Chris Paul is still getting used to all this. The shifting role. The new superstar teammate. And sometimes, frankly, the disregard. In a regular-season game against the Orlando Magic last month, Paul brought the ball up and jogged into a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor—the kind he’s run thousands of times in his 18-year NBA career. It was an especially ordinary moment in an especially ordinary game, at least until Paul stepped behind the screen to find something strange: No defender had bothered to follow him.
“It was a deep ball screen,” Paul says. “And they went under it like I couldn’t shoot.”
Maybe Orlando’s youth had gotten the best of it, or rookie Paolo Banchero—who had picked up Paul in transition on the play—made an honest mistake while defending outside his usual position. But why hadn’t the Magic guards scrambled back to prevent one of the best of all time from walking, uncontested, into his bread and butter? Had no one read the scouting report? Or watched any of the 1,345 games in which Paul weaved his way through the action, orchestrating entire possessions to get off just that sort of midrange jumper?
It’s a small thing, but defenses tell you, on possessions like that one, what kind of priority you are. And since the Phoenix Suns traded for Kevin Durant back in February, Paul has been checked by lesser defenders, pressured less often, and generally left to his own devices as opponents trip over themselves to double Durant and contain Devin Booker. “I was talking to [former NBA player] Rip Hamilton about this—our sons work out together in L.A.,” Paul says. “And we were just talking about getting used to being open. That’s an adjustment.”
Paul has spent nearly two decades carving out looks in close quarters against defenses tailored specifically to stop him. Yet in the 10 total games that Durant has played in a Suns uniform thus far, a whopping 75 percent of Paul’s shot attempts have been classified as either “open” or “wide open,” according to data from NBA.com. By his eighth game with Durant, Paul—who previously ran point for the most eager 3-point-shooting team in the history of the league—found himself so open so often that he set a new regular-season best for 3s made in a game.
It’s a brave new world. Durant, Booker, and Paul—the principal members of the NBA’s latest superteam—are learning how to play off of one another in the heat of a deadlocked first-round series against the Clippers. And often, that means it’s on Paul to find the best ways to contribute from the margins, bringing Phoenix’s whole operation together. It’s not always perfect. It’s not always fluid. Yet even the in-process Suns are tough to beat, as those three stars seem to create quality looks from the very fact of their existence. No matter how skilled or talented or cohesive their opponents might be, reckoning with Durant and Booker will surrender some golden opportunities to Paul.
In his 18 seasons, Paul has never played on a team with this much firepower. He’s never had it so easy. And all it’s cost him, for the privilege, is the ball—and the level of control that allowed him to become the Point God in the first place.
Long before the Suns traded for Durant, they began easing Paul, who will turn 38 in May, into what would become the lowest-usage role of his career. The goal for Phoenix was to set a new creative balance—a more sustainable balance, after squandering series leads against the Mavericks and Bucks in the past two postseasons. It was also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that Paul, for all his brilliance, needs more help in the day-to-day lift of running a team than he used to.
“For us at this point, the regular season is about building for the long run,” Paul told reporters after a win in November. “Just game to game, trying to figure out what can last—so when we get into playoff series, to make it so it doesn’t matter who we play against. We just have a way that we’re gonna play.”
Those efforts started with the conscious choice to have Paul—who would be hounded by every wannabe Jose Alvarado out there—bring up the ball less often. Some of that responsibility fell to Booker, then-Sun Mikal Bridges, some occasional role players, and now Durant. They organized the offense, settled into the pick-and-roll game, and scanned the floor for the right read. Meanwhile, the career point guard made his peace with being a bit less of one, and playing an instrument where he had once played the whole orchestra.
