Chris Paul needed a new project. After leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a surprising berth in the 2020 Bubble Playoffs and then pushing the Rockets to seven games, he had proven he could still take a team to another level. But at 35, he was looking for a situation that would give him one last chance to win a title. And after a surprise appearance in the bubble, the Phoenix Suns provided a young base ready to take the next step.
The arranged marriage has worked for the past two years. The Suns made the Finals in Paul’s first season in Phoenix, and this season they won a franchise-record 64 regular-season games. Under Paul, the Suns’ collection of young talent has made great strides – Devin Booker finished fourth in MVP voting this season, while Mikal Bridges finished second for Defensive Player of the Year. Monty Williams was named coach of the year. But a season that seemed destined for another trip to the finals and for Paul another shot in the ring that had eluded him for nearly two decades was cut short, abruptly, by Luka Doncic.
The Mavericks eliminated the Suns on Sunday by 33 points, sending the playoff seed home after just two rounds. Phoenix scored just 27 points in the first half, including 10 in the second quarter. A sold-out crowd booed the team off the field at halftime.
“It was a tough game,” Paul told reporters after the loss. “Our defense wasn’t there, our offense wasn’t there either…you played all season to be in that situation and it didn’t work for us.”
The Suns’ immediate future may be as bright as it looked before Luka’s intervention; virtually all of the key players in the rotation are under contract, except for Deandre Ayton, for whom Phoenix has the right to match any offer, and JaVale McGee, who could be replaced by a healthy Dario Saric. health, the player he himself replaced. But as the Suns head into the offseason earlier than expected, they will need to address several key issues that have persisted throughout this season, starting with Paul himself.
In the playoffs, Paul showed glimpses of his usual dominance. In Game 3 of Phoenix’s first-round series against the Pelicans, with Booker sidelined with a hamstring injury, Paul scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, forcing substitutions and punishing New Orleans big men with a procession of jumpers. In Game 6, he shot 14 — a playoff high — finishing with 33 points and eight assists.
Still, there were times when Paul, less than two weeks shy of his 37th birthday, showed his age. In the last five games against the Mavericks, he’s been limited to 13 points or less and turned the ball over an average of 3.6 times. A master bucket-maker, Paul also only attempted four free throws during that streak.
To be fair, Paul had to work for everything; Pelicans coach Willie Green, an assistant for the Suns last season, used professional pest Jose Alvarado to confuse the Point God, taking him on half court and sometimes full court to wear him down. The Mavericks followed suit with Dorian Finney-Smith. But Paul was unable to summon his usual critical moment magic. “It’s up to me as a point guard, as a team leader to make sure we get the right shots and all that,” Paul told reporters Sunday night. “That’s what it is.”
Paul is signed within the next three seasons, limiting any extreme roster movement. The Suns’ only response, regardless of Paul’s health or ability next season, may be to put Booker back in the spotlight.
Although Booker’s bubble race marked him for stardom, finally proving he could be the driving force behind a successful team, he welcomed Paul into the fold. The two share an agent, so when Paul learned that Phoenix was a serious suitor, he flew to Phoenix to hang out with Booker, took a desert tour. “We just got along, man,” Booker told me earlier in the playoffs. “We both loved basketball. Similar interests off the pitch.
There was an instant connection. They say there were no concerns about credit or the role of the team leader.
“It’s not about being my team, his team,” Paul told me recently. “He’s been here much longer than me. In the end, it’s about winning. All the other stuff doesn’t matter. So we both put our ego aside every day. And we understand how much we make each other better, as well as the team.
But Booker played one of his best streaks of his career when Paul was sidelined with a broken thumb, collecting 28 points on 52% shooting, along with seven assists. Some may have been surprised by Booker’s play without Paul to guide the team; Booker, of course, was not.
“I think it was for everyone, to be quite honest,” Booker told me recently. “I mean this whole team knows what we are capable of. I don’t mean like before Chris got here, but we started something in the bubble, you know, with our coach here on our team, where I know it wouldn’t be a problem and we got together improved since then.”
