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Monty’s management of Chris Paul’s minutes: the game within the game

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Injuries are beginning to plague other contenders in the West. Can Monty avoid over-working CP3?

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Sacramento Kings v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Imagine you trade away your PlayStation 3 for a vintage Nintendo Entertainment System. As much as you appreciated the serviceable PS3, it was time to move on from it as you were never going to get the full gaming satisfaction you thought you would. Who has a PS3 anymore any ways? Instead you spark a deal and exchange it and for a classic in return. The NES comes with all of the games you cherished as a young one (I know, I am dating myself): Contra, Excitebike, and the time-honored Mario Bros.

There’s one catch: if you overplay that NES, it will break, as will all of your gaming dreams.

This is the challenge presented to Monty Williams at the beginning of the 2020-21 NBA season. Suns’ General Manager liked his PS3 (Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre) but wanted the classic NES (Chris Paul). He struck a deal that brought Paul to Phoenix and handed the management of his workload to head coach Monty Williams. Don’t let him overheat!

When the deal occurred in November the primary concern was Chris Paul’s age and health. I wrote a piece titled, “The case against the Suns trading for Chris Paul” on November 11. In that article I made that argument against the 35 year-old point guard joining the team, citing productivity relative to age at his position in NBA history:

If history has shown us anything it is that 35 years-old is a line of demarcation for distributors. Chris Paul has averaged and impressive 9.5 assists-per-game in his career. How many players have averaged more than 9.0 assists-per-game at 35 or older? It has happened five times: Jason Kidd (9.1) in ’09-’10, LeBron James (10.2) this past season, and Steve Nash three times (10.7 in ’11-’12, 11.0 in ’09-’10, and 11.4 in ’10-’11). Compare that to the 14 players who averaged over 9.0 assists-per-game between the age of 30-35 and the fact is Chris Paul may be past his assisting prime.

It feels fantastic to be wrong.

Is he averaging 9.0+ assists a game? No. But 8.8 isn’t too far off, now is it? His productivity this season is something fans should not only appreciate but admire. What he is doing thus far this season is borderline historic. CP3 is still playing with same effort and tenacity of his younger years while guiding his team to the second best record in the NBA. And he is doing it in less minutes-per-game.

Per BBall Index, his 1.7 steals-per-75-possesions puts him in the 97%tile. Credit his “pick pocket rating” — an estimate of how active a defender is on-ball with steals — being in the 90%tile.

His true usage rate — an estimate of usage that incorporates tracking data to better measure true contribution to the offense — is 20.4%. That is in the 98%tile of the league.

Not only has he guided this team to a 40-15 record, he has done so missing a total of one game. One. Game.

Could this be an area of concern? I also chronicled his recent injury history following a broken hand in April of 2016:

4/25/16: fractured right hand (out for season)

10/16/16: sprained left thumb

12/23/16: strained left hamstring

1/17/17: torn ligament in left thumb

10/18/17: bruised left knee

12/21/17: strained left adductor

1/30/18: sore right groin

3/22/18: sore left hamstring

5/25/18: strained right hamstring (playoffs vs. Warriors)

11/24/18: left leg injury

12/20/18: strained left hamstring

I hope I am wrong again.

Jamal Murray went down for the season earlier this week. Earlier today, in a matinee game vs. the Pacers, Jazz star Donovan Mitchell sprained his ankle. Prayers up for both. Are the minutes too much for Chris Paul right now or are we doomed to a similar fate?

The fear of burning CP3 out before the playoffs begin has been ever-present. Monty Williams has to be cognizant of Paul’s minutes played just like those who traded their PS3 for a Nintendo. Too many minutes played could equate to fizzling out at level 6-3.

Kellan Olson, who does a stellar job for ArizonaSports.com, brought up the minutes that Paul has been playing recently during the victory over the Kings last night:

The Suns could afford it.

Chris Paul is currently averaging 31.6 minutes-per-game. It is the third lowest in his 16 seasons in the NBA; only 2016-17 with the Los Angeles Clippers (31.5) and last season with OKC (31.5) being lower. Compared to other point guards in the league, he is in the 68%tile in minutes. The wear and tear isn’t prevalent as he sitting nearly a third of each game.

Seeing as we are 55 games into the season, here is how Monty has deployed Paul through 5 different iterations of the Suns’ season:

  • Games 1-11: 31.6 minutes
  • Games 12-22: 33.2 minutes
  • Games 23-33: 31.2 minutes
  • Games 34-44: 31.0 minutes
  • Games 45-55: 30.8 minutes

Monty Williams’ job managing the Paul minutes has been superb. 18 times this season he has played less than 30 minutes. Phoenix is 17-1 in those games.

Twice in Paul’s career (2016-17 with the Clippers and 2018-19 with the Rockets) he has played less than 30 minutes in 20 games. He should exceed that metric this year.

As Kellan referenced above, Chris Paul has been playing less over the last 4 games, averaging 26.8 minutes. As the end of the season is in sight and the playoffs loom over the horizon, the work that Paul put in earlier on in the season is paying off. The teaching. The coaching. The guidance. He took the time and invested in the growth of his teammates and the payoff is rest down the stretch.

What has allowed Monty the choice to sit Paul for longer stretches is the productivity of his bench. The depth of the Phoenix Suns and their guard play, from Cameron Payne to Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway to the not-often-seen E’Twaun Moore, not only provides options for Monty to turn to, it provides stability.

Cameron Payne has logged the most minutes in his career and has an assist/turnover ratio of 3.6. That is 7th among all bench players who have appeared in 30+ games. Who is number one on that list? Jevon Carter, who has an assist/turnover ratio of 6.5.

The Suns bench shoots 38.0% from three, 5th best in the league. Their +/- of 2.7 is tops in the Association. In short: Chris Paul isn’t needed on the court to carry this team. The roster that James Jones created has the ability to hold down the fort in Paul’s absence. The bench production sustains scoring and defense while he is on the sideline drinking his secret stuff.

It will be interesting to see how and when Monty deploys Paul through the final 17 games of the season. Tough matchups lie ahead and the Suns will be priming themselves for the playoffs.

The final chapter of this season is far from being penned. We do not know how this fairytale season is going to end. We hope and pray for the health of this team, knowing that the Suns will go as far as Chris Paul is physically able to take them.

Monty is continuing to find the balance necessary to win games whilst managing Paul’s minutes. It’s as if he is entering the code for unlimited Chris Paul lives: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A and Start.