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Booker on the “beauty” in Chris Paul’s injury, still on the hot seat to lead a winning team

The Suns will get a chance to prove they can win without Paul, while Paul rests up for the playoffs

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With Chris Paul out of the lineup for the next 6-8 weeks due to an avulsion fracture of his right thumb, All-Star guard Devin Booker is now under the most individual pressure of his career.

The Phoenix Suns as a team, with a 6.5 game lead and only 24 games to go before the playoffs, are not under much pressure at all. They only need to go 12-12 to reach 60 wins. That’s not a lot of pressure, considering they have the Coach of the Year, an All-Star, a deep rotation of 15 playable guys, and an easy schedule.

If the Suns just go 12-12 to finish the year they probably STILL finish with the top seed in the league.

The next best team, Golden State Warriors, would have to go 18-5 just to tie the Suns with 60 wins and take the top seed in the West on a tiebreaker because the Warriors won 2 of 3 games earlier this year. Yet, since that Christmas Day win over the Suns, the Warriors have gone just 15-11, are still weeks away from getting Draymond Green back and have what tankathon.com calls the 7th most-difficult remaining schedule.

How about someone else? Memphis, the 3rd seed, has the 3rd easiest schedule remaining, but would need to go 19-3 to get 60 wins. And one of those wins would have to be over the Suns on April 1 to get the tiebreaker.

Anyone else? No. Utah, the 4th seed, would need to go 24-0 to get 60 wins and even then, if the Suns also have 60 wins, they would be tied in their season series and would need complex tie-breaking rules to nab the top seed from the Suns.

As long as the Suns play ,500 ball against what tankathon.com calls the 6th easiest remaining schedule, the Suns will almost certainly finish with the top seed in the league. That’s how big their lead is over the field.

They just have to be at least average without Chris Paul leading the charge, and then be healthy for the playoffs.

A positive person would be excited about the 36-year old Paul being recharged for a two-month postseason where the Suns will need the very best of him to win their first championship.

Devin Booker is just such a positive person.

Quietly, the Suns believe Paul will be back earlier than the 6-8 week reports. He’s in a soft cast, indicating his own ‘avulsion fracture’ is a best case scenario that should trend to the shorter end of the timeline. That’s good, because the playoffs begin in 7 weeks.

Let’s assume Paul is back for the first round of the playoffs, but not sooner.

I’ve made the case that the Suns need to go just 12-12 to put the West out of reach, so why did I start this article with saying Devin Booker is now under a ton of pressure?

Because 12-12 is not good enough to dispel all the skepticism about Booker’s ability to lead a winning team as the true-blue team leader.

Booker has to do better than .500 the rest of the way with the reigning Coach of the Year (as voted by his peers), a pair of potential All-Defense starters, a deep and playable rotation and an easy schedule.

This isn’t 2018 anymore. Or 2017, or 2016. Booker isn’t trying to win games surrounded by guys who won’t be in the league next year.

Book needs a winning record without Paul to get these skeptics off his back.

Cameron Payne might not be a great starter, but he’s 2-0 in the playoffs starting next to Book and even in a slump he’s loads better than Isaiah Canaan, Elie Okobo and Mike James.

There are no weaknesses in the Suns rotation.

The other starters around Book and Payne — Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton — would be in the starting lineup of just about every other NBA team (Crowder was always a starter before Phoenix).

The primary backups — Landry Shamet, JaVale McGee, Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig, Aaron Holiday, Elfrid Payton — fit well in the Suns system because they know their role and they play it (mostly) well. They don’t lose you games.

Oh yeah, and they have the best coaching staff in the league. Monty Williams has engineered a team with ‘just’ two All-Stars into a juggernaut that’s 3rd in offense, 3rd in defense and league-best in net rating. Williams’ Suns have the most wins in the entire NBA since July 2020 and have won a shocking 80% of their games since an 8-8 start to the 2020-21 season.

So, if the Suns fail to post a winning record over the next several weeks without Chris Paul, the naysayers against Devin Booker’s ability to lead a winning team will be proven right all along.

Booker isn’t making it all about himself, though. He knows the whole team needs to step up their games in Paul’s absence.

Mikal Bridges will take on a larger role in the offense, as will Deandre Ayton. Cameron Johnson might just have a bigger role too. They’ve all shown the ability to shoulder a bigger load, though they have not had a chance to prove sustainability.

Ayton will remind everyone he’s not just a product of Chris Paul. It’s crazy how people have ascribed to this notion, forgetting Ayton was productive and efficient on offense before Paul. We remember his occasional ill-advised middys, but forget he’s always had great touch around the basket.

Ayton’s numbers...

  • 2 seasons before Paul (102 games): 17 points (57% FG), 10.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks
  • 2 seasons with Paul (106 games): 16 points (63% FG), 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 blocks

Kinda looks like the same player, huh? Sure, his field goal percentage has increased the last two years but that was likely to happen anyway. Chris Paul gets him easy shots on the pick and roll, but he’s also replaced that bad middy with a devastating hook shot in the lane, and developed a Dream-like turnaround on the left block.

Mikal Bridges has fully developed a great middy game of his own, catching the ball on the run as he flashes to the free throw line when one of the Suns All-Stars gets blitzed. That’s on top of his 40% three point shooting and gazelle-like finishing in transition. What I see happening without Paul in the lineup is Bridges continuing his active 11-game stretch of 19.4 points per game on 61% shooting.

The Suns, as a team, love their middy game and won’t stop just because Chris Paul is injured.

Without Paul, those numbers might change a bit. But if they do, you’ll see a slight uptick in threes and down-tick in 2-point attempts outside the lane. Not a bad thing for efficiency sake. I trust Monty Williams and Devin Booker to figure out how to run the team efficiently, even if the profile changes a bit.

On the other end, the Suns will still play great defense. In minutes without Chris Paul this year (30% of the season’s minutes), the Suns defense has been stifling.

Where the Suns will likely struggle is in the clutch. They are 24-3 this season in clutch situations, far and away the best in the NBA, and league-best 44-8 over the past year in the regular season. Without Paul getting the Suns to all their spots on offense in tight situations, the Suns might fall back to the pack a bit and ‘only’ win half or two-thirds of their clutch games. But half or two-thirds is still pretty great.

Most of all, the Suns will succeed because they feel so strongly about their mission and about each other. Chris Paul will still be around the team, still be on the sidelines as a pseudo-coach, right next to Monty Williams and the rest of his staff.

Watch a couple of clips from Duane Rankin of azcentral.com with insights from Monty Williams from All-Star weekend on life without Chris Paul.

Next Up

The Phoenix Suns start life without Chris Paul on Thursday, at the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then they have a four-game home stand against the Pelicans, Jazz, Knicks and Blazers. Of those five teams, only the Jazz have a winning record.

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