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Suns face struggles and silver linings of preparing for stretch without Chris Paul

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 21, 2022

There’s never a good time to be injured, but Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns will try their hardest to prove themselves as the exception to the rule.

On Sunday evening, TNT sideline reporter Allie LaForce dropped the bomb that had been hanging overhead since Phoenix’s final game entering the All-Star break: Chris Paul had suffered an avulsion fracture in his right thumb. The Suns confirmed LaForce’s report to PHNX Sports, with his timeline for re-evaluation set at 6-8 weeks.

That’s obviously less than stellar news for a co-MVP candidate on the NBA’s best team, especially given his age, injury history and the fact that this is the best team this ring-less franchise has ever seen. Having the best or second-best player on the league’s best team go down for 6-8 weeks, with the playoffs starting seven and a half weeks from now, is clearly cause for alarm.

There’s no question the Suns will miss Paul in the interim. He’s leading the NBA in total assists and assists per game (10.7), as well as total steals and total plus/minus in crunch-time minutes. Phoenix will miss his shot-making and league-leading facilitating in the clutch, and there’s a clear drop-off from the Point God to whoever fills the starting point guard role next.

However, as daunting as this news appears on the surface, there are several reasons to look on the bright side, starting with a quick rundown of what to make of this particular injury itself. As Dr. Rajpal Brar explains:

“An avulsion fracture means a muscle/tendon chipped off a piece of bone. Based on where he was immediately grabbing, this is likely an avulsion fracture on the ulnar (inner) base of his thumb….The keys to his physio and return will be maintaining range of motion, restoring strength, and minimal pain during functional activities — especially important since this is his dominant right hand.”

Aside from that, let’s take a look at the other reasons for optimism, as well as a few key players who will get a chance to shine as the Suns prepare for life without Chris Paul.

Looking on the sunny side

For starters, we need to state the obvious: Even if Chris Paul misses the rest of the regular season, he’s still set to be re-evaluated right around the start of the playoffs. Knowing CP3, as well as the fact that he played through partially torn ligaments in his hand during last year’s playoffs (and that nobody could really tell until he went up against Jrue Holiday in the Finals), he’ll almost certainly be back for the postseason.

Sure, it’d be preferable to have him back for a few regular-season games first to shake the rust off, but that’s them most important thing.

The next question that comes to mind is how the Suns will fare without him. Thankfully, they have a 6.5-game lead on the Golden State Warriors for the NBA’s best record and are seven games ahead in the loss column. Draymond Green said on Sunday’s broadcast that he’s still 3-4 weeks away from returning, so even if Phoenix played .500 basketball in its last 24 games, the Dubs would have to post an 18-3 record to catch up.

“We enjoy the regular season, but especially after our run last year, we understand the importance of seeding,” Devin Booker said. “I think it benefitted us a lot last year in our run, so we want to get that certified, but at the same time, maintain health, keep everybody healthy and ready to go at that point in the season.”

This injury likely puts a dent in the Suns’ dreams of putting together the 67- or 68-win season they were on pace for, but the franchise record of 63 wins is still within reach if they simply go 15-9. Even that doesn’t sound so difficult considering they have the sixth-easiest remaining schedule, while the Warriors have the seventh-most difficult remaining schedule.

Even if they fall short of the franchise record, they’re still in the driver’s seat for the overall 1-seed, with a well-rested, fresh Chris Paul hopefully re-entering the fold for a first-round cakewalk.

Silver Linings Point Book

It took forever for the CP3 news to be released by the team, but even during All-Star Weekend, the Suns have already been preparing for their new short-term reality.

“I’ve had meetings with our coaches about what we’re going to do going forward, different lineups, rotations, how we’re going to play,” coach Monty Williams told AZ Central’s Duane Rankin in Cleveland. “Chris is a huge part of what we do, and so we’re not gonna try to replace Chris, we’re just gonna try to play the same way, keep our standard at a high level, and I’m grateful for the depth that we have. We have different guys who can handle the ball and facilitate.”

