Even before he exited Monday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers with heel soreness, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul has finally started to really look his 37 years of age.
That’s not meant as a slight of Paul, who is an all-time great and who is still playing basketball at the highest level on earth at an age when most NBA players have been retired for two or three years already.
But the cracks in CP3s armor are appearing early this year, and it might be a good reason for concern among Suns fans hoping for another shot at the NBA finals this season.
To be very clear: Paul is still playing outstanding basketball in some ways. His 15.5 assists and 2.5 turnovers per 100 possessions through 10 games are what would be (if they held up all year) the best of his very impressive career.
His defensive metrics still suggest he’s a positive contributor on that side of the court too, and the 2.8 steals per 100 he is producing right now are in line with last season.
But as a scorer, he has fallen to Earth in a very big way. Through these 10 games, Paul is shooting only 37% from the field and only 27% from deep. This despite taking a higher percentage of assisted shots than he has in his entire career.
His three-point shot attempt rate of 43% is not the highest of his career, but it is the third-highest eclipsed only by his two seasons with the then-three point obsessed Houston Rockets. Often, players begin to favor the three pointer more and more as they age and feel less and less comfortable challenging defenders closer to the basket.
This would be arguably a positive development since it appears to be coming at the expense of midrange jumpers, except that he’s shooting the threes so poorly. It’s also worth noting that Paul is one of the most efficient midrange shooters of all-time, shooting a career 49% from 10-16 feet.
On a per-game basis, Paul is averaging only 9.5 points per game in about 30 minutes per night, an output substantially below even last-season’s career-low 14.7 points per game.
Early Season Blues
This sort of early-season struggle isn’t completely unprecedented for Paul. Like many NBA players, he typically hits his stride a few weeks into the season. In 2020/2021, for instance, he posted an abysmal 48% true shooting in the season’s opening month (December, that season), before improving in January and getting very hot in February.
But this season feels a little different. It doesn’t seem like Paul is just shaking off some rust. The closest he’s come to one of his patented late-game takeover performances this season was against the Minnesota Timberwolves Nov. 1, when he scored eight points in the final frame.
If the numbers and the soreness are any indication, Paul is probably experiencing the fatigue of strenuous physical activity more acutely and earlier in the season than in years past.
If you’re reading this and you’re over 30 years old, you’ve probably noticed some of these changes in yourself. You’re just a little more sore the day after a pickup game with the guys than you were in your 20s. You don’t bounce back quite as quickly from a muscle strain. And where you once could do practically anything, it seemed, you now feel like death for having slept in an awkward position.
Chris Paul is an elite athlete, so he isn’t quite as susceptible to this natural process as your average guy. But he’s certainly not immune from it either, and it looks like it’s starting to get to him more quickly than ever before.
The Suns need a healthy productive CP3 for the postseason. Almost everyone agrees on that. And many Suns fans have questioned whether Coach Monty Williams has given Paul enough in-season rest the past two campaigns, when Paul seemed drained by the end of the Suns’ postseason runs.
So do the Suns need to rest Paul more? Possibly. Not arbitrarily, but it’s more important than ever that he listen to his body and let it recharge when it needs it.
The Suns could also consider leaning more heavily on Devin Booker for point guard duties, a role that is effective for him situationally, though not ideal in longer stretches.
Whatever the way forward, it seems likely that Paul’s days as the Suns’ second offensive option are over and he’s entering the endgame of his career at long last. The question now is whether he can add some hardware to his trophy case (and that of the Suns) before it’s all over.