When Chris Paul was traded to the Phoenix Suns last November, Jamal Crawford made a declaration. Having played with Paul on the Clippers, and having spent a year with the Suns, Crawford reached out to some people in the Phoenix organization and predicted how their season would go: “Welcome to the playoffs,” he told them. “You guys are going to make it.”
Crawford’s matter-of-fact assertion wasn’t wishful thinking. It was an informed statement backed by first-hand knowledge of the kind of leap a team can make once Paul becomes its point guard. Crawford saw that effect during the Lob City era in L.A., where he got a behind-the-scenes look into what makes Paul the competitive, insatiable player he still is today.
“His game is timeless because he’s always playing with his mind first,” Crawford said over the phone earlier this month. “I know what makes him tick and who he is at the core. … [But] did I know they were going to make it this far? No.”
Crawford wasn’t alone. Despite the fact that the Suns went on an unprecedented 8-0 run in the bubble last season, they were billed coming into this year as a middling team that would benefit from Paul’s presence and further youth development. Six months later, they have turned into one of the best, most well-rounded groups in the league—with top-10 units on defense and offense—and now stand a footstep away from the Finals. Paul anchored that effort—but Phoenix’s success has also shed light on how much the Suns have done for Paul at the twilight stage of his career.
As a player and a competitor, Paul’s résumé is unimpeachable. He has performed at an All-Star level throughout his career, and has remained unabashedly himself no matter the team or situation. Yet to this point, his teams have lacked that tricky combination of talent, chemistry, and luck necessary to reach—and win—the Finals.
Phoenix has so far presented him with the perfect canvas to create a masterwork. The Suns entered the season with the talent to rise above empty stats. And with this team, Paul’s not only found an ideal version of himself, but also a choir ready to back him up and carry him when needed, like they did in games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals when he was out due to health and safety protocols. The kicker, which often feels like it should be the headline, is that Paul is having one of his most successful seasons in his 16th year in the league, at 36 years old. And now, thanks to a combination of youth and experience that’s worked out better than almost anyone could have imagined, he’s just one game away from his first NBA Finals.
“He’s missing one piece of jewelry,” said Caron Butler, who played with Paul on the Clippers for two seasons. “But when you talk about the elite of the elite, no one would ever question his place. He’s one of those players that when God made him, he threw away the mold.”
Gersson Rosas likes to joke that Paul’s brother, C.J., is the reason Chris is the way he is. Rosas, who was part of the Rockets front office when they traded for Paul in 2017 and is now the president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, remains close with the Paul family to this day. And every time he sees C.J., he has a go-to remark:
“I always told him, ‘I don’t know what you did to your brother, but he has the worst little-brother syndrome I’ve ever seen,’” Rosas said in a phone call two weeks ago. “Any time you challenge Chris, he responds.”
Rosas has seen this play out in card games on planes, discussions about rules, and arguments with referees. And Crawford has seen it too, especially in practice. While they were teammates in L.A., Crawford and Paul would often play one-on-one games and compete in complex shooting contests. Here’s how intricate one particular drill was: They would mark off seven spots beyond the 3-point line—one at the top of the arc, and two at the slot, wing, and corner spots on either side—and each shooter had to make five shots in a row from each spot; then four in a row; then three, and so on. A miss at any point would restart the cycle.
Those games would start with a handful of players, and slowly but surely they would be weeded out until it was just Crawford and Paul going at it. This was Crawford’s version of basketball heaven: not just the fact that he was competing against one of the best point guards of all time, but that in Paul, he had found a kindred spirit.
“We’re lifers. It’s at the core of who we are,” Crawford said. “He’s one of the people I’ve met in my life that loves basketball like I do. We can always talk about basketball, we can always talk about plays and what we were thinking and what guys were thinking.”
Paul’s deep obsession with the game is a big part of what has allowed him to transcend his age. He’s spent his entire career parlaying his talent and love for basketball into any edge he can find—some more obnoxious than others—and both past and current teammates tell stories about walking into his hotel room only to see him watching two NBA games at once, plus a college game or a high school game on a third screen.
This is how, over 16 years in the league, Paul has developed a basketball encyclopedia inside his brain. It’s that knowledge and history that allows him to tell Mikal Bridges exactly how and where to guard a specific player, or show Devin Booker how a particular defender can be exploited in the midrange. It’s also what caused Paul to fire off a text to Butler—who’s now an assistant with the Miami Heat—earlier this year with a highly specific observation.
