The rise of player empowerment in the NBA wasn’t a triumph against team control, but against time. Every season of a player’s career is precious, a fleeting moment along a terminal line. Yet because of league rules, a drafted player often has little formal power over where they live and play for the first seven-plus years of their career. Chris Paul twice managed to reclaim some sovereignty through the threat of his free agency—first in 2011 to instigate a trade to the Clippers, and again in 2017 to engineer his move to the Rockets. But even that run, which gave Paul the chance to contend with two franchises of his choosing, found the limits of his input when he was traded off to a transitional Oklahoma City team at age 34, a move Paul equated to being stabbed in the back.
Paul’s career could have languished in OKC beneath one of basketball’s most cumbersome contracts. Instead, he rode an All-NBA season and a successful partnership with the Thunder back into a fitting final act. Chris Paul will soon join the Phoenix Suns—another team of his choosing, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski—in a trade that will send Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., two other young players, and a future first-round pick to the Thunder. Paul will arrive on the scene of another guard coming into his power; the transparent reasoning for an up-and-coming Phoenix team to acquire a twilit star like Paul is to prevent their own franchise player, Devin Booker, from following his example to punch a ticket out of town. Paul is a living assurance—an indication to Booker that the Suns can find the talent they need to go places. Phoenix, in kind, can energize the waning years of a superstar career.
Where other teams might have offered Paul his best opportunity to win a title, the Suns can make the best possible use of his talents. Paul can be instrumental but not overtaxed; in pursuit, even if not strictly in, championship contention. Aging out of superstardom means needing a bit more. There was a time when Paul could dominate the ball all season long and propel a team well into the playoffs. These days, he needs young guns to share the work of the initial 82 (or 72, in this abbreviated season) and some independent shot creators for when his dancing off the dribble doesn’t shake the way it used to. Spacing—particularly at the 4—is more important for Paul now than ever. Peak CP guided passes through the maze of defenders between Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The 2020 model needs all the room he can get to snake through pick-and-rolls and slowly tease out an angle. Phoenix, even in its rise, can offer Paul all of this—along with the sort of bigs who can build off his creativity.
What limited the market for Paul’s services was the difficulty of matching his salary without gutting the roster in the process. The Suns managed to walk that line with this particular deal, retaining not only their core young players but the no. 10 pick in this week’s draft. It’s not only Booker and Deandre Ayton who open up new possibilities for Paul as a Sun, but Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, too. It shouldn’t be hard for Paul to strike the right balance in accommodating all of the above, considering the pliability he showed in Oklahoma City. Paul ranked fifth on the Thunder in frontcourt touches last season, where he actively deferred to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder to initiate offense, and cleared lanes for Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams to flex their games.
In its own way, this is a developmental trade. Adding Paul to an already-promising Suns team will allow Booker and Ayton to explore their starring skill sets without the boring, administrative work of running a team. Working with Paul isn’t always a picnic, but it sure beats the alternative of Booker feeling he has to micromanage possessions just to get a clean look. A big like Ayton, who can already do a bit of everything, could find new clarity in working with a point guard as precise as Paul. Any Lob City–style bump in efficiency seems almost ancillary; the right veteran can work as scaffolding around a young player while they build out the particulars of their game. Paul offers that level of support and structure while also clearing a path. The baseline competence of Rubio all but transformed the Suns. What happens when the same starting lineup that featured Rubio—the one that posted a plus-15.2 net rating while sweeping its eight seeding games in the bubble—swaps him out for a point guard who replicates all of his strengths but can actually shoot?
Phoenix was eager to find just that sort of player, which explains the urgency of Paul’s arrival. It’s a wonderful thing, to be needed. On the Thunder, Paul proved he could make even a flawed roster dangerous. His new team is more capable but less certain; the Suns are still figuring out how to leverage the balance of their roster for possessions at a time, much less games and playoff series. Paul will help those possessions find their level—in fact, he’ll insist upon it. In retrospect, it’s perfect that the Suns found a new mode of professionalism last season under head coach Monty Williams, even if they had to learn some hard lessons in the process. A team that’s already receptive to Williams’s way of life will be more receptive to Paul’s, in part because Williams had the challenge of coaching Paul with the Hornets, his first season at the head of the bench. “[Paul] really pushed me to be better,” Williams reflected last December, “because I knew I had to be sharp with him.” Now the two will forge a new working relationship from entirely different circumstances—with a franchise that has been waiting for Paul rather than dreading he might leave.
Paul’s contract creates a two-year opportunity for the Suns to compete without feeling beholden to his timeline. Life will continue for Phoenix after that deal expires; even if Paul decides to leave, his window with the Suns—and the potential it demonstrates—could pry open the next. Phoenix has long been a fascinating potential destination for NBA stars, contingent on the franchise getting itself in order. That proved to be a longer-term project than anticipated, considering that the Suns have managed just one winning season in a decade. A few more, along with the momentum of Booker’s rise and the emergence of Ayton and Bridges, could bring about a sea change in the desert. Some of that might have been possible without Paul, but his savvy catalyzes the process. His arrival is effectively a restructuring of the Suns as we knew them—a one-man streamlining that will take the ball out of the hands of lesser players and take some pressure off of Booker and Ayton.
Paul just played one of the best seasons ever for a guard his age. The hope for Phoenix is that he might help build something that outlasts even the productive years he has left—its own kind of legacy, even without a ring.