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It's time to shift the Suns' dependence on Chris Paul elsewhere

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 26, 2022

It’s funny how expectations can shift perspective. Two years ago, when the Phoenix Suns first traded for Chris Paul, the expectation was simply “playoffs.” He’d help build on the foundations of a winning culture that Monty Williams and the Bubble Suns laid out prior to his arrival. He’d make Deandre Ayton’s job easier than ever on offense, guide the youngsters with a firm hand and serve as a stepping stone to bigger things for the future core.

But then a remarkable thing happened: The Suns were good. Really good. Better than expected.

Coming off an 8-0 bubble run, Phoenix ripped off 51 wins in a 72-game season during CP3’s first year in the Valley. They beat LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, swept the Denver Nuggets and advanced past Paul’s former team, the LA Clippers, punctuated by a masterful 41-point performance from the Point God himself.

Chris Paul had reached his very first NBA Finals, leading the Suns to just their third ever appearance in the championship round. They lost that series as Paul played through a wrist injury, but after such a magical playoff run, expectations changed. With improved depth, a young core on the rise and Paul still playing at an exemplary level despite turning 36 years old, it was championship-or-bust.

It’s important to remember how drastically expectations changed over the last two years…especially when one of the architects of this rocket ship has now become the scapegoat for how it crashed and burned.

“When I hear stuff like that, about another player taking a shot at Chris, it doesn’t bother me at all,” coach Monty Williams said. “I look at Chris’ body of work. I look at everywhere he’s been, he’s taken the organization to levels that, in some cases, they’ve never been before. And Chris’ greatest skill is he cares. And when I see people taking shots at him like that, or I hear it from you guys, I don’t even respond to it.”

Williams is right about the undeniable impact Paul has had on winning everywhere he’s gone. His first year in the league, the New Orleans Hornets improved by 20 wins compared to the season before. When he first arrived in LA, the Clippers went from 32 wins in a full season to a 50-win pace in a shortened year. The Houston Rockets jumped from 41 wins to 55 with CP3, the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to win 44 games in a season everyone thought would be a tank year, and the Suns jumped from 34 wins to 51.

But the NBA is all about recency bias, and there’s no denying the Suns flamed out in humiliating fashion after the greatest season in franchise history. Not only did this 64-win team fail to even reach the Western Conference Finals, but they coughed up another 2-0 series lead to a Dallas Mavericks team they had beaten 11 straight times. Their Game 7 blowout loss at home was the worst playoff loss in franchise history given the expectations for this group.

Paul, who finished with a mere 10 points and 4 assists in that season-ending loss, accepted blame for the way Phoenix rolled over.

“I think we just came out and didn’t have enough,” Paul said. “I think Mont said that’s on him, but I think that’s on me as the point guard, the leader of the team, to come out, make sure we gettin’ the right shots and all that. But that is what it is.”

It was a shame to see such a special season fizzle out in such underwhelming fashion, especially for Paul, who turned 37 in May and is running out of chances to realistically get over that championship hump. The Point God averaged 14.7 points, a league-leading 10.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game this season, shooting 49.3 percent from the field.

He earned Third Team All-NBA honors in the process, giving him 11 All-NBA selections for his Hall-of-Fame career and putting him in elite company:

The ending of his 2021-22 story is especially brutal considering how good he was through the first round and even the first two games of the Mavs series.

Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he carried Phoenix while Devin Booker missed three and a half games. Paul averaged 22.3 points, 11.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game on 55.2 percent shooting for the series, setting an NBA playoff record in the Game 6 closer for the most field goals attempted without a single miss (14).

In Games 1 and 2 against Dallas, he put up 23.5 points per game on 18-of-29 shooting. The Suns racked up two blowout wins, and it felt like they were cruising toward a sweep. But then fatigue and a possible quad injury kicked in for Paul, who was never the same.

Over the last five Dallas games, Paul averaged a meager 9.4 points, 5.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. He still shot 50 percent from the field and 3-point range, but his field goal attempts dropped to 7.2 per game — a steep decline from the 15 per game he averaged against the Pelicans, and even the 11.3 he averaged on a nightly basis during the regular season.

Williams acknowledged he probably rode Paul too hard in that first-round series, saying it may have caught up with him in the end.

“Everybody in this organization, everyone on this team understands how valuable Chris Paul is and how good he is and what he means to us,” Williams said. “As a coach, and I probably overdo this, I feel like I rode him too much and may have worn him out, especially in the New Orleans series. If Chris doesn’t play as well as he played, we probably don’t win that series. But that’s what great players do, they win you series.”

Naturally, Paul rejected the idea that too many minutes wore him down.

“I think that’s just coach being who he is, you know what I mean?” Paul said. “We’ve been in these situations I don’t know how many times. You’re built for these situations. We didn’t defend, we didn’t make shots tonight, and it sucks that it happened at this point of the season. But shit happens.”

And therein lies the problem: If Chris Paul is too proud to admit when he’s hurt, and if he’s too much of a competitor to downshift gears at this stage of his career, are the Suns destined to keep coming up short in the playoffs?

That’s not to suggest he was playing to the detriment of the team; Cam Payne was unplayable, and as much as Phoenix should have given Aaron Holiday a chance, the Suns weren’t winning that series with him in Paul’s place anyway.

