Because of Chris Paul’s advanced age — he will turn 38 during next year’s playoffs — the Phoenix Suns’ window of contention appears quite small and closing rapidly.
You’ve heard of Chris Paul: the 12-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA, 5-time assist leader who tacked one more year onto each of those counts in 2021-22 just before turning 37 years old. Paul has defied Father Time since turning to a plant-based diet in 2019, helping the Oklahoma City Thunder with a surprise playoff run, followed by leading the Suns to more wins (136, regular season + playoffs) than any other NBA team the last two seasons.
Yes, the Suns have one of the best shooting guards in the league in Devin Booker, one of its best defenders in Mikal Bridges and one of the best centers in Deandre Ayton, but Paul has been the engine that powers the Suns top-5 offense.
In 2021-22, Paul led the team in touches per game (75, 29th in league), time of possession (7.4 minutes per game, tied for 6th in league), average seconds per touch (5.88, 4th in league), dribbles per touch (5.21, 4th in league), passes per game (56, 29th in league), assists per game (10.8, 1st in league), secondary assists (1.0, 8th in league), potential assists (19.6 per game, 1st in league), assist points created (27.2, 1st in league) and assist-to-pass percentage (19.0, 1st in league).
So it’s no wonder that ESPN lists the Suns among the six teams who are real contenders this year but have a short shelf life on that status due to age of key players.
All-in on ... a championship this season
These six teams can realistically dream of an NBA championship in 2022-23. In addition, they all have something else in common: a shelf life. All but the Suns have mortgaged multiple future draft picks in order to win a title in 2023, while one of Phoenix’s most important players next season (Chris Paul) will turn 38 during the 2023 playoffs.
Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami have stars who should allow them to be competitive for a long time (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo, respectively). But given the Bucks have traded several future picks and have two co-stars (Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday) in their early 30s, while the 76ers and Heat are relying on a pair of mid-30s stars in James Harden and Jimmy Butler, respectively, there could be a time limit on their status as true contenders.
Interesting that ESPN characterizes Miami’s headliner as Bam Adebayo while only listing Jimmy Butler later on, as if Butler is Miami’s clear No. 2 behind Bam. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Bam’s offense is much worse than even Deandre Ayton’s for example, and his defense doesn’t quite make up for that.
Sure seems to me that it would have been accurate and easy to re-write the second paragraph as: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Miami and Phoenix have stars who should allow them to be competitive for a long time (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo and Devin Booker, respectively). But given the Bucks have traded several future picks and have two co-stars (Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday) in their early 30s, while the 76ers, Heat and Suns are relying on a trio of mid-30s stars in James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul, respectively, there could be a time limit on their status as true contenders.
But that’s just splitting hairs. The point is well-made. Unless and until the Suns replace Chris Paul with someone younger and yet just as good, their contender status is tied directly to Paul’s effectiveness on the court. Just like Miami, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Father Time is keeping tabs on a few franchises right now.
You’ll notice that the six teams listed so far do not include either of last year’s Finalists, including the NBA Champ. That’s because ESPN thinks the Celtics and Warriors’ contender status can extend for half another decade.
All-in on ... a championship over the next five seasons
I totally get it with the Celtics, Nuggets and Grizzlies whose best players are still at the beginning of their primes. All of Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic and Ja Morant are still young and are surrounded by talented young rosters. While none may ever reach that promised land of winning a Finals, I can see all of them just needing the right breaks — and veteran leadership at the right time — to win that ring.
I find it interesting, though, that ESPN put the Warriors into the five-year window too. Here’s their reasoning.
How can last season’s NBA finalists land outside the group of current championship contenders? By contrast to the first tier’s teams, which have depleted their resources in pursuit of instant success, the Celtics and Warriors managed to get to the Finals while keeping an eye on the long-term plan.
The title-winning Warriors’ approach perhaps best epitomizes this group. Although Golden State has one of the league’s oldest cores, led by the four-time champion trio of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, the Warriors owe one future first-round pick (in 2024) and are developing the foundation of their next team with recent lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman while still winning now.
So the reasoning is that Curry, Green and Thompson are old but not too old — as proven by their winning the Finals two months ago — yet a five-year window would put all of them well into Chris Paul territory. Four years from now, all three will be 35+ years old. The odds that the trio are still good enough to win a ring at that age is quite slim.
