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Chris Paul’s absence has given us a look at the future for the Suns

The team has gone 11-4 with the Point God on the bench.

Phoenix Suns v Sacramento Kings Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are relieved to hear that Chris Paul’s return is on the horizon. In fact, he will play tonight against Denver.

When he first hurt his right thumb against the Houston Rockets on February 16, we were told he’d be out for 6 to 8 weeks. That meant he would be available as the playoffs began, or even later.

Thankfully, Flex From Jersey was right all along…

The loss of Chris Paul over the past 15 games has allowed the Suns to not only get the Point God some rest, best instill confidence in players throughout the lineup.

The team has gone 11-4 without their All-Star point guard. They have an offensive rating of 119.2 (6th best in the NBA), a defensive rating of 109.5 (2nd), and net rating of 9.8 (3rd) during that time frame.

They’ve done more than maintain their Western Conference advantage; they’ve increased it. At the All-Star break, the Suns were up 6.5 games. That margin has grown to 9.0 games after a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.

If Flex is right, we could see Chris Paul sooner than believed.

If so, hallelujah! It’s time to get pumped up for a long playoff run. At the same time, we can see this period without CP3 as a model for the franchise’s long-term success.

We have seen a fifteen game sample size now of how the Phoenix Suns operate in the absence of Chris Paul. That’s 18% of the season folks! As we learn more about who the Suns team is without Chris Paul, we learn more about who this Phoenix Suns team could be in the future. No player plays forever. And Chris Paul is not only on the back nine of his career, he’s rapidly approaching the 19th hole.

It is obvious that putting the team first is the key to success. Isn’t it true that it’s easier said than done? Absolutely. Everyone would want to play “team-first” basketball if they wanted to. No matter what area you work in, being able to execute your vision is a challenge that teams strive for every day.

So who are the Phoenix Suns without Chris Paul? What strengths have they displayed? What weaknesses are of concern? Delve shall we?

Booker for MVP?

We all know this isn’t going to happen. The ‘powers that be’ have already selected who will receive the Most Valuable Player award: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. This is how the NBA works: pick a story and run with it.

That being said, Booker has given some members of the media – some of them former NBA Finals MVP’s – a different narrative to chew on as the season comes to a close. Devin Booker has performed phenomenally in Chris Paul’s absence. In the 11 games he has played in without CP3 (remember he missed four games due to COVID) he has averaged 28.2 points, 7.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and guided the Suns to an 8-3 record.

That has garnered the attention of Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

We’ve come a long way from “a looter in a riot”.

While CP3 remains on the bench, Devin Booker is doing exactly what we thought he would do if given the chance: performing at a high level and leading the Phoenix Suns to victory. Booker is in his prime, and now that he has the backing of a strong roster and culture, he is winning games with the zeal that an All-Star should. And maybe even an MVP.

With nine games remaining, it’ll be intriguing to see how the storyline surrounding Booker’s MVP case develops. But he has repeatedly demonstrated his worth to this team, this organization, and this fan base. The Suns’ future is in capable hands.

The Development of Cameron Payne

The most notable strength observed during the Point God’s absence is how effective this team will be from the point guard position moving forward. A combination of Devin Booker, Cameron Payne, and Elfrid Payton has started at point guard and the team is thriving under Monty Williams’ .5 offense.

“Could Cameron Payne be the point guard of the future for the Phoenix Suns?” we wonder. Absolutely. It’s not easy to replace a Hall of Fame point guard, but Payne has shown he can handle the offense successfully in his audition. We’re quite sure it’s not Aaron Holiday. We know it’s not Elfrid Payton.

One thing we should all agree on is that, while Point Book is a good intermediate approach, it isn’t a long-term success strategy. Since the additions of Ricky Rubio, Chris Paul and even Cam Payne at lead playmaker, Devin Booker has been considerably more productive off the ball. He has succeeded on the defensive end due to a lack of responsibilities in the playmaking department.

As he prepares to enter his prime, the Phoenix Suns should focus on ensuring that he can maximize effectiveness and that isn’t by being the primary playmaker of this team.

