The Phoenix Suns gallant run to the NBA Finals ended Tuesday night in Milwaukee, but the disappointment shouldn’t overshadow what this team accomplished.
While there surely are many ingredients in a massive team effort, the leadership of first-year Sun Chris Paul is near, if not at, the top of the list.
So now, as the Suns’ season ended two days before Cardinals rookies report to training camp and seven days prior to the remainder of the team, it’s fair to wonder if the arrival of defensive end J.J. Watt can mean as much to this football team as Paul did to their basketball counterparts.
Ever since the Cardinals shocked the NFL world by signing Watt more than four months ago, no discussion about him or interview with him has lacked talk about how he can be a leader in the locker room along with his contributions on the field.
Watt attended several Suns games and marveled at the energy in the building while noting he had communicated with Paul during the playoffs. It’s no coincidence that Paul played two seasons for the Houston Rockets when Watt was in Houston with the Texans. Paul arrived in Houston in 2017 just as Hurricane Harvey devastated the area in August.
Watt established a relief fund with the goal of raising $200,000. Think again. The fund raised over $37 million, which helped rebuild more than 1,183 houses. In addition, more than 108,000 children were positively affected by the rebuilding of more than 971 childcare centers and after-school programs with over 239 million meals going to victims.
And Paul was a part of the fund’s success. Watt said earlier this offseason, “He was one of the first literally, I think the first celebrity to reach out and donate to the hurricane fund. And I will never forget that. And I will always be appreciative. And I think it just spoke to the type of man he is. And he was brand new to the city. I'm not even sure if he played a game yet. (He hadn’t.) But he reached out and said he wanted to donate and he was the first big name to do so. So he will always hold a special place for me.
“And the way he plays the game, the way that he elevates any team that he's on. The way that he leads; I think that he's a special player and a special person. And I'm fortunate to be able to call him a friend. I'm fortunate to be able to watch him play. So hopefully we can do that moving forward as well.”
Cardinals fans surely hope that’s the case. Paul helped guide the young Suns to their first playoff appearance in 10 years. The Cardinals haven’t been a part of the NFL postseason in the last five years.
As Suns center Deandre Ayton said after the bitter loss Tuesday night, "He brought us all the way up here, you know? We know the type of detail we have to really emphasize to have consistency, to play at the level like this and the type of competitor he is, it was contagious. Knowing your opponent, knowing what the team likes, knowing what teams throw at you, things like that, CP added to everybody's arsenal."
There is the belief Watt can be that for the Cardinals, although it is a different dynamic on a team with 53 players compared to the smaller NBA rosters. Still, to a man, those inside the Cardinals are confident Watt can be a catalyst to success.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury said in June, “With J.J., anywhere he goes in the building things seem to intensify and that’s what you’re looking for. Whether he’s in the weight room working out or he’s doing a drill with some of those younger D-linemen, I mean he lifts up the group and so it’s been impressive to see how he carries himself. The professionalism, whether he’s in meetings or in drills, it’s just next level.”
Kingsbury added, “You saw and you heard some of those quotes come out of Tampa with Tom (Brady) and guys just don’t want to let that type of player with that type of work ethic and that type of legend — they don’t want to let him down.”
After Watt was signed, general manager Steve Keim said the goal was to “to bring in this infectious personality that can not only help young players develop, but hold people accountable, which is really, really important to me.”
Cardinals players have been impressed. A sampling:
*Wide receiver Deandre Hopkins, a teammate of Watt for seven seasons: “Once I heard we were getting J.J., there was a lot of excitement in my house because my family has seen him play and we know what he can do. Just bringing that kind of tenacity that he plays with to this team and to this defense, I mean, you’ve already got guys like Budda (Baker) and Chandler (Jones) over there, but adding J.J. I think is a different dynamic.”
*Second-year linebacker Isaiah Simmons: “He’s everything you see online and on TV. He’s an Alpha male, he’s a great leader. He came in and he wasn’t shy with anybody. He took command and that’s just something you’ve got to love from a guy like him. You know, J.J. is a guy you’ll never have to question.
“You know how much you’re going to get from him; you’re going to get 110 percent every single day from him. Personally, it’s just an honor to get to play with him because growing up, I’ve always watched J.J. Watt. I mean, everybody knows who J.J. is and how dominant of a player he is. He’s also known for his great leadership and it showed instantly.”
*Running back Chase Edmonds: “He’s not some superstar guy that’s too good to talk to someone or not acknowledge somebody. (What he does) definitely rubs off.”
During OTAs and minicamp, Watt was ever-present, and ran around with unbridled enthusiasm like a rookie rather than a 32-year-old grizzled veteran.
When he was asked why it was so important to be at all the workouts and participate at the level he did, Watt was matter-of-fact in his response.
He said, “I want to get with the guys, I want to build those relationships and start to build that camaraderie and chemistry. Because I know I'm new here. And I know that these guys need to get to know me just like I need to get to know them. And little things. You want to know about their families, want to know about what makes them tick, how to how to motivate a certain guy. One guy may be different than another guy.
“So I want to learn and build those relationships so that when it does come time in the season, and I need this guy to make a play, or I need him to pick it up, but he's having a rough game, and we need to turn it around. You got to have those relationships. So you have to have those conversations and get the best out of each other.”
When Watt was selected in the first round of the draft in 2011, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was the Texans’ defensive backs coach and they spent three seasons together. He witnessed Watt become a leader almost immediately.
Joseph said, “He was a lightning rod for leadership and for guys doing the right thing. His work ethic and his story is undeniable and the players know that. But what he talks about, he does. He’s adored. He’s first in line with every drill. He has the awareness to help young guys get through hard times.
“He can put out fires.”
Paul had never been to a NBA Finals until this season. Watt has never played in a NFL conference championship game. Can history repeat? The Cardinals hope that’s the case.
Simply making the playoffs would be the first big step.