Shockingly little has been made of the Phoenix Suns this season. Projected as a new playoff contender when they traded for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Suns have become just that: heading into the All-Star break they boasted the second-best record in basketball, just 2.5 games behind the Utah Jazz—who, much to the contrary, have inspired many a hullabaloo within the sport’s media ecosystem. What’s the difference? Two reasons stand out as potential causes for the humdrum acceptance of the ascendant Suns. One is that they don’t do anything, on the floor, that’s all that distinctive. They shoot a normal number of threes, are pretty efficient, and defend well but not spectacularly.
The other main reason is that, at this point of his career, everyone takes Chris Paul for granted. When he was falsely marked for the land of the washed following an acrimonious, injury-riddled second year with the Houston Rockets, it did turn heads when he turned around and led the Oklahoma City Thunder into the postseason, against expectations. That novelty has clearly worn off, though, as Paul is now at the helm of a more talented roster in Phoenix, and quietly managing them into excellence. Part of why this makes no noise is that, to many, the team is less fun now than they were when Devin Booker was at its center, and they played with more pace and verve. But with Paul’s historically impressive assist-to-turnover ratio—the true secret to winning in the NBA, along with commitment to defense—comes deliberate action. The Suns, today, rank 28th in the league in possessions per game.
We’ve sort of been here before. When Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers a decade ago, it wasn’t quite the same, as the Clippers remained a must-watch team because of the dunking pyrotechnics of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin; either the most watchable man at the rim of the 21st century or the second-most, next to Vince Carter. The Clippers went from 11th to 24th in pace, though, and Paul began his transition from beloved small-market underdog to grumpy, fun-limiting, referee-hassling, Napoleonic pedant. Paul has been an NBA heel for long enough now that it’s hard to recall that he was almost universally appreciated as a New Orleans Hornet, leading plucky teams to over-performing records and acting as a potential foil to the Western Conference supremacy of the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.
That never came to be, and neither did the expected dominance of Paul’s Clippers. That squad ran into a series of juggernauts in the West but also, in at least one instance, did—as they say—choke. It’s now happened four times since, but when the Clippers gave up a 3-1 series lead to the rockets in 2015, it was the first time a team failed with such a cushion since 2006. Paul and the Clippers never truly recovered from the indignity, never made it to a Conference Finals, and are now remembered with profoundly less joy than that which they created at their zenith. The question, now, is whether Paul’s Suns are bound toward a similar realm: less dazzling because of their Hall of Fame point guard’s shrewd managerial touch, while also not quite good enough to really benefit, legacy-wise, from the sacrifice in watchability.
Well, this season is as good a time as any for Paul to finally get far enough that it can satisfy a critical mass of his many haters. With the defending champion Lakers struggling through injuries and the Jazz and new-look Clippers looking like relatively vulnerable peers, in addition to an untold host of other weird Covid-ball variables impacting the competitive landscape, Phoenix’s path forward is arguably sort of clear. Led by their veteran master of chaos, they could end up simply having more than anyone else in their conference, come summer. More depth, more organization, more health, more poise. Paul, as much a coach as a player at this point of his career, has lectured at least as often as he’s dribbled with his new franchise, and the younger Suns roster seems to be absorbing his lessons readily, and understanding the moment they’re coming upon.
They looked starved for this kind of seriousness during their memorable, undefeated run in last summer’s Orlando bubble, with that streak likely being part of why Paul asked to be traded to his new team. Noteable in their bubble play was not just Booker, but also the defensive mobility of big man Deandre Ayton, and the team’s duo of three-and-D role players: Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. And with the ability to play more spread-out lineups with Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky at center, plus the maximization of recently fringe-of-the-league talent Cameron Payne, it became obvious that coach Monty Williams was stirring up an interesting, potent brew, and quickly.
The time for Paul to prove anything new, in the minds of many, has probably passed. It came and went when he shimmied proudly in the face of Steph Curry in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, but then ended that nearly epoch-changing game by walking off the floor with an injury, never to return in the series, watching from the sidelines as the Golden State Warriors went back to the championship round at half-effort. Paul will be 36 at the onset of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, leading a mostly inexperienced roster—the addition of Jae Crowder, who went to the Finals with last year’s Miami Heat, standing as an exception of note. The safest money does not lie with the Suns, but, given the odd lay of the land, they aren’t a bad bet either. What they do in the playoffs, in any event, will likely be the beginning of Paul’s true endgame, his quest to be remembered any differently.