Cameron Payne has discovered the beauty of Paul’s time off. Cameron Payne’s fast-paced play is ideal for the second team squad. Payne, on the other hand, has learned how to slow things down and run the first-team offense.

He has also increased his defensive intensity. He leads all defenders who have played at least 10 games and 25 minutes played since three All-Star break with a 101.1 defensive rating. Insane Cam Payne.

Wing Stop

No, I’m not referring to the delectable eatery that serves a tantalizing array of buffalo wings. I’m referring to @CoachEvanB’s nickname for Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, and Torrey Craig, which he coined.

In a league that values 3-and-D players, the Phoenix Suns have four of the best in the Association. Each of them have had their moments while Chris Paul has been out, contributing in a variety of ways that have led to Suns’ victories.

They score. They play defense. They make threes. They excite. And some of them make damn good lemonade.

Mikal Bridges

What can’t be said about the NBA’s Iron Man defender? In the last 15 games, Mikal has increased his offensive productivity while still maintaining the defense prowess that has him in the DPOY conversation. His averages over the past 15 games?

Add in his 109.9 defensive rating over the same time frame, which is outstanding considering he guards the opposition team’s tier 1 and tier 2 players 52.7 percent of the time, according to B-Ball Index. He’s in the 98 percentile in that advanced metric.

Money well spent by James Jones.

Jae Crowder

The Suns have used the 15 games without Chris Paul as an opportunity to get Jae some rest. He missed two games with a “sore groin”...

Nonetheless, his performance on the court has been significant. Crowder has led Wing Stop by example, with the wily veteran hitting important shots along the road. In CP3’s absence, Bossman 99 has a 108.3 defensive rating and has shot 37.3 percent from outside the arc. In that period, he has also averaged 1.8 steals.

In games that he has missed, Jae has looked good.

Cameron Johnson

It’s unfortunate that the Suns have missed the services of Cam Johnson over the past 11 games. He was truly thriving in his role. In truth, I can’t believe it’s been 11 games already! Didn't he just beat the Knicks?!

Johnson, who delivered an incredible buzzer-beater against the Knicks, has missed the last ten games due to injuries. In the 6 games prior, however, he scored 21.8 points and shot 57.4% from beyond the arc.

And again, the dude makes a mean glass of lemonade. Dare I say like grandma made?

Torrey Craig

While he struggled in his first few games with the Suns, he righted the ship and reminded us of the impact he can have on a game. In his first 9 games post-Chris Paul injury, Craig averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds. The worst part of it? His 12.5% from deep.

Since then, he has averaged 12.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and made 60% of his three-pointers. Of course there was a perfect two-game stretch in there...

In short, the wing depth of the Suns is in a good place. The absence of CP3 accentuated the need for these players to step up. And step up they did.

The MaturAYTON of DA

Deandre Ayton has had before him a colossal opportunity. When called upon in big games, Ayton has performed to a level that excites. His consistency will always be a subject of debate, but given an opportunity to shine, Ayton has done just that.

Simply look at his DominAYTON performance last night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. A career-high 35 points. 14 rebounds. 24 shot attempts. The Suns cerebrally took advantage of the T-Wolves by attacking them on the interior. And Ayton was ready and willing to make them pay.

Deandre Ayton has used this time with Chris Paul to prime himself up for the playoff run that lies ahead. In his past 15 games, DA has averaged 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds on 67.2% shooting. He also averages a +9.4 when he is on the floor.

Chris Paul is not on the court to assist DA, despite his presence on the bench. The training wheels are no longer in place. Ayton is out there on his own, without a recognized motivator. He’s rediscovering his inner aggression and the spirit to play focused basketball.

Not only will this help the Suns in the playoffs, but it will also help them in the post-CP3 era.

During Chris Paul’s absence, we learned about this squad. He’s given a lot to the Suns organization, and he’s been a driving force behind the team’s turnaround. He’s gotten the rest he needs to be effective in a long playoff run. As a result, his teammates can fully demonstrate his impact on them by performing and playing in his image while he sits on the bench.

And that they’ve done.

This bodes well for the playoffs short term. And long term? This team is dangerous.

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