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Suns Player Previews: Chris Paul is playing chess while others play checkers

So begins season 17 for the Point God.

2021 NBA Finals - Phoenix Suns v. Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the 2021-22 Phoenix Suns Season Preview series, starting with individual PLAYER PREVIEWS. We go through the roster, recapping last year and analyzing how they can help the Suns in their upcoming championship push.

The Bright Side team has been powering through player previews in preparation for the upcoming season. We continue the series off with observations on the player who not only impacted the Suns the most the previous season, but is the eldest player rostered.

His impact on the Phoenix Suns organization and their reputation has changed the tide for the franchise. Just two short years ago, prior to the season that culminated with the Bubble Suns, Phoenix was a desolate landscape in regards to star power (outside of the homegrown Devin Booker) and free agent player interest. We were the punchline to a joke, with stories of goats and barbershop Tweets being the topics of discussion.

And then Chris Paul came to town.

You’ve heard the saying that he is playing chess while others are playing checkers. Like Inception, he’s playing the game within the game within the game. This season he is looking for another chance to outsmart the league and put the Larry O’Brien Trophy in check mate.

Chris Paul

Point Guard, 6’0” tall, 175 pounds, 36 years old

Recap

I am one of the ones who, when the rumors began swirling around Chris Paul to the Phoenix Suns last offseason, was wary of the possibility. After all, the Suns had just completed an 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble with Ricky Rubio playing point. Why acquire an aging point guard with an annual price tag that nearly matches the cost of 11490 Orum Road (go ahead, click the link).

Why should the Suns allocate their funds on Chris Paul rather than focus on improving other roster needs? CP3 showed us why in 2020-21.

Chris Paul navigated a trade to the Suns and changed the trajectory of the franchise. He put together an All-Star season and assisted on more than just baskets. His leadership is damn near unquantifiable. His affect on the likes of Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker allowed both to continue to grow as players, and while both didn’t have their best statistical seasons, both experienced something they never had while in the NBA. Winning.

He led the team to the second-best record in the league — 51-21 — and marched the Suns through the Western Conference playoffs, sometimes doing so with one shoulder. When he needed the team the most, as he had to watch the first two games of the Western Conference from his home in Los Angeles with COVID, the team responded.

The team won the Western Conference and there will forever be a banner hanging in the Footprint Center to remind us of Chris Paul and his efforts.

He ended the season with regular season averages of 16.4 points, 8.9 assists, and 4.5 rebounds in 31.4 minutes — a career low. There was no load management for CP3, even at age 36. Paul did so by playing in 70 of the team’s 72 games and, like so many other aspects of his game, defied many of our expectations.

Chris Paul ended the season as an All-NBA Second Team recipient.

  • Overall grade as an NBA player: A-
  • Relative grade to preseason expectations: A+

Contract details

Paul signed a four-year/$120,000,000 contract ($75 million guaranteed) with Phoenix and is owed $30,800,000 in the 2021-22 season.


Weaknesses

The clear weakness in Chris Paul’s game is his athleticism.

He’s 36 — and will be 37 before the season is over — and is not someone who can beat you off the dribble with his first move. You won’t find him blowing by wing defenders for easy layups. He’s not running the fastbreak consistently. Paul uses pace to his advantage now because he can’t play fast.

Due to this he posted a career low in steals-per-game last season (1.4). He’s not jumping passing lanes with the same ferocity that he once did. His defense is not what it used to be either. The 11-time All-Star had his worst defensive rating of his career (111), a far cry from the 102 he posted with the Clippers in 2012-13.

Strengths

So he can’t beat you with speed or athleticism, right? But he can murder you with his elite NBA mind.

CP3 is rewarding Ayton for a great defensive play on one end by setting him up on the other. He knows this fortifies the defensive play of Ayton. He’s coaching his teammates in different ways, showing his mastery of understanding how people learn (visual, kinetic, auditory, reading).

You will see him beat players off the dribble, and that will occur when he navigates and manipulates the defense to give him the matchup he desires. Following a screen that leads to a switch, with a big on Paul, he salivates and how he’s going to take the defender to school.

He might not be the defender he used to be, but he knows that Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton have his back. He can take a chance here or there knowing that the rim is protected.

He might not be the player he used to be physically. But few can challenge him mentally and in real-time on an NBA court.


ONE KEY FACTOR

Health remains the main factor for Chris Paul.

He was hampered throughout the playoffs and ultimately the team lost in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks. Part of this was due to CP3’s wear and tear. Days after the season ended, Paul had surgery on his left wrist.

The debate will occur all season as to whether the Suns should give Paul rest in hopes that he will be fresh for the postseason. You won’t be able to pull the “load management” card on CP3, however. He isn’t playing out his career willingly watching from the bench. As long as Monty manages his minutes, much like he did last season, Paul will be successful.


Prediction Time

Paul is hungry to return to the NBA Finals, commenting that, “Now that I’ve got a taste of what that experience is like, I’m sort of addicted.” He wants another shot at a title and Suns’ GM James Jones has constructed a roster around him to help achieve that goal.

Although I don’t know if Paul will be an All-Star or All-NBA player again this season, I do believe that his leadership will once again be paramount for the Suns’ success. Across the board, the team possesses postseason experience and Jones added three-time NBA Champion JaVale McGee to the mix as well. It is up to Paul to lead this team to a repeat appearance in the NBA Finals.

My expectations for Paul are a “B+”, as well they should be. This team will go as Chris Paul goes. His role as primary distributor and wily veteran leader will determine whether or not he has an opportunity to play for another title.

Check mate?