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’d proved he could still take a team to another level. But at age 35, he was in search of a situation that would provide one last shot at a title. And after a surprise showing in the bubble, the Phoenix Suns provided a youthful foundation ready to take the next leap.
The arranged marriage worked in 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’s stewardship, the Suns’ collection of young talent has made major 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 at the ring that has eluded him for nearly two decades was ended, abruptly, by Luka Doncic.
The Mavericks eliminated the Suns on Sunday by a whopping 33 points, sending the top seed in the playoffs home after just two rounds. Phoenix scored just 27 points in the first half, including 10 in the second quarter. A sellout home crowd booed the team off the court at halftime.
“It was a tough game,” Paul told reporters following the loss. “Our defense wasn’t there, our offense wasn’t there either … you play all season to be in this situation and it didn’t work out for us.”
The Suns’ immediate future may be just as bright as it seemed before Luka intervened; virtually every key rotation player is 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, the player he himself replaced. But as the Suns turn to the offseason sooner than expected, they’ll have to address several key issues that have lingered throughout this season, starting with Paul himself.
In the postseason, Paul showed glimpses of his usual dominance. In Game 3 of Phoenix’s first-round series against the Pelicans, with Booker sidelined by a hamstring injury, Paul scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, forcing switches and punishing New Orleans’s big men with a procession of jumpers. In the closeout Game 6, he hit all 14 of his shots—a postseason record—finishing with 33 points and eight assists.
Yet there have been times when Paul, less than two weeks removed from his 37th birthday, has shown his age. In the final five games against the Mavericks, he was held to 13 points or fewer and turned the ball over, on average, 3.6 times. A master at manufacturing buckets, Paul also attempted just four free throws during that stretch.
To be fair, Paul has had to work for everything; Pelicans coach Willie Green, a Suns assistant last season, utilized professional pest Jose Alvarado to fluster the Point God, picking him up half- and sometimes full-court to wear him down. The Mavericks followed suit with Dorian Finney-Smith. But Paul hasn’t been able to summon his usual crunch-time magic. “It’s on me as the point guard, as the leader of the team to make sure we’re getting the right shots and all that,” Paul told reporters Sunday evening. “That is what it is.”
Paul is signed through the next three seasons, limiting any extreme roster moves. The Suns’ only answer, no matter how healthy or capable Paul plays next season, may be to cede the spotlight back to Booker.
Though Booker’s bubble run marked him for stardom, finally proving that he could be the driving force of a successful team, he welcomed Paul into the fold. The two share an agent, so when Paul got word that Phoenix was a serious suitor, he flew to Phoenix to hang out with Booker, got a tour of the desert. “We just hit it off, man,” Booker told me earlier in the postseason. “We both loved the game of basketball. Similar interests off the court.”
There was an instant bond. They say there was no concern over credit or the role of team leader.
“It’s not about it being my team, his team,” Paul told me recently. “He’s been here a lot longer than I have. At the end of the day, it’s about winning. All the other stuff doesn’t matter. So we both put our egos to the side every day. And we understand how much better we make each other, as well as the team.”
But Booker played one of his best stretches of his career when Paul was sidelined with a broken thumb, putting up 28 points on 52 percent shooting, along with seven assists. Some may have been surprised by Booker’s play without Paul to guide the team; Booker, of course, wasn’t.
“I think that was for everybody else, to be completely honest,” Booker told me recently. “I mean that this whole team knows what we’re capable of. I don’t want to say like before Chris got here, but we started something in the bubble, you know, with our coach here, in our team, where I know it wouldn’t be a problem and we’ve gotten better since then.”
By all accounts, Booker’s relationship with Paul remains strong. Though Paul’s domineering style has grated on his star teammates through 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 someday have another chapter to his career, where he reassumes the role of go-to player. And it’s fair to wonder how the dynamics will play out between him and Paul when he does take that role.
The most immediate concern, though, is Ayton. The no. 1 pick will be a restricted free agent this offseason, after he and the Suns were not able to come to terms on an extension in the fall. According to ESPN, Ayton sought a full max deal, like the ones signed by Luka Doncic and other standouts from the 2018 draft class, but the Suns wouldn’t acquiesce. Rumors also popped up around the trade deadline, indicating that Phoenix and the Pacers had discussed a swap of Ayton for Domantas Sabonis, who was later traded to the Kings.
Ayton powered through his uncertain future and also a midseason injury, finishing with career-high efficiency marks and continuing to develop into a presence on both ends, though the Suns were 18-6 without him, making do with a combination of journeymen McGee and Bismack Biyombo in his place. Ayton had similarly mixed results in the postseason: Ayton put up 28 points and 17 rebounds in Game 3 against the Pelicans and averaged 18 and nine over 13 games, yet he failed to dominate games in which opponents sized down in the frontcourt.
The Suns, with matching rights on any offer, still dictate Ayton’s future. But it’s possible another team with cap space like the Pistons swoops in and offers a four-year deal with a player option on the final year, allowing Ayton to walk three years from now, when he’ll be only 26.
“He’s a free agent, so I can’t talk about anything in the future,” Suns GM James Jones told me last month. “All I can say is that we’ve said, and I’ve said time and time again, I think DA is a really good player. And we believe in him and our job is to continue to help him grow, to be the player that he expects to be. And that hasn’t changed.”
But at a certain point, the decision also becomes about money, and any reasonable offer for Ayton will likely push the Suns into the luxury tax. Phoenix can also offer Booker a lucrative extension, and a rookie-contract extension to key reserve Cam Johnson. While owner Robert Sarver has indicated that he’s willing to go into the tax to keep the team together, his history of stinginess is well-documented, including declining to re-sign Joe Johnson and trading first-round draft picks to prioritize savings. The decision will be a real test of whether the franchise as a whole has changed its way.
All of the personnel decisions, though, pale in comparison to Sarver’s own status. Last fall, ESPN published an investigation that detailed a toxic workplace and accounts of racism and misogyny. “Not going to lie, we talk about it as a team,” Booker told me. But Booker also says the team has chosen to keep “everything in-house.” “Just staying together, man,” Bridges says. “That’s all it is. Just don’t worry about that. It’s just us out there.”
The NBA launched an investigation into the Suns soon after the story was published, but despite an ESPN report in March that stated more than 300 people have been interviewed, findings have yet to surface.
“I’m so in the moment, man, that, all that stuff that happened back then in the past and whatnot, it honestly has no relevance to right now,” Paul says. “I think that’s the best thing about me at this point in my life is that I control what I can control and whatever else is going on, it is what it is.”
Adds Jones, who released a statement in support of Sarver in October: “For me, it was just another challenge. And what you realize is that you just need you to lean on your teammates and having Monty, having our players, having the organization, the staff, and when you are with people you know their intentions and so, you genuinely have their support and their trust. It makes it easier for you to go out there and do your job because so many people depend on you doing your job at a high level.”
Despite an ugly ending to their banner season, the Suns should be able to maintain playing at a high level next season. But the decisions they make this offseason will likely decide how long they continue to do so.
“Our team has continued to progress and the hope is to keep the team together in the future,” Jones says. “But most importantly, the focus for us is now, because these things change quickly in this league and players improve quickly in this league and injuries happen. So trying to forecast what we look like in three or four years. Luck, guess work, so many different factors that come into it. Only thing you can do is live in a moment and plan for the near necessity.”