When I went to Oklahoma City last December—without a coat, because apparently I’m the only person who didn’t know Oklahoma got so cold—I expected to encounter a slightly different version of Chris Paul. Maybe someone who, after a high-profile gig in Houston that ended in disappointment, would have been antsy to leave a young Thunder team for a contender. Someone who—while still being a professional—wasn’t necessarily going to go above and beyond his marriage of convenience with a franchise in transition.
Instead, the Chris Paul I encountered was as competitive as ever. The CP3 in OKC stayed late after practice to challenge Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to shooting contests. And he eventually led the team to the fifth-best record in the West. Paul was a revelation on and off the floor with the Thunder last season, taking the young group under his wing while playing some of the best ball of his life, culminating in an All-NBA Second Team selection. He came within one more Lu Dort three of knocking off his former team in the first round of the playoffs. And something he told me, when I asked if he enjoyed playing mentor at this point in his career, I think embodied what would make him a perfect fit on the Suns if the trade rumors are true:
“This ain’t no like, ‘You got it because I can’t.’ We gon’ do this together.”
Phoenix emerged as a Paul suitor this week, according to ESPN, now that the next NBA season is on the horizon. I can’t stress enough how much I love this move for both sides. The Suns finally flashed a level of play above cellar dweller during the Orlando bubble, and I genuinely commend them for trying to take a massive step forward by looking to acquire Paul as opposed to smaller scale, largely imperceptible growth.
Here’s why I love this move for the Suns: Entering his sixth year in, it’s about damn time Devin Booker plays for a winning team. While he bears some responsibility for what’s happened in Phoenix, it’s hard to separate whatever shortcomings he may have as a star from the less-than-ideal situation he’s dealt with his entire career. (Just look at Phoenix’s point guards before they acquired Ricky Rubio.) Paul would make Booker’s life way easier. CP3 can handle, initiate the offense, and create a bucket of his own when necessary. Booker’s burden would decrease substantially, while Paul also wouldn’t be the kind of disruptive force who took away most of his shots. (This move would kind of be like the Jazz acquiring Mike Conley, who was also an upgrade over Rubio, except this would be a much bigger upgrade.)
I’m maybe most excited to see what Paul can do with young big Deandre Ayton. The young big wasn’t stellar in the bubble, but before the season suspension was playing the best basketball of his life. Paul is a pick-and-roll maestro, and he should be able to leverage Ayton’s talent and athleticism into some really easy looks. (CP3 generated 1.08 points per possession as a ball handler in pick and rolls, per NBA stats, third-best among players who ran the play over 35% of their possessions. Ayton wasn’t a high-usage screener, but averaged 1.16 points per possession as a roll man.) Paul is demanding on both ends of the floor, but his results back him up. If someone like Ayton is willing to soak up all of CP3’s wisdom, it should lead to significant improvement on both ends of the floor.
I also love this move for Paul. He’s going to buy in. He’s going to believe his team has a chance to compete. And without trying to reference anything happening in our current day-to-day lives, Paul won’t concede he has a worse team than any of the contenders in the West. Even though it would be great to see Paul try to be a difference maker in Milwaukee, seeing him go through the challenge of trying to transform a franchise for the second time in his career, now at 35 years old, would be incredibly fun. (He would also rock the heck out of a purple throwback.)
Ultimately, the biggest thing I learned, and what Paul proved over the course of last season, is how much he has left to give to the game. Everyone with the Thunder benefited from Paul’s arrival. I can’t say for certain the Suns experiment will work, but CP was obviously up for the challenge in Oklahoma City last season. If he gets another chance to surprise, I wouldn’t bet against him.