Butler spent some of this season working with second-year Heat player KZ Okpala, who hadn’t seen much time on the floor. In early March, he got a text from Paul that included a video of Okpala during a game against the Orlando Magic. Butler was thrown off. Why was Paul watching a random Heat-Magic game in the middle of the season? He watched the clip—one where Okpala pulled off a dribble move along the baseline—and saw that Paul guessed Butler had taught Okpala the move because it was something Butler did often when he and Paul played together. Butler was blown away.
“He is so aware of everything happening around him,” Butler said. “He is the type of individual that you could be on the opposite team, and he could tell you when you should cut. This is your own play and he’s telling you where to go.”
Rosas remembers Paul being such a hound for information in Houston that he would ask questions about the draft process and prospects, much like how he picked Bob Iger’s brain about the business repercussions of his decision in free agency and health experts about the benefits of plant-based diets.
“Anytime there’s a situation that is new to him, he wants to know all about it,” Rosas said. “It could be a new technology, it could be a new product, it could be a new company, but he wants to hear it from the horse’s mouth. ... He always wanted to be informed and in the know, to understand why, and I think that’s one of his biggest strengths—his ability to always look for the why in any situation he’s in.”
It’s easy to see how this mindset translates to the court: Every piece of knowledge can be used to gain an advantage. Every part of the floor is ready to be exploited for the ultimate cause: winning. For Paul, basketball has become a game of intangibles. And while age may set him back, his mind pushes him forward.
Watching Chris Paul these days feels like stepping into a movie theater that’s showing a supercut of his most famous moves. There is a repetitive nature to his game that astounds the older he gets. How many times can he weave through a defense and come out the other side with a perfect elbow jumper?
“He is a magician,” Crawford said. “He knows angles, he’s mastered that.”
In the latter half of his career, health has been one of Paul’s biggest challenges. It wasn’t long ago that Paul appeared to be closer to retirement than he was to a title. “When people doubt him, he responds in such a special and competitive way that we don’t see often in professional sports,” Rosas said. “And guys his age, the way he’s recreated his body … he deserves all the credit in the world.”
Paul’s switch to a plant-based diet in June 2019 was well documented, and it seems to have paid dividends for him. Crawford has also started eating this way—though he isn’t as strict about it as Paul—and says he can attest to its benefits.
“You bounce back a lot faster, you don’t get quite as sore,” Crawford said. “You have more energy, and if you have more energy, you put more effort while running, plus strength and conditioning training. … It plays an effect for sure.”
As Crawford explains, age becomes an issue in basketball when you refuse to accept that getting older means you have to do that extra stretch, or cold tub, or foam roll, or lift. “Once you do that, it becomes a lifestyle,” Crawford said. “I think that’s when things really take off.”
The younger Suns players say Paul is still doing those things, and it has made them realize how important everything from game day routines to off-day work is. Head coach Monty Williams, who coached Paul back in New Orleans, has also emphasized this, but says the living, breathing example of Paul helps drive the point home.
“Just being around CP, I know that he’s going to do something even without touching a basketball,” Bridges said on a Zoom call last month. “He’s gonna come and do some core, or get a stretch in, or do something just so his body feels good. … Watching him have a routine every single day has helped me find a routine that’s good for me.”
While Suns players wax poetic about Paul’s influence, his former teammates can attest that his approach doesn’t always jive with players who aren’t willing to follow Paul’s directives. Butler remembers that some Clippers players didn’t always agree with Paul’s level of perfectionism, and it caused the team to suffer. There were too many voices in one room, and not a single coherent message to drive them.
“That team wasn’t aligned at the same time,” Butler said. “We needed more management of personalities. Chris was always really serious about winning and really particular in the details, and I think that because he was so invested, other guys was rubbed the wrong way. … You had so many egos and personalities that needed to be managed, and I think then, there would have been no limits for that team.”
That kind of dynamic underlines how great the fit is between Paul and the Suns. Paul’s drive coincided perfectly with a team that was heading in the right direction, and had two players in Deandre Ayton and Booker who were ready to make a leap and win.
“He was the best thing that happened to my career,” Ayton said of Paul after the Suns’ Game 4 win Saturday.
Success is a two-way street, though. Back in the offseason, when Crawford told people in the Suns organization that they were a lock for the playoffs, he also reached out to Paul. Just like how he felt the Suns were going to benefit from having Paul, Crawford also knew that Paul would benefit from being a part of this group. So he sent Paul a simple text:
“You’re going to love it there.”