Let’s not ignore the obvious. Chris Paul is not the player he once was as he rolls through his 16th NBA season, entering Friday night averaging career lows in scoring and usage. Paul’s burst to the tin is diminished compared with previous seasons. His three-point range is fading, and his patented midrange pull-up is now more solid than lethal. But focusing on Paul’s fading physical gifts at 35 years old misses the point. The 10-time All-Star remains the Point God in every sense of the word, leading a Phoenix team now primed to end a decade-long playoff drought. Paul is perhaps the NBA’s ultimate tone setter. His presence in Phoenix is the tide that lifts all boats.
It’s no coincidence that the Suns sport one of the game’s most balanced scoring attacks in 2020–21. Six Phoenix players are averaging at least 10 points per game (Jae Crowder is just shy of that mark), and leading scorer Devin Booker's point totals have taken a dip from last season with a lightened playmaking load. Nearly every Phoenix rotation player receives some form of free buckets at the hands of Paul. Just seven players in the league have attempted more catch-and-shoot threes than forward Cameron Johnson. Crowder and fellow wing Mikal Bridges also rank in the top 20 of catch-and-shoot triples. Paul still slings crosscourt lasers with ease. He keeps defenders on his hip like few players in league history, and, as his rapport with Deandre Ayton grows, the talented center should see an increasing flood of lob attempts against collapsing defenses. Each of the young Suns are a work in progress to some degree. But with Paul leading the way, they’re consistently put in a position to succeed.
“Chris’s mindset is just different. It rubs off on all of us,” Johnson says. “He’s always a couple of steps ahead of the game, he’s always teaching. ... He’s pulling us aside, telling us things to pick up, when to roll, when to pop, where to rotate. He really seems to see everything out there.”
Paul’s early influence is evident through a number of metrics. Phoenix ranks No. 8 in net rating entering Friday night, sitting in the top 10 in both offense and defense. Just two teams sport a better assist-to-turnover ratio. Only five turn the ball over at a lower rate. Paul domineers each possession with precision, snaking his way through a stream of pick-and-rolls until a quality shot is found. Yet sometimes Paul’s impact isn’t even quantifiable. He’ll goad his opponent into a quick foul as Phoenix approaches the bonus. Loose balls are flung off opponents' legs to avoid turnovers. Few point guards initiate contact quite like Paul. Even fewer can poke and prod opponents to such a degree.
Plenty of point guards sport greater athleticism, and it’s not necessarily hard to find a more proficient shooter. But playing against Paul is a legitimate nightmare for opponents. His basketball brilliance knows no bounds, extending his window of quality toward the two-decade mark.
Last season marked an important evolution in Paul’s career. He spent his first 12 years in the NBA as an undisputed leading man, guiding the (then) Hornets and Clippers to some of the greatest heights in franchise history. Moving to Houston demanded a new role from Paul as he joined James Harden, but even then, head coach Mike D’Antoni employed a heavy stagger system between his two stars. It often felt as though there was a relative tug-of-war at play, especially in the final months of Paul’s short Rockets tenure. Arriving in Oklahoma City marked a new set of priorities.
Paul never abandoned his commitment to winning upon arriving in Oklahoma City. Such a tact would be completely foreign to one of the league’s greatest competitors. But there was a notable change from Paul as he joined a young Thunder squad. He became more nurturing in a sense, in tune with the needs of each emerging player on the roster. He had no problem giving Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the keys to the offense. Luguentz Dort was encouraged to let the threes fly despite his shoddy percentages. What ensued was a culture of empowerment, one that has been replicated in Phoenix. Paul the mentor has perhaps outpaced Paul the player at this point in his career.
“[Paul] has so much wisdom he brings to this team,” Ayton says. “He’s always quick to point out the details, the little things. It’s what makes him great. And he’s vocal. Every day he’s working with us, helping make [Booker] and I great. Honestly I’m honored, it’s great.”
Phoenix head coach Monty Williams has now seen both sides of the Paul experience up close. He coached Paul for one season in 2020–11, the final year of Paul’s six-year stint with the Hornets. Williams acknowledged Paul may be a bit softer in his demeanor compared with a decade ago, but at his core, he remains the same individual he was in New Orleans. The tireless work ethic remains, as does the competitive fire. But perhaps more rarely noted is Paul’s loyalty and compassion. Form a bond with Paul once, and he’s likely in your corner for life. We’ll let Williams explain further below, with a tale that demands full transcription.
“The story that sums up our relationship is when I was coaching in New Orleans the year after [Paul] was traded,” Williams says. “And a fan picked up a peanut that was still in the shell and he threw it. And he hit me in the back of the head. I realized what had happened, and they kind of stopped the game. The fans pointed out who did it, and the guy was hiding in his seat like nobody would see him.
“All of a sudden I look up and I see Jarrett Jack, who is on our team, start to go into the crowd to go at this guy. So our coaches grab Jarrett. But then I look to the other sideline, and Chris is going the same way. And I realized how close we were. I was like ‘grab Chris’ because I know Chris. He’s a bulldog.
“It really told me how much he cared for me. I realized how you can really have an effect on players. Like they may never tell you, but their actions speak for it.”
“I kept that peanut in a bag for about two years before it kind of disintegrated.”
Paul and Williams have been reunited a decade after their lone year together, embarking on a new journey as Paul continues the twilight of his career. His tenure in Oklahoma City was always destined to be a short-term marriage. It was originally in question whether he would ever suit up for Oklahoma City, and as 2019–20 continued, it became increasingly evident that general manager Sam Presti would likely deal Paul at the peak of his value. Paul’s latest destination is different. Phoenix is a franchise on the upswing, looking to string together playoff appearances as Booker and Ayton approach their respective primes. Paul and the Thunder overachieved last season, nearly knocking off Harden’s Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Perhaps the Suns can reach greater heights in 2021 with their Hall of Fame point guard leading the way.
“Chris has gone through everything we’re trying to get to in this league,” Booker says. “Big games, playoffs. ... We want to get to that point, and with Chris, we’re headed in the right direction.”