before being ruled out for Game 6 and likely would’ve played had the Suns’ second-round series gone to Game 7. But Denver routed Phoenix before that, and Paul once again had to watch from the sidelines as a team with title aspirations floundered without him.

“It’s tough, man,” a deflated Paul said, answering a question about injuries for the hundredth time. “It’s part of professional sports. And it happens, it’s unfortunate. You don’t want it to.”

This is nothing new. Last year, reports of a quad injury and a case of COVID-19 explained his second-round series going out with a whimper after he was legitimately stellar in the first round. The year prior, one of the best postseasons of his career came to an underwhelming finish in the 2021 NBA Finals, as he was quietly playing through a wrist injury that required surgery in the offseason.

Diving beyond his Phoenix tenure and further into the past only adds to the depressing list of injuries with the New Orleans Hornets, LA Clippers and Houston Rockets that sidelined him for big playoff moments.

Even worse, for all the complaints about Paul’s dwindling numbers and the superior pace Phoenix played at without him, his latest injury came in a series where the Suns needed him most. Too often, their offense devolved into stagnant isolation ball, and Phoenix was humming on that end in Game 2 before CP3 went down.

“That was the tough part about the injury, when, before he got hurt, you could just see the offense starting to figure out a few things,” Williams said. “And then he comes up with an injury that he can’t control.”

The numbers back up Paul’s value — or at least, his value compared to the rest of Phoenix’s shallow rotation. According to NBA.com, the Suns posted a +7.9 Net Rating in the playoffs when CP3 was on the court. That number plummeted to a -10.5 Net Rating whenever he sat.

One might assume the Game 6 beatdown made CP3’s on/off-court numbers look more favorable. But narrowing it down to the seven playoff games he played, the Suns still boasted a +7.9 Net Rating with him on the court…and a -17.9 Net Rating with him off it. Phoenix benefitted from Cam Payne stepping into the starting lineup to push the pace, but the Suns still missed Paul’s playmaking, ball-handling, off-ball shooting, and general organizational skills as floor general.

“You can’t narrow it down to one thing,” Devin Booker said. “There’s so many different aspects to on the court and off the court, but he’s just a leader. I know it sounds cliche and that’s what everybody says, but there’s no on and off button with leadership. And he always has it on.”

A season of adjustment for Chris Paul

None of this is to say that Paul was some force to be reckoned with in the postseason. His 12.4 points, 7.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game were fine compared to what Payne provided, but his shooting numbers dropped to 41.8 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from 3. He failed to register a single 20-point game in the playoffs and shot 40 percent or worse from the field three times.

With that being said, Paul was also required to do less. He spent more time off the ball and had to adapt to the midseason integration of one of the greatest scorers in NBA history on the fly. During exit interviews, he took umbrage with anyone who didn’t seem to appreciate the preparation, basketball I.Q. and hard work that went into that adjustment process.

“You don’t play 18 years in this league at a high level and not understand how to adjust and adapt with the game,” he said. “I don’t talk about it too much, but I know this game just about better than anybody. I put that up against anybody. So that’s what’s not gonna change, right, is my knowledge of the game. And I’m gonna keep putting in the work. So if you mad at it, if you hate it, that’s on you. Fuck it.”

That sort of unprompted response to a question about his role may seem defensive, but Paul is not immune to the outside noise he’s heard all season, and even dating back to his last few years with the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Every step of the way, his contracts were seen as an albatross, with pundits predicting year in and year out that this would be the season when the other shoe dropped and Father Time finally put Paul in a chokehold.

But every step of the way, Paul has been grappling with him in kind, contributing to winning basketball. This was the first year it felt like Father Time had finally gained the upper hand, only adding to Paul’s frustration as he willingly spent less time doing the one thing he’d known for the majority of his career.

“I’m grateful for all my years in the league, but for most of my career, it was me as the ball-handler,” Paul said. “We have a shooting small forward, shooting guard, so I think teams are always a lot more dynamic when you have those multiple ball-handlers.”

It wasn’t some midseason change brought on by the Kevin Durant trade; from the start of the year, Paul still had that dog in him, but it was also an old dog learning new tricks. The Suns prioritized giving Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson more opportunities to create on offense, meaning Paul spent more time off the ball than he had in years.

This wasn’t the first time Paul had shared the rock in the backcourt. Off the top of his head, he recalled playing off-ball alongside guys like Speedy Claxton, Jannero Pargo, Bobby Jackson and even assistant coach Jarrett Jack back when they were together in New Orleans.

This was obviously a different undertaking, however. With Booker and KD capable of scoring in isolation, the Suns’ 0.5 offense started to veer away from their bread and butter in the pick-and-roll with Paul and Ayton. Allowing Booker and Durant their opportunities to cook placed more emphasis on Paul spacing the floor as an off-ball threat.

