If you were one of the people who wrote off Chris Paul a few years ago, Tuesday was another reminder of just how terrible a take that was as Paul, who is threatening a 50-40-90 season, was named to second straight and 11th career All-Star team over his arguably equally deserving teammate Devin Booker.
Whichever side of the Paul-Booker All-Star fence you stand on, let this be your last wake-up call if you’re not paying serious attention to the Phoenix Suns. Entering Tuesday, despite three overtime losses, they are tied in the loss column with the Lakers and Clippers for the fourth-best winning percentage in the league. They are one of two teams, along with the Jazz, with a top-eight offense and defense. And if the playoffs were to start today, the Suns would have a path to the Western Conference finals that avoids both L.A. teams.
This, in the simplest terms, is what Chris Paul does.
If you’re already a good team, he makes you better.
If you’re a broken team, he fixes you.
Unlike the Hornets and Clippers BC (Before Chris), the BC Suns were not a broken team, necessarily. They had Devin Booker. They will forever regret not drafting Luka Doncic (or Jaren Jackson Jr. or Trae Young, for that matter), but Deandre Ayton, despite startling on-off numbers next to the Booker-Paul combo, is a double-double guy with 20-10 potential if he could figure out how to get to the free-throw line, like, ever. They swindled the 76ers for Mikal Bridges, and the initially maligned 2019 Cameron Johnson draft pick is looking borderline brilliant.
Still, the Suns were 13 games under .500 before they went 8-0 in the Bubble, a strange-circumstances run nobody quite knew how to gauge. Now, six months later, they’re this. Booker is having an All-Star season, probably a better year than Paul, but the math of adding Paul to your team just continues to add up. Take a look at the winning percentages of Paul’s five career teams in the season before he arrived, and the season after.
You look at that New Orleans Hornets team, which isn’t even a franchise anymore, and it’s easy to forget that Paul was drafted way back in 2005. He’ll be 36 this May, the same age as LeBron James, who has become everyone’s standard of previously unthinkable longevity. Paul isn’t LeBron. He’s played 250 fewer career games, and 151 fewer playoff games. But he’s also six feet tall. LeBron is playing in a Hulk suit. That Paul, as a small guard who has never shied from physicality, is still playing at this level is nearly a LeBron-like feat.
Like LeBron, Paul, for all the lazy “he can’t get a team over the postseason hump” narratives, is a sure thing for franchises. LeBron equals immediate championship contention, yes, but Paul has never had the supporting talent James has enjoyed since he went to Miami and became this champion for hire. The one year James didn’t have co-superstars, with the Lakers in 2018-19, he was doing everything he could to stay in the top four of the West, just as Paul is doing now with the Suns.
That Hornets team that drafted Paul won 18 games the year before he arrived. They won 38 the next year. The Clippers were a joke before Paul. The first season the Rockets added Paul they were this close to bouncing the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry Warriors in the conference finals before Paul ripped his hamstring and missed Games 6 and 7. The second the Rockets traded Paul, they were worse. Last year’s Thunder were thought to be in full rebuild mode after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook, only for Paul to make them better than they were when they had both those guys.
And now here we have the Suns, who, for all Booker’s greatness, have Paul’s prints all over them. Start with tempo. Paul has always played methodically, a measure-twice-cut-once kind of guy who prefers control over even an effective dose of chaos, precision over volume passing, and indeed the Suns have gone from ninth in pace last season (101.7 possessions per 48 minutes) to No. 29 this year, averaging 97.4 possessions per 48 minutes.
It doesn’t mean they play slowly all the time. Paul pushes the ball aggressively, as he always has, but he’s super selective with the shots he authorizes, and that selectivity has rubbed off on his new teammates. The Suns don’t push for good shots. They push for great shots. If a great shot is there early, they take it. The Suns lead the league with 1.22 points per transition possession. But they also take and make more shots than any team in the league inside the final four seconds of the shot clock.
This ability to thrive in both early- and late-offense is one of the sneaky things that makes Suns so dangerous. They already get a ton of good looks because Paul, who can still get to his midrange spots at will, demands as much, patiently manipulating an offense that generates the third most “wide-open” shots (24.3) per game, which the NBA defines as the closest defender being at least six feet away — but then, on the rare occasions that all that work hits a wall, the Suns also have one of the best tough-shot makers in the business in Booker to bail out possessions.
Entering Tuesday, Booker has scored 66 points inside the final four seconds of the shot clock, trailing only LeBron, Fred VanVleet and Julius Randle, none of whom come close to the 52 percent Booker is shooting from the field or the 60 percent he’s shooting from 3 in these situations. All told, Booker has converted 51 of his 98 “tight” shots, defined as a defender being within 2-4 feet, with a 58.7 effective field-goal percentage, which trails only Kevin Durant’s 59.8 among all players who’ve taken at least 50 such shots.
That is some kind of offensive combination, and quite a luxury for Monty Williams to always have one of Booker or Paul on the court, especially when they’re playing with what is a really solid bench unit in Phoenix. Last season when Booker was off the court, the Suns operated at minus-5.8 points per 100 possessions with the offense falling 13 points per 100.
This year they’re golden either way: When Paul is on and Booker is off, the Suns are plus-14.1 per 100; when Booker is on and Paul is off, they are plus-13.6. So why is Phoenix only plus-1.2 with Booker and Paul playing together? The answer is Ayton, who isn’t a floor-spacing 3-point threat. Take Ayton off, and all other lineups featuring Paul and Booker are a cumulative plus-26.4 per 100 with staggering offensive and defensive ratings.
In short, the Suns are for real. They have a wonderful balance of youth and experience. They are selectively fast and efficiently slow. They are long and versatile defensively. They create easy shots and make hard ones. Booker is probably the best player, but this is a Chris Paul team, which remains as good a thing as it’s always been.