By all accounts, Booker’s relationship with Paul remains strong. Although Paul’s dominating style has grated on his star teammates over the years, most recently leading to his trade from Houston to Oklahoma City in the 2019 offseason, they both remain driven by the same thing: winning. But Booker will one day have another chapter in his career, where he will return to the role of a must-have player. And it’s fair to wonder how the dynamic will play out between him and Paul when he takes on this role.
The most immediate concern, however, is Ayton. The old no. The first overall pick will be a restricted free agent this offseason, after he and the Suns were unable to agree on an extension in the fall. According to ESPN, Ayton sought a full max deal, like those signed by Luka Doncic and other stars of the 2018 draft class, but the Suns didn’t agree. Rumors also arose around the trade deadline, indicating that Phoenix and the Pacers had discussed a trade of Ayton for Domantas Sabonis, who was later traded to the Kings.
Ayton weathered his uncertain future and also a midseason injury, finishing with career high efficiency ratings and going on to become a presence at both ends, despite the Suns going 18-6 without him. settling for a combination of companions McGee and Bismack Biyombo in his place. Ayton had similarly mixed postseason results: Ayton had 28 points and 17 rebounds in Game 3 against the Pelicans and averaged 18 and 9 through 13 games, but he failed to dominate games in which the opponents have reduced in the frontcourt.
The Suns, with equal rights to any offer, still dictate Ayton’s future. But it’s possible another team with cap space like the Pistons will swoop in and offer a four-year contract with a player option in the final year, allowing Ayton to walk in three years, when he doesn’t. is only 26 years old.
“He’s a free agent, so I can’t talk about anything going forward,” Suns general manager James Jones told me last month. “All I can say is we’ve said, and I’ve said it time and time again, that I think DA is a very good player. And we believe in him and our job is to continue to help him grow, to be the player he expects to be, and that hasn’t changed.
But at some point, the decision also becomes a question of money, and any reasonable offer for Ayton will likely push the Suns towards the luxury tax. Phoenix can also offer Booker a lucrative extension and a rookie contract extension to key reserve Cam Johnson. Although owner Robert Sarver has indicated he’s willing to pay the tax to keep the team together, his history of greed is well documented, including refusing to re-sign Joe Johnson and trading first-round picks to prioritize savings. The decision will be a true test of whether the franchise as a whole has changed course.
Any personnel decisions, however, pale in comparison to Sarver’s own status. Last fall, ESPN released an investigation that detailed a toxic workplace and tales of racism and misogyny. “I’m not going to lie, we talk about it as a team,” Booker told me. But Booker also says the team opted to keep “everything in-house.” “Just stick together, man,” Bridges says. “That’s all it is. Don’t worry about that. It’s just us there.
The NBA launched an investigation into the Suns shortly after the story was published, but despite an ESPN report in March that said more than 300 people had been interviewed, the results have yet to surface.
“I’m so in the moment, man, that whatever happened back then in the past and so on, it honestly has no relevance right now,” Paul says. “I think the best thing about me at this point in my life is that I control what I can control and everything that happens. That’s how it is.”
Adds Jones, who issued a statement of support for Sarver in October: “For me, it was just another challenge. And what you realize is you just need to lean on your teammates and have Monty, have our players, have the organization, the staff, and when you’re around people, you know their intentions and therefore, you really have their support and trust. It’s easier for you to go out there and do your job because so many people depend on you to do your job at a high level.
Despite an ugly end to their banner season, the Suns should be able to continue playing at a high level next season. But the decisions they make this offseason will likely determine how long they keep doing it.
“Our team has continued to progress and the hope is to keep the team together going forward,” Jones said. “But the most important thing is now that we are focused because these things are changing quickly in this league and players are improving quickly in this league and injuries are happening. So let’s try to predict what we will look like in three or four years. Luck, guesswork, so many different factors come into play. The only thing you can do is live in a moment and plan for near-necessity.