In the early stages of the season, Paul—who was bothered by a heel injury—labored to create any kind of separation when he attacked off the dribble in this evolving role. He struggled to get his shot off over longer defenders, and at a listed 6 feet, almost every defender Paul came up against had size and reach to spare. Those frustrations made him even more reliant on gamesmanship; his impact as a scorer was reduced in those first months to the few clean shots he could find and whatever contact he could bait out. But was that the role itself, or a veteran showing his age? There is barely any precedent for a player Paul’s size contributing even this much at this point in his career, which makes sense; once a guard loses a step, the league tends to devour them. Paul is far too resourceful for that, but you could see him fighting for space and angles this season in ways he never really had to before. All of it made for a pretty messy transition, though even that couldn’t stop one of the game’s shrewdest playmakers from ranking near the top of the league in assists.
The redefined role, however, turned out to be a moving target. Paul returned from his heel injury in December only for Booker to strain his groin a few days later. Booker rejoined the lineup in February only for the Suns to swing their blockbuster trade for Durant—while KD himself was still sidelined by an MCL sprain. Once Durant joined the Suns on the floor, he lasted all of three games before turning his ankle in a layup line. The most common starting lineup for the Suns opened just 11 games all season. For contrast, the top-seeded Nuggets—who had their fair share of injuries—played their full, preferred starting five in 41 games. Every change in the lineup for Phoenix, every variation, required something different of Paul.
“I would imagine because he is a point guard and because he watches so many games, he understands the skill set of a lot of players,” Suns coach Monty Williams says. “But at the same time, I think it’s been hard for him to get a rhythm with our group this year because we have had so many injuries.”
This year’s Suns never really had the chance to figure out who they were, which meant Paul never quite nailed down the player he was supposed to be. That evolution went along at its own pace until—with the dramatic midseason addition of Durant—it suddenly couldn’t.
Trading for a superstar like Durant is a seismic decision—not only because of the talented players and draft picks Phoenix gave up in the deal, but for the way it depletes the functional depth of the roster (just look at the minutes the Suns’ stars are logging against the Clippers) and throws off the logistical balance of how other players are supposed to go about their jobs.
Contending teams almost never make a deal of that magnitude so late in the season because of the way it obliterates the margin for error. Most contenders, however, don’t have a strategist like Paul. It’s an incredible luxury to have one of the game’s great thinkers on the floor in any context, to the point that the Suns made the trade for Durant in part because they trusted that Paul could find a way to make it work.
Playing him off the ball, however, has meant removing Paul from his frame of reference, complicating not just the moves he makes but the way he reads the floor. When the ball swings his way, there isn’t time or room for Paul to control every variable in the way he would like. It’s not really necessary for him to scheme out the full chain of cause and effect, five moves in advance—and in some cases, it can be counterproductive to try. No one wins if Paul tries to manage the offense the way he did in his younger years, wearing down within games and through series for the sake of running every possession to his standards. The Suns are asking him to do less, but that’s a lot to ask Chris Freaking Paul.
It’s not as if Booker wasn’t handling the ball before, and Paul obviously has experience working from the wings from his time alongside James Harden in Houston. Even during his stopover in Oklahoma City, Paul stepped aside some to make three-guard lineups viable. In Phoenix, Paul still has plenty of opportunities to run the point and get into the pick-and-roll—only on new terms. Now, possessions swing to him. It’s the difference between creating an advantage and taking one. Playing with two high-usage, do-everything stars like Durant and Booker has triangulated Paul into the simplest and most difficult role of his career.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Paul says. “It’s not like I don’t wanna do this. I’m excited about it. I’m excited about it. Because when you’re around great players—and two of the best players there are—it’s gonna push you. It’s gonna motivate you.” And, ultimately, it’s going to change you.
On a mechanical level, Paul has worked on setting his feet and readying his hands before the ball ever comes his way, to shave fractions of a second off a quick jumper or a first move. “You have to prepare for it,” he says. Moreover: You have to resist the inner point guard, and the want to slow down, to survey, to calculate. Paul doesn’t have the kind of relationship with his jumper where he’s going to let it fly on every catch, but he’s finding alternatives that allow him to play a version of his game. Spotting up in the corner can turn into an immediate drive into a rotating defense, where Paul runs interference while setting up Booker for an easy look:
There’s an urgency for Paul to make a move on the catch, but there’s still room within that for all sorts of smaller manipulations. Look at the way he dismisses Eric Gordon with a twitch of a pass fake and baits Nicolas Batum off his feet just by looking at the rim—dislodging an entire side of the Clippers’ zone defense in less than a second.