So they will be hanging on the development of Jordan Poole (age 23 next season), James Wiseman (21), Moses Moody (20) and Jonathan Kuminga (20) to continue their championship pedigree. Can it happen? Sure. Poole is already starter-quality and the kiddie corps are all recent lottery picks, but that’s a big leap to expect any of them — let alone most of them — to become difference makers in the playoffs. Plus there’s no guarantee Poole even stays with Golden State next summer as he searches for a max contract while the Warriors still have to pay maxes to the old guys and are already setting spending records.
Still, this gives me a chance to segue into a topic that’s been on my mind recently...
How do the Suns best players stack up against these contenders, as laid out by ESPN in the linked ($$) article?
I make a big assumption here in counting recent accolades only for the last four years played, making my cutoff (generally) the 2018-19 season. I gave exception to very good players who missed 1-2 years, though, and went further back for them. You might think a four-years-back cutoff is arbitrary, given that I was quite generous to John Wall, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving, but that’s my prerogative as the researcher for this article. I just think going five years back in playing time is too far back to predict future value.
Another caveat is that I stopped at four players deep on each roster. When you look at the results, I think you’ll understand that many teams’ fifth best player is nothing to write home about and certainly has not been an All-Star recently. No one even goes four current All-Stars deep.
So here’s the results:
The Brooklyn Nets have the most accolades among their top players, but also the most seasons missed due to injury/principle. All of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons have gotten 2+ All-NBA, All-Star and/or All-Defense nods in the last four years they’ve been healthy. The Nets big problem is availability and commitment to a greater cause.
The LA Clippers are not far behind, though almost all the accolades belong to just two players, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and both missed all or most of last season due to injury. John Wall boosts their numbers a bit, but only a pure optimist would predict an All-Star season from a guy who’s missed two of the last three full seasons.
Even going back four full years for the top Golden State Warriors players (giving Klay an extra two years and Steph an extra year), they don’t compare in individual accolades to some other teams but they trump the whole board in Championships won.
Your Phoenix Suns fall back in the pack, and as noted earlier in this column a lot of their accolades come from the aging Chris Paul. Bridges and/or Ayton will have to step up to replace Paul’s annual ‘All-’ awards. Again, as you look across the league’s best teams, you can see why the Suns go as Chris Paul goes.
The Suns only advantage I see over the best of these teams — and maybe that’s from my purple-colored glasses — is that Mikal Bridges might be the best ‘fourth-best’ player of the whole group. The Celtics’ Robert Williams might make a good case, but he always seems hobbled with something or other.
Notice how the Celtics are light on accolades, like the Suns. They represent the last two NBA runner-ups, having made the Finals in 2021 and 2022 but came up short.
Many would say that the Celtics are young, and only on the rise, while the Suns are on the way down because of Chris Paul.
Let’s delve into that one too.
How does the Suns young core stack up to other current contenders’ young cores?
For simplicity, let’s exclude anyone over age 30. That cuts out a lot of the best players on the teams above, and opens up a new door of contenders for the future. As those older players decline, the best players under 30 can step up and take the throne.
Here, we compare the Suns best under-30 players with those contenders mentioned by ESPN as being ready to fight for a championship for the next half decade.
The Boston Four remain the same, the Suns lose Paul, and every other contender from the prior graph loses at least two of their best four players.
So we cut it down to the Suns vs. ESPN’s ‘all in... on the next five seasons’ group.
Competition is stiff here. The Suns represent well, but the Nuggets and Celtics definitely have the best under-30 groups among these five teams. Denver has two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, while Boston is the only team here with two under-30 All-Stars and all four players making at least one ‘All-’ team already.
The future is bright for all these teams. Devin Booker, Jokic, Tatum and Ja Morant will be among the league MVP leaders for years, but it’s the supporting casts who can separate these teams from the pack. Brown/Smart/Williams have a leg up so far.
For the Warriors, does Wiggins regress, handing off his mantle as one of their best young players to Moses Moody? Can their ultra-young trio not only become key playoff players (they aren’t yet) but vault themselves onto the ‘All-’ teams?
Same question for the Grizzlies supporting cast. While Jaren Jackson Jr. joined Mikal Bridges with All-Defense recognition this year, he’s an injury waiting to happen (and it did: he’ll miss a chunk of next season). Can Bane or Brooks make the leap?
The Suns cast has proven they can win at the highest levels, but have also proven they can’t take over a playoff game if Booker gets locked up. They will need to step up more if they’re going to stay ‘contenders’ after Paul fades. Take a look at our ‘Big Leap’ series to see how each of the Suns young players can make a big improvement in 2022-23 to get the Suns back to the Finals.