Booker shared similar thoughts on playing for a team like the Suns when somebody goes down:

Ironically enough, Book finds himself in a position he usually occupied before Chris Paul arrived: expected to carry the load, even at the point guard spot. The difference is, he’s got an infinitely superior supporting cast behind him now, and all those trials by fire at the 1-spot have prepared him for occasional minutes of “Point Book.”

When Paul initially injured his hand and was ejected during Phoenix’s game against the Houston Rockets, Monty Williams went small, playing Book at the point and Torrey Craig at the 5. The Suns turned a 7-point deficit into a 3-point win.

“From an execution standpoint, it is different when you don’t have Chris on the floor, but I felt Book did a good job of managing the game,” Williams said. “I thought he did a good job of managing the team. They didn’t blitz as much as I thought they would, they were more switching, and I thought our guys attacked that well.”

Not having a more traditional point guard share the floor with Booker is relatively uncharted territory for this year’s Suns team, just as playing without Chris Paul in general will be. Eight different “Point Book” lineups have only logged 34 minutes combined this season, posting a +9. The best one was a Booker-Aaron Holiday-Mikal Bridges-Cam Johnson-Torrey Craig lineup that went +11 in 8 minutes against Houston.

“Yeah, just to give him a package and give our guys some environments to play in,” Williams said of that group. “Sometimes you set the screen, sometimes you slip out, it allows for the guy handling the ball to get to the basket, and then we create in our paint-to-great.”

With Payne expected to return soon and Holiday fitting in so swimmingly, we may not see a ton of Point Book. It’s more of a weapon for Phoenix to deploy in a pinch, especially on nights where this team needs to go small.

However, if there were ever a time for a guy averaging a 26-5-5 stat line on the league’s best team to really throw his hat into the MVP ring with Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’d be over these next 6-8 weeks.

The other point guard options

As much as losing Paul hurts, the Suns are reportedly about to get some reinforcements in the backcourt:

Does the return of Landry Shamet really compare to, say, Gandalf and the Rohirrim rolling up on the Uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep? No, not so much. But having two more able bodies in the backcourt will at least minimize the need for Elfrid Payton minutes, and that’s a start.

Neither Payne nor the Suns have officially confirmed he’ll be back for Phoenix’s first game after the break, but his initial timeline back on Jan. 24 was being re-evaluated in two weeks. It’s been four weeks since then, and based on what we’ve seen during limited media availability, it looks like he’s been steadily ramping up his conditioning, even if he hasn’t been a full participant in practices or shootarounds yet.

The Suns have long needed a return to form from their backup point guard, but Payne had been turning his season around before the injury and at the very least, he’s a preferable option to Payton.

As for Holiday, he’s come in and immediately meshed with this Suns team, averaging 7.3 points and 2.7 assists per game in his first three appearances while shooting 9-for-13 from the floor, 4-for-6 from 3, and posting a +15 in 40 minutes. Between his defensive tenacity, his 6-foot-7 wingspan and his willingness to shoot, he was already looking like he belonged in the rotation before Chris Paul went down.

That should put Shamet on high alert, because both his and Payton’s minutes could get chopped if they don’t find a way to stand out. As a career 39 percent 3-point shooter, Shamet’s 35.3 percent conversion rate has been highly disappointing this season, but now that he’s taken his time returning from an ankle injury and appears to be close to a return, will the Law of Averages finally win out? For context, if he continues attempting 3s at this current rate for the remaining 24 games of the season, he’d need to make 45 of his next 96 attempts (46.9 percent) to get back to his career average for the season.

Twins FTW

Even if Payne, Holiday and Shamet are unable to combine their forces and make up for the CP3 void, the Suns have plenty of shot creation between Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Their offense was once seen as dependent on others, but as The Four-Point Play’s David Nash covered, their growth may be the reason Phoenix felt comfortable staying on the margins at the NBA Trade Deadline.