Paul is an engineer at heart, consumed with systems and the basketball components that make them work. Yet within the balance of how the Suns are trying to play, he isn’t responsible for every phase of the offense. At this point of his career, he shouldn’t be. Paul doesn’t need to track which role player has gone a few possessions without a touch and then manipulate the action to get them an open shot. He doesn’t have to micromanage a place for every player, with every player in his place.
“From a basketball standpoint,” Paul says, “with the best teams that win—even those good Golden State teams—everything is reactive.”
Phoenix might not have a single orchestrator for every possession or the lived-in chemistry of a team that’s been together for years, but simply having three stars who can break down a defense, read the floor, and facilitate for one another ensures that a lot of the offense rolls downhill anyway. What makes the Suns a bit erratic now is the same thing that makes them terrifying: They don’t really try to work toward predetermined outcomes. “We’ve always felt like the game dictates where the ball goes,” Williams says. “If they’re playing in a blitz coverage, then [Deandre Ayton is] probably gonna get the ball. If they’re in a drop and they pack the paint, the second side is open. A lot of it is coverage-based. We try not to say where we’re gonna go. I think that can constrict the offense.”
Good teams have plans. Great teams have options. There will inevitably be times when the Suns deviate from those intentions, and dump the ball down to Durant on the block with their Hall of Fame point guard operating as the world’s most overqualified entry passer. And there will be plenty of possessions—especially against a switchable, adaptive opponent—when the search for the best organic shot will turn up nothing but a desperate attempt at the shot-clock buzzer. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue explained during a sideline interview that he had scrambled his own team into some counterintuitive defensive matchups specifically because the Suns on the floor had barely played together and might not have the familiarity or communication to handle it.
Some of that is the bargain that Phoenix struck in acquiring Durant with just a few months left in the season, and the bad luck the team fell into when a tweaked ankle cut that time even shorter. But every game out, Paul and his teammates will have to find themselves in the flow all over again, often at the cost of what’s most familiar to them.
Paul has navigated games in essentially the same way for the better part of two decades: by setting up his teammates in the first three quarters, and taking over as a scorer in the fourth. The formula was stark enough that it became a template for point guards and playmakers at all levels of the sport, and Paul’s peers in the league will often cop to the fact that they modeled their approach after his.
This season has been different. Paul made some huge plays to help close out Game 2, but doesn’t always wrest control the way he used to. He picks his spots carefully. He sets up triggers for Booker, and now Durant. Paul’s usage rate in the fourth quarter this season (22.7) was essentially as low as it’s ever been—edged out only by his last, frustrating season with New Orleans in 2011. And even after Paul held off the Clippers with a series of all-too-familiar midrange jumpers on Tuesday, his fourth-quarter usage overall in this series (18.2) is even lower still. Some of those opportunities are inevitably swallowed up by the difficulties of the matchup and Phoenix’s ongoing efforts to find itself.
“But you’re willing to do those different types of things,” Paul says, “for the betterment of the team.”
With every passing year, it only gets more challenging for an aging, undersized guard to carry the weight of an offense for an entire season. To run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll for months on end. To make space when it counts, every time, and to deliver on difficult shots at the same historically anomalous rate Paul always had. That’s not even what Phoenix needs anymore—not when Paul is flanked by two of the most complete scorers in the league, and an immensely talented young big in Ayton who can help take the pressure off. The formula is shifting.
“I think there’s gonna be games where he’s gotta come out and be aggressive early because of the way they’re gonna guard Book and Kevin,” Williams says. “Then there’s gonna be games where those guys come out firing, and he’s on the second side. Then, there’s gonna be games where in the fourth quarter, he just has one of those Chris moments.”
He certainly will. But after a basketball lifetime of steering possessions exactly as he wanted them to go, Paul is learning how he fits when the game itself sets the terms. Everything is reactive in Phoenix, down to the way the stars align.