The Phoenix Suns made headlines by acquiring Chris Paul from the OKC Thunder
Chris Paul and Devin Booker are the NBA’s new star-studded backcourt in a dramatically new-look roster. In NBA media circles, the Phoenix Suns may have just won the offseason. The Twittersphere and some comments on this website say otherwise. Both sides have valid points.
Regardless of how you feel, the Phoenix Suns are serious about making the playoffs for the first time since 2010. So serious, they traded for Chris Paul. This move did not come cheap, Paul is due $85,569,960 over the next two seasons.
This is a huge deal, especially given the well-documented history of the Suns’ penny-pinching ways. Fans have been clamoring for Robert Sarver to open up the checkbook for decades.
Between the Suns spending $230 million on renovations and $85 million for their new starting point guard, no one can say Sarver is a cheapskate anymore.
Give Suns General Manager James Jones credit for not giving up too much. The Suns still have Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. They retained the tenth pick in Wednesday’s draft, which gave them the opportunity to select Jalen Smith.
It also made sense for Jones to trade the players he traded:
- Oubre was already on the trade block
- Rubio was the incumbent point guard
- Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque were not in the rotation last season.
Moreover, the pick in 2022 will likely be in the back half of the first round if the Suns ascend to the playoff picture.
OKC won the trade too, mainly because they don’t have to pay $85 million anymore. Kelly Oubre is a legit starting wing and can be flipped for more pieces at the trade deadline. Ricky Rubio and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander intrigue as a short-term solution in the backcourt.
But is Chris Paul actually better than Ricky Rubio? Within the context of what the Suns need, that’s debatable.
Phoenix Suns trade: Is Chris Paul better than Ricky Rubio?
The stats back me up. Only LeBron James had more assists than Ricky Rubio on a per 48 minutes basis per NBA.com. By that same metric, Paul ranked eleventh.
Of course, assists are not the end-all, be-all. Paul is the “Point God” because of his performance in the clutch, averaging 3.5 points in the last 5 minutes of each game, which equates to an astounding 42.8 points if expanded on a 48-minute basis. But Booker only averages a half point less under the same metric.
Paul is also perceived to be a significantly better shooter than Rubio. But with Booker dominating the ball, who is really the better shooter? The best metric to compare the two players is 3-point based on catch and shoot scenarios. By this metric, Rubio is a 41 percent 3-point shooter. Paul is only slightly better (42.3 percent).
Not much of a difference. If you look closely, Devin Booker shoots less than 40 percent from 3-point range in catch-and-shoot scenarios.
Neither guy has had much success as a secondary scoring option. Both Paul and Booker need the ball in their hands, which is going to be a problem. If there is friction between the two, Booker is going to miss Rubio’s unselfish play style.
Rubio’s scoring pales in comparison (only 24.5 points per 48 minutes) but averages twice as many assists (11.1) than Paul (4.9) in the clutch.
Not that this means Paul lost his passing acumen, Deandre Ayton should feast from Paul’s dump downs. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson will want to cut from the weak side corner as OKC wing Lou Dort did here.
Still: who gets the last shot?
Phoenix Suns trade: What are the defensive implications of Chris Paul addition?
Another question is whether Chris Paul will hurt the Suns’ defense. Some pundits cite his age as the main reason why I disagree. His game was never dependent on overwhelming athleticism. If judging solely by defensive win shares, Paul’s defensive win share rating is actually better than Rubio’s, per NBA.com. Granted, it is not by a lot, but it dispels the narrative Paul’s aging legs now render him a defensive liability.
But that was last season. What about this season? Paul was not the primary defender in OKC. Paul would often guard the weakest opposing defender. This is so he can shoulder the lion’s share of the offensive workload. He will have to take on opposing point guards in Phoenix. Or even the best perimeter player if the situation calls for it.
And defend he will. Defend he must. The Suns are below average in keeping opposing teams out of the paint. The onus is on Paul to stay in front of his man. With Deandre Ayton still developing as a rim protector, it is imperative Paul bolsters the team’s on-ball and help defense. He has to demand excellence from his teammates at all times.