Having a guy like Eric Gordon sure would be nice right about now, but it may not matter if the Twins keep up what they’ve been doing all season and step up accordingly. Defenses are going to throw heaps of attention at Booker now, and they can make them pay for it.

“We just play off him,” Bridges said. “That’s what it is, and when we get stops and stuff, a lot of it was to they know that we’re going to Book, and I’m just telling guys out there, like, ‘We can go. They’re gonna deny Book, and we gone.'”

Over the last 11 games, Bridges has averaged an eye-opening 19.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 61.5 percent from the floor. He’s second on the team in both scoring and point differential (+8.5) over that stretch, and he’s scored in double figures every single game. It was becoming apparent during his Philadelphia homecoming a few weeks ago, but he’s blossoming into a legitimate third option.

As for Cam Johnson, while this year’s biggest 3-Point Contest snub probably won’t be moving into the starting lineup, a simple look at how his numbers jumped with an increased role this year hints at what he’s capable of during this upcoming stretch.

  • Cam Johnson as a starter (10 games): 34.2 MPG, 16.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 54.5 FG%, 50 3P%, +7.9
  • Cam Johnson off the bench (45 games): 24.2 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 43.5 FG%, 41 3P%, +3.5

With Paul out, the Suns’ offense will need the Twins to create some of their own offense and attack closeouts when the ball moves. That starts with Booker, Payne and Holiday, but it’ll be on Phoenix’s young wing duo to help carry the scoring and playmaking load.

The buyout market

The Suns are running out of time on this front, but the buyout market presents another option if general manager James Jones isn’t comfortable with what he’s got. We’ve already discussed buyout options like Goran Dragic and an unlikely Eric Gordon pairing, but it bears repeating: If the Suns want to pick someone up, they’ll have to get rid of a player under contract.

Elfrid Payton and Frank Kaminsky would be the most likely candidates (Ish Wainright’s two-way contract wouldn’t count), but the Suns do love their continuity. Dragic has reportedly agreed to sign with his old teammate Steve Nash and the Brooklyn Nets, so that’s already one target off the board:

Still, with the buyout deadline another week away, we can’t rule anything out just yet.

A blessing in disguise?

Having a healthy Chris Paul would obviously be better, but the Suns will get to learn a lot about themselves over these next 6-8 weeks. After hearing for the last year how Paul’s veteran influence is what carried them to the Finals, they get a chance to prove they’ve taken all those lessons to heart.

Booker will get the chance to build a legitimate MVP case for himself if he reminds the world he was a damn good player before CP3 helped lift the Suns out of the mud. Bridges and Johnson can show their worth as mainstays on the wing in the Valley; Deandre Ayton will get his opportunity to prove his worth as a max-level player now that he’ll be playing without the guy who’s assisted on 121 of his 266 made field goals this season; and Phoenix will relish the chance to demonstrate its highly-touted depth as the NBA’s best team.

“A lot like last year, I don’t think anybody thought we were going to be where we were last year, and I feel the same way — I didn’t see this,” Williams admitted. “I thought we’d be pretty good because of continuity, but I didn’t see this many wins.”

Yet here they are, with a 48-10 record, the NBA’s best point differential and a top-5 offense and defense. Thanks to a 6.5-game cushion and the prospect of getting a healthy Chris Paul back for the postseason, their title aspirations are still alive. This is just the latest “hard” for this group to get to the other side of.

“When I think about the team, I think about the different ways that we’ve been able to win games and adapt to certain situations, the poise that we have in those tough moments,” Williams said. “When there’s a bit of adversity in the game, the different guys who’ve been able to take on certain roles, like Torrey playing that small-ball 5, Book tonight playing the point, throwing Aaron out there and he just fits right into what we’re trying to do. There’s probably more I could say, but off the top of my head, the way we’ve been able to win games in so many different ways is really impressive.”

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