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Evaluating the fit between Chris Paul and Devin Booker in Phoenix

The two would be an awesome pairing if the Suns trade for Paul.

Houston Rockets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

So I guess James Jones reads Suns Twitter. After weeks of fans dreaming up Chris Paul trades and wondering if the Suns might get in on the Paul sweepstakes, a couple ESPN reporters broke the story last night that Phoenix and Oklahoma City had indeed been in discussions about Paul, which our own Dave King broke down here.

I’m not really interested in the machinations of how the deal goes down, because Dave explained it all, as did David Nash in his excellent newsletter. What I’m more concerned about his how the old man would fit with all the Suns’ young kids. That’s what I’m going to explore here, with the bottom line being that I think Paul is the perfect guy to help the Suns maintain the identity Monty Williams and Ricky Rubio infused them with on offense while also giving Devin Booker the best co-closer he’s ever had.

Paul and Booker would form one of the NBA’s best backcourts

The story of the 2019-20 season for Paul on the court was how he adjusted to a totally new situation as the brains behind the Thunder’s formidable three-guard lineup alongside Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Much of what allowed Paul to be effective in that role is also true of Phoenix.

To begin with, like Oklahoma City, the Suns have a defender in Mikal Bridges who could defend opposing ball-handlers and allow Paul to reserve his energy and make an impact as a team defender. That’s how Thunder coach Billy Donovan often used Gilgeous-Alexander, which meant Paul could be stationed in the corner defending away from the ball. Add in players like Jevon Carter or the 10th overall pick or even Devin Booker, and the Suns have enough options so that Paul would rarely be exhausting himself guarding a player like De’Aaron Fox or Luka Doncic.

The other part of Paul’s fit next to Booker is that Paul has developed into an elite spot-up three-point shooter since his days playing next to James Harden. Over the past four seasons (which also includes his final Clippers season), Paul has shot 44.4 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. As a point of comparison, Eric Bledsoe during his last full Suns season shot a mediocre 36.6 percent on spot-ups while sharing the ball with Booker. Though he has a ton of other, more obvious pluses, Paul would be the best shooting point guard Booker has ever played with.

One area in which last year’s Thunder differ from the Suns is their lack of a transition game. Paul tends to want to slow the game down, though his Rockets teams were about average in transition, so there’s recent history of Paul pushing the pace, too. But this is one area where I think the trade-off between Paul and Rubio is obvious. The Suns played fast because doing so minimizes the weaknesses in Rubio’s game and maximizes his strengths. With Paul at the helm, it would only be natural to lean more toward the halfcourt. Paul’s greatness has always been about his ability to completely dictate the terms of a basketball game, and so trusting him with managing that mix should be the least of the Suns’ concern.

The Suns’ crunch-time woes could be solved

Most importantly, Paul is an incredible closer, good enough to warrant getting some late-game shots. Even at age 34 last year on a team with Schroder and Danilo Gallinari, Paul had the 23rd-highest crunch-time usage rate in the NBA. That Thunder team was excellent closing close games out, and Paul had a plus-25.3 net rating in crunch time. Paul’s continued excellence late in games showed up in the playoffs as well, when Oklahoma City pushed Houston to seven games thanks in large part due to a few key comebacks.

It’s not just that Paul can be trusted to engineer a good possession in a tight game. For as long as he’s been in the NBA, Paul has known how to junk things up, force opponents into mistakes and foul trouble, and create game-changing plays. He’s the equivalent of the NFL special teams guy who forces a fumble or two per season that completely alters the course of the year for his team. Those types of plays are the ones you want to be on the right side of, and Paul gives you that advantage.

Last season, despite the Suns’ improvements and Booker’s clutch shot-making, there were many times when the team’s offense was bogged down late in games. Often, Rubio or Kelly Oubre Jr. were the secondary scorer on end-of-game possessions, which occasionally worked out but is not the way you want an offense to function if the goal is the playoffs. Booker and the Suns will trust Paul far more to knock down a shot off a kick-out from Booker or run a pick-and-roll than they did Rubio or Oubre.

Leadership and mentorship stay in place

One of the less important but worthwhile parts of Rubio’s presence on the roster was that he was a genuine leader for the team and someone whom the Suns could trust to mentor their young guards, including potentially the player they draft at No. 10 this season. This is why I had been hesitant to fully endorse many possible trades this season that involved Rubio, such as sending him to the Warriors to fill their traded player exception.

Paul, on the other hand, brings many of the same qualities, as well as an overall respectability for the franchise that has been lacking since Steve Nash left. Paul has always struck me as very much a no-nonsense player, which is exactly how Booker, Williams and James Jones operate as well. It may not be ideal in his mind to end up on another building team, but Paul will demand the respect of teammates, fans and opponents. If the Suns do draft a point guard or stick with the Cameron Payne/Ty Jerome combo, it would be hard for those qualities not to rub off from Paul to those young players.

Overall, Paul brings many of the same qualities that made Rubio so valuable to the Suns with a greater dose of shot creation and leadership than Rubio provided. From the perspective of fitting Booker and the rest of the Suns’ backcourt, this trade is a no-brainer.

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