The narrative of Paul’s “postseason failures” is equally asinine. Anyone still referring to him as a choke artist simply hasn’t been paying attention, letting a few traumatic moments in LA and Houston overshadow the Game 7 game-winner against the Spurs, what he did during Phoenix’s Finals run last year, or how magnificent he was at full strength against New Orleans.

We should be marveling at what Paul is doing at age 36 and 37, playing at levels only all-time greats like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever eclipsed at this stage of their careers.

But that’s two straight years where Paul has played through injury in a series where the Suns fell short. Paul’s only missed 19 games over the past two regular seasons, but coming off a Finals run and one of the shortest offseasons in NBA history, preserving his strength should’ve been a primary objective. No matter what the rest of the roster looks like in the next few months, that will have to change heading into the 2022-23 campaign.

Next time, the onus needs to be on everyone else to make sure the offense isn’t so backcourt-centric, especially if Paul is ailing and Booker is getting trapped on every possession. As always, CP3 is ready to start that process now.

“I had a text from my son after the game saying, ‘Let’s get in the gym,'” Paul said immediately after Game 7. “So it’s perspective. I think we’ll look at the film, like, hindsight 20/20. We’ll be able to see things that we can get better at. But yeah, it’s always things that you can get better at, not only individually, but as a team. This ain’t tennis, this ain’t golf. You need everybody, and so I think that’s something that we’ll look at.”

General manager James Jones echoed the same sentiments in a much more direct way.

“Chris will come back and he’ll improve,” Jones said. “He always finds a way after struggles to come back better. But then our guys, as a team, it’s a team game. There are opportunities every year, stretches in the season for guys to take a bigger role, carry a bigger load, manage a bigger load. And I thought we did that well during the regular season, not so well in the postseason. So I think our guys will just have to step up and give a little bit more when it’s needed.”

In the playoffs, the confident, aggressive Mikal Bridges that looked like a legitimate third option in February and March dropped off. Deandre Ayton stopped doing the little things that made him successful, and the Suns did an abhorrent job feeding him easy looks. Cam Payne turned into a pumpkin, and aside from Cam Johnson, the rest of the bench contributed very little.

The deepest team in basketball shriveled up from top to bottom once Paul was unable to carry them, and with their star floor general approaching the tail-end of his prime, it’s time for the Suns to redistribute some of the burden elsewhere. That comes with Jones finding a more reliable option at backup point guard to upgrade from Payne, but it should also stem from tactical changes.

Fortunately, Williams seems acutely aware of this need, and it may well factor into the Suns’ approach next season.

“I look at myself, and how do I put those guys in a position where they can be more confident when teams are taking away Book and Chris?” Williams said. “That was the one thing I’m seeing in the playoffs, when you watch all these games, everybody has three or four guys, maybe, that can put the ball down and go get a bucket. And I’m asking myself, over the course of the season, did I put those guys in enough positions where they can grow and do that? We thought that we did, but when you look at this past series, maybe not. Were there opportunities for us to give Mikal, Cam [Johnson], Landry [Shamet] more opportunities to play in those one-on-one environments?”

With Ayton’s restricted free agency, Booker’s supermax deal and Cam Johnson’s potential extension at the top of his to-do list, Jones won’t be looking to move Chris Paul over the offseason — nor should he. Despite the reports of “turbulence” between CP3 and his head coach, and despite how the season ended, his focus is on continuity and internal growth. There aren’t any better options available to replace him on the trade market, and the Suns shouldn’t just ship off the guy who helped get them to this point anyway.

The focus should be retooling their workload to preserve him for the time of year when it matters most, and to make sure the other guys are ready to step up if his body fails him again.

Paul’s midrange prowess is an elite weapon when he’s healthy, but Dallas just showed how quickly the Suns’ offense can fall apart when he can’t get to his spots. Phoenix ranked 26th in 3-point attempts during the regular season and were 15th out of all 16 playoff teams during the postseason. Williams has to find a way to shift his offense away from being so Paul- and Booker-centric and toward a more modern, 3-point-heavy approach.

After all, Paul isn’t going anywhere. His $28.4 million salary makes him harder to move, and Booker, Williams, Jones and everyone in the organization knows what he’s meant to putting this franchise back on the map. Fortunately, even if this is the beginning of the end for the Point God’s prime, only $15.8 million of his $30.8 million salary is guaranteed for the 2023-24 campaign. His entire $30 million salary for the final year is non-guaranteed.

That means it’s within Phoenix’s power to be good for a long time, should the front office decide to keep the young core of Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson intact. But the Suns’ immediate title window with Paul is slowly starting to close, and that second-round evaporation was a major missed opportunity.

It behooves the Suns to change their approach if they want to maximize what’s left of a Hall-of-Famer’s career and cash in on their title aspirations now. It may also require a come-to-Jesus moment from CP3 himself, where he’s able to admit his full-steam ahead mentality needs to be dialed back at this stage of his career.

The expectations are still championship-or-bust, but the Chris Paul doesn’t believe this was his best shot at winning it all. That’s either inspiring or worrisome.

“Not at all, they said that last year,” he said. “Probably said it back in ’08. If you’ve played long enough and you don’t win, every time you lose, they’re gonna say it was your best chance, but I think for me, us, it’s, ‘We’ll be right back next year.’ Tell you that much. I’m not retiring tomorrow, thank God. Hopefully I’m healthy coming back, but keep playin’.”

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