During the regular season, he fared incredibly well, canning 52.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s — the highest mark of his career in NBA.com’s database, which goes back as far as 2013-14.

“Man, a Hall-of-Famer told me that he’s working on something — that’s what Chris told me, that he’s worked on something,” Deandre Ayton raved. “He’s added that catch-and-shoot, not holding the ball or not dribbling, but just getting right to it.”

Unfortunately, that shooting didn’t hold up in the playoffs, as Paul only converted 31.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples. The 16 attempts he took in seven playoff games pale in comparison to the 88 attempts he took during the season, but even factoring in a smaller sample size, those playoff defenses made it a challenge for Paul to figure out when to launch and when to do what he does best.

“I’ve never played with this much talent, where people are doubling off of me,” Paul admitted. “I’ve never shot that many open shots. So it’s something that I’m getting used to, trying to figure out when to pick your spots, when to be aggressive and figuring this thing out on the fly.”

While Paul wouldn’t make excuses about it feeling “rushed” after the Durant trade, questions about whether it’s getting harder to keep putting in the work are borderline offensive. The seemingly endless cycle — work in the offseason, prepare for a fresh start, have legitimate title hopes with this Suns team and then fall short due to injury and traumatic playoff exits — would take a toll on anyone willing to acknowledge that it’s become a pattern.

Paul refuses to do so, sticking to the belief that he’ll eventually overcome these temporary obstacles and reach the NBA mountaintop.

“I come in, I work hard every single day, and I’m not gonna act like I’m here by luck or something like that, right?” he said. “Like, I’ve put the work in and put the work in for a long time. And so you can analyze, say, whatever you want to about it, but for me, it’s not hard, ’cause it’s the work. And not everybody wanna do the work. A lot of people want to talk about it and analyze it and do this and do that about it, but all I do is put my head down and do the work. And when you do that, I can live with the results.”

What does the future hold for Chris Paul?

The question now is what results Paul and the Suns will have to live with. According to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes, Phoenix is likely to guarantee the Point God’s salary for the 2023-24 season. While the team “still maintains some flexibility with the decision,” Haynes reports the Suns are “currently of the mindset that Paul will open up next season as the team’s starting point guard.”

None of this assures anything. Only $15.8 million of Paul’s $30.8 million salary for next season is guaranteed, but waiving him would be an unconventional manner to try and duck below the NBA’s new second luxury tax apron.

“My contract not up, you know what I mean?” Paul pointed out when asked about his future. “Unfortunately, I’m not the GM or anything like that. So we’ll see.”

It wouldn’t be impossible to trade Paul, since his non-guaranteed salary for the 2024-25 season essentially makes him a $31 million expiring deal. Haynes’ report could be posturing on the Suns’ side to establish leverage in potential trade talks, or it could be an attempt from Paul’s camp to bolster his perception to the rest of the league now that his No. 1 supporter — Monty Williams — is gone.

Like Williams, Paul being ushered out the door when he was instrumental to the Suns’ historic turnaround would be a cruel conclusion to the instrumental role he played in arguably the best era in franchise history. But at this stage, $31 million for a good-but-no-longer-great starter on a team with title aspirations would restrict James Jones’ flexibility to put the right pieces around his superstar duo.

Competitive teams looking to take a one-year flier, or young teams hoping to make the kind of leap Phoenix and OKC did in recent years, will have interest if the Suns look to trade Paul for complementary role players. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported just last week the Suns are expected to test the trade market for him.

For all the “washed” talk, Paul still averaged 13.9 points, 8.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game this season while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3. He ranked fifth in assists, and there are plenty of teams who would welcome a cerebral, Hall-of-Fame talent — as well as the cap relief he’d provide next summer.

“He’ll be 55 years old playing in a rec league back in North Carolina, and he’s gonna be the same guy,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone summarized. “The guy hates to lose, ultra-competitive, and one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever been around and had the privilege to coach. So that doesn’t change.”

At this stage of his career, Paul is getting closer and closer to his “rec league” era, or whatever else he decides to spend his time and talents on once his playing days are done. For now, he’s spent as much time as he ever has thinking about how much the league has changed and getting sucked down the YouTube rabbit hole just like anyone else.

When someone posted a highlight video of all his pull-up jumpers from over the years, he watched all 20 minutes of it to see how differently people guarded him back then. He’s also visited Second Spectrum to “literally watch every shot” he’s missed and made in his entire career.

After 18 years in the league, he’s seen the game change in dramatic fashion and had to change with it. But if the same old questions about preparing to regroup from another heartbreaking playoff run annoy him, the conversation about his age still doesn’t.

“I keep saying it over again: I get to play basketball every day and say that’s my way of life, and get to play it at a high level,” he said. “Nothing against those that hoop at the lunchtime runs and stuff — that’s cool, and I may do it at some point — but I get to play basketball in the NBA every day right now. So I’m grateful.”

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