As he did in Oklahoma City. They overachieved because of him. Paul should be at peak form given his strong rapport with Suns coach Monty Williams. Paul likes his basketball acumen, reflecting fondly on their time together with the New Orleans Hornets.
"“It was a special year,” Paul said. “… His basketball mind — I used to get so excited before the games about the plays he was drawing up.”"
Later described in the article, Paul said the Suns are fun to watch. I agree. The team is fun to watch. Coach Williams deserves a lot of credit, as he installed the offense and made some positive changes to the team’s culture. Ricky Rubio, however, was the guy orchestrating the offense. If you have not found out by now, Rubio is arguably one of the most underrated point guards in NBA history.
Phoenix Suns trade: Can Chris Paul and Devin Booker co-exist?
Again, Paul is not necessarily better than Rubio in the context of what the Suns need. He is certainly not the best fit alongside Booker in the backcourt. Pairing ball-dominant lead guards often fail miserably. See what happened with James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston last season.
Even the Paul-Harden backcourt in Houston had major friction. Although they were very successful, Paul’s game suffered immensely as a secondary scoring option. His trade value was next-to-nothing when he was dealt for Russell Westbrook last offseason because he was simply not the same caliber of player.
Chris Paul has to be the guy. Devin Booker will have to take a backseat now.
Yet many of my arguments don’t matter. The Suns made this trade because Booker probably wants Paul on his team. The Suns were willing to pay $85 million over two seasons for not just Paul but for Booker as well.
That’s a price worth paying. The fear of losing Booker is legit. There were some mild ripples that Booker wanted to leave. Those ripples could have been nothing – or it could have been a calamitous tidal wave. With the perfect storm of bad performance and internal tension, a perfectly calm situation can turn disastrous. Booker could go from perfectly content to demanding a trade if the Suns have a rocky stretch.
Moreover, both Booker and Paul are CAA clients. CAA’s clients include a who’s-who of NBA stars and impactful role players. With their two best players signed to CAA, Phoenix is in a strong position to get a third star.
Or at least a tremendous role player. Maybe they can sign-and-trade for Danilo Gallinari, Paul’s teammates in OKC and another CAA client? Gallinari would be a fantastic addition in the starting lineup as the team’s power forward.
Chris Paul’s role at least makes this a desirable landing spot for this caliber of players. Even if they don’t get any marquee free agents, Paul’s addition and the team’s continuous growth should propel the Suns into the Western Conference playoff picture. Going up against both Paul and Booker is a major problem for opposing defenses – if they can learn how to mesh together.
A big if. The Suns would be in the same position with Rubio too.
Nevertheless, despite my affinity for Rubio, Paul’s intangibles, loosely defined as leadership and culture-changing presence, are a real factor. It is a big reason why OKC made the playoffs. Paul has made the playoffs in 12 out of 15 seasons. That is no coincidence.
If Paul can lure one or two frontline starters (say Gallinari or Covington), the Suns may end up being legit playoff contenders. This is if Chris Paul can maintain his OKC form, and if Devin Booker can play alongside him. DeAndre Ayton has to become as dominant as he was in the Pac-12 while on the Arizona Wildcats.
Worst-case scenario: the Suns spent $85 million to stay in the lottery. Paul breaks down. Booker chafes at Paul’s often-abrasive leadership style and demands a trade. Deandre Ayton does not develop as expected. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson struggle as full-time starters. Dario Saric and the rest of the bench crew leave in free agency.
In short, the acquisition of Chris Paul propels the Suns into the playoffs. But that move in of itself does not bring the Suns back to title contention. Rubio would have gotten the Suns to playoff prominence as well. The Suns are still at least two high-caliber starters away from being title contenders.
Another shoe has to drop. Another star has to come. The Paul-Booker backcourt will have to learn how to play together in a short period of time. If this pairing is successful, which frontcourt star wants to play alongside the Paul-Booker backcourt?
Time will tell.