When the Phoenix Suns acquired 10-time All Star Chris Paul in a player-driven trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder last offseason, everyone in the Arizona desert was ecstatic. At least that’s how they will remember it from now on, anyway.
But no one, not one person without ‘Paul’ as a last name, thought the 36-year old could win the league MVP trophy in 2021. Yet, six months later the Suns have the league’s 2nd best record at 43-18. They are a virtual lock for home court advantage in the 2021 NBA playoffs after a 10-season drought and are a strong contender to at least make the Western Conference Finals.
And the only major rotation change from last year’s 10th place team is Chris Paul.
Sounds like an extremely valuable player to me.
The Most Valuable Player is a regular season award, and there are only 11 games left to make the case. If somehow the Suns end up with the league’s very best record (they are only 1 game behind the league-leading Jazz with one matchup remaining after all), he just might pull a Nash and spirit away the MVP trophy from the league’s most dominant big man.
I know you think this is a crazy talk. Even Suns fans reading this article are more skeptical than optimistic.
Paul isn’t even on anyone’s ‘MVP tracker’ to this point and the regular season is almost over. Heck, just as many people believe Paul isn’t even the MVP of his own team, let alone the league.
But Paul should be at least a dark-horse favorite for league MVP this season. Allow me to lay out the reasons.
The only big rotation difference
Look at the Suns roster. The only significant rotation upgrade from a team that finished 10th in the West last year is Chris Paul.
With all respect to the beloved basketball Jesus, even Ricky Rubio would tell you he’s no Chris Paul. With Rubio running the show, the Suns were 34-39. With Paul, the Suns are ______, almost doubling their win percentage.
Everyone else in the rotation is about the same. Let’s take a look at the rotation year over year, in order of 2020-21 minutes played.
You can make the case that the upgrade from Elie Okobo to Cameron Payne at backup point guard has been a difference-maker, and you’d be right. But then the relative downgrade of Kelly Oubre Jr. to Jae Crowder, effectively, evens that up.
You can also make the case that organic year-over-year improvement of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson has played a huge part in the Suns surge and you’d be right again, but you can also recognize that Chris Paul has contributed to that improvement. CP3 has shown a lot of tough love to Ayton, and showed him how easy it can be to score in the pick-and-roll as long as he rolls hard and catches with authority. Bridges and Johnson have improved as well, at least in part due to Paul and Booker attracting the attention of the defense.
The Suns are third in the NBA in ‘open’ shots per game (closest defender 4-6 feet away), with most of those in the two-point area dominated by Paul, Booker and Ayton (and now sometimes Bridges). They are also 11th in ‘wide open’ threes per game. The team ranks 9th in the league in accuracy, with 10 (TEN!!!) rotation players converting higher than league average on those shots. The team as a whole ranks 5th in effective field goal percentage (which gives extra credit to threes) and 4th in true shooting (which adds free throws too).
Another deep dive stat: Chris Paul has been one of the league’s best clutch players for years, and this year the Suns are 20-11 in the clutch this season — game score within 5 points in the final 5 minutes — compared to 16-21 a year ago. And that includes 10 straight wins in such games after start where he and Booker struggled to find their perfect pairing for a bit.
The impact he’s had on the players
Twenty-two year old center Deandre Ayton is two years younger than anyone else in the Suns rotation and often acted like it. Chris Paul has been hard on Ayton all season, constantly in the big man’s ear on what he did wrong and what he can do better. We’ve often wondered how Ayton would hold up to the barrage, but Ayton has grown leaps and bounds as the season progressed.
“He really brings the best out of people, competitively, to be honest,” Ayton says of Paul. “He wants the best for you and he’s gonna talk to you and teach you and it’s just how much of a player you are to be bought in or coachable.”
The Suns incumbent star player, Devin Booker, could have taken Paul’s overbearing style in a negative fashion because Booker’s role is much more traditional shooting guard this year rather than combo guard. But instead, Booker has treated this pairing with total respect and admiration.
“For me being a fan of this game for so long,” he says. “I’m inspired every day. I tell Chris that every day. It’s something I’m not gonna take for granted. I pick his brain. I listen to him closely. I watch all his moves. When he’s not talking or leading us, I just watch how he goes about his business. I have so much respect for him.”
A year ago, the Suns ranked 17th out of 30 teams on defense compared to 5th overall this year. That was up from almost worst in the league the year before Monty Williams, but still below league average.
And again, Chris Paul is the main rotation player difference. Paul is getting older, but he’s got a long long history of playing great defense including being named to 9 All-Defense teams.
The Phoenix Suns have not had an above-average defense in 14 years, and have not had a defense as good as this one — relative to the rest of the league, which takes out the noise of rules changes and player performance across the whole league — in at least 20 years. You have to go back to the Jason Kidd years to find a defense as relatively good as this year’s.
The Suns do it by taking away the other team’s best shots. They give up the 10th fewest shots in the restricted area at the rim and second-fewest corner threes in the league, which just happen to be the most desirable shots for a team to take. And when teams DO get those good shots, they make them below league average rate. Oh, and the Suns allow the second-fewest assists per game, which tells you they force the opponent into one-on-one drives that end in a (bad) shot attempt.
Long history of getting MVP votes
Paul has finished in the top seven of MVP votes in 8 times in his career, including seasons where teammates got votes as well.
Just last year, Paul got votes for carrying the Thunder to the playoffs despite their whole organization expecting to tank for high draft picks.
Now this year, this Suns team is one of the best of his whole career. And they wouldn’t be contenders without Paul at the helm.
In a new-ish stat, Chris Paul has an Estimated Plus/Minus of +2.2 this year, placing him in the 88th percentile among all NBA players. His more traditional advanced numbers include a team-high 7.5 win shares (tied for 8th in the league) and top-20 rankings in most of the other categories.
In his own words
“Everyone always talks about what I can teach Booker, or these other guys,” Paul said recently. “But they can teach me at the same time. I’m not James Naismith by any means.”
Paul has given dozens of media interviews since joining the Suns, and each one has been more about his teammates than about himself. He’s risen to 5th all-time in steals and assists this season, is top-five in assists per game and has multiple game-winning plays this season.
But he has not made this season about himself. He’s the MVP of the Suns in a way that allows Booker and Ayton to still feel like the team depends just as much on them as it does on Paul.
In short, he has not sucked the life out of the rest of the team even while transforming the team into a perfect Chris Paul iteration of basketball. Steady the place (bottom third of league), protect the ball (fourth most assists, fifth fewest turnovers, best assist ratio) and make winning plays (20-11 in the clutch).
Charles Barkley, in his first year with the Suns, won the MVP with the Suns for 1992-93 season in which he led the team to the league’s best record. Steve Nash, in his first year returning to the Suns, won the MVP with the Suns for the 2004-05 in which he led the team to the league’s best record.
Now it might be Chris Paul’s turn if he can do the same.
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