The Chris Paul era has officially come to the end after three seasons with the Phoenix Suns, and you can make the case he was a top five player for the organization this century. A first NBA Finals appearance since 1993, two All-Star selections in that three year span and 194 regular season games played, even if Paul was sometimes injured when it mattered most, as we had seen before.
Paul also gave his all to the franchise from years 35 to 38, never asking for more help or to be traded, which may sound ridiculous in hindsight but in today’s league is less common than you would think. He gave limited and lumbering centers like Bismack Biyombo a lifeline in the NBA, and appears to have been about as great a teammate as Devin Booker could have asked for.
The Bradley Beal trade was one the Suns make every time, but Paul is going to be missed, and he deserves a ton of credit for helping the franchise to the next level.
Easy as it is to forget, Paul joined a Booker led Suns team in 2020 that was young and frisky, and which had gone 8-0 in the NBA’s bubble, but had still failed to make the postseason in that controlled setting. There was clearly something brewing in the Arizona desert, but for Paul to help take that same core group of guys to the finals the following season is extraordinary.
Consider that the four best players behind Booker in the bubble were big man Deandre Ayton, a 23-year-old Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and either Dario Saric or Ricky Rubio. Once Paul was added for the 2020-21 season, he took mostly the same guys in Booker, Bridges, Ayton and Jae Crowder through the entire Western Conference, and a date with the Milwaukee Bucks.
That represented that version of the Suns’ best chance at winning it all, although what may sting Paul the most is never getting to properly try and go one step further alongside Kevin Durant. The Suns after all were the only team to take two games off the title winning Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, and although Paul is really slowing down, it would have been cool to see them try again.
Part of why Paul is getting his flowers now is because of just how productive he was as an undersized guard during a period of his career when he should have been not only passed his prime, but out of the league like many before him. Instead Paul put up 15.1 points and 9.5 assists, leading the league in free-throw percentage (93.4 percent) the year they went to the finals.
Paul was (is?) a master at drawing fouls, but that midrange game was among the sweetest in the league. The run to the finals was built in part on the most engaged defensive season to date of Ayton’s career, but with Paul at the controls in those first two seasons, the offensive rating of the team never dipped below seventh in the regular season.
Defensively Paul was somehow still relevant as well, certainly not the absolute negative he should have been on that end, using his IQ and guile to make a difference in ways opponents seemed to never expect. He was an elite defender when his legs allowed him to be in his younger years, and yet when the older Paul was on the court the Suns never had a worse defensive rating than 113.9.
That is across his entire time with the Suns, and at his best that number was 108.8. To put that into some sort of context, the league leading Los Angeles Lakers of 2020-21 (under new Suns head coach Frank Vogel no less…) had a defensive rating of 106.8. Put another way, and at his worst defensively the Suns were still just about above league average when he was out there.
What about the intangibles then? Those things that cannot be quantified, and which fans will often use to bolster any case, as we are about to do right now. Paul has always been about winning, and anywhere he has gone the franchise has had an immediate uptick in putting wins together and getting to the postseason.
This was probably at its most true in the stop before Phoenix, when Paul guided a young Oklahoma City Thunder group (Paul and Danilo Gallinari were the only players over 30) to the playoffs in the bubble. He was an All-Star that year too, and while he could have sat out some and saved his body, Paul instead gave his all for a team that was highly unlikely to win a championship.
The Suns clearly won the trade that netted them Paul after that showing, and the true impact of just how positive an influence he was on Booker’s career won’t be felt for years to come. He hadn’t played a single playoff game before Paul arrived, and although it is a stretch to say that the Suns were going to morph into the “bonehead” Washington Wizards, Paul’s introduction changed everything.
About the only blot on his copybook from his time with the organization is his failure to truly connect with Ayton and get the best out of the player after that finals run in year one, but that is a story we may hear more about in future. Players, and indeed staff, who come into contact with Paul have generally been the better for it, and it is why Paul will go down as a Suns’ great.
So thank you to the Point God who changed the culture of a franchise that didn’t feel like it was going anywhere meaningful, and who was part of the reason Durant wanted to come to town. Hopefully he can win that elusive ring elsewhere, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the Western Conference force that he helped to build.