The Phoenix Suns made two statements on Nov. 16, 2020 when they acquired point guard Chris Paul in a trade that sent Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a protected 2022 first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Statement No. 1: they were ready to make significant playoff noise. While Phoenix came close to clinching their first playoff berth since 2009-10 last season, they came up just a bit short, despite going a perfect 8-0 in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida. What other way to announce to the rest of the basketball world that you are ready to end your practical centuries-long playoff drought (in NBA standards) than by making a blockbuster?
This reason alone is as straightforward as it gets, but even that reason was not as blunt as their second statement.
What was their second statement, you might ask?
Simple – they believed in Paul.
Now, this might seem blatantly obvious, but there were some critics out there stating concern. It was nothing against Paul’s resume mind you. He not only averaged 18.5 points per game, 4.5 total rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game over his 15-year stretch up to that point, but also had a knack for turning franchises that were young and inexperienced non-playoff teams into legitimate contenders (2020 Thunder, anyone?).
Instead, the knock was not only about the age (he would be 35 at the start of the 2020-21 NBA season) and whether Father Time would inevitably catch up, but also about the chemistry. Now, sure – Paul had already proven time and time again that he could transition to a new team and perform there, but how he would he adapt to a team ripe with youth and star power like Phoenix possessed with Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, just to name a few?
Well, the transition has been a relatively smooth one. So smooth, in fact, that Paul has not only shown his worth with the basketball but has facilitated when needed to make the team around him that much more lethal.
How so? Well, let’s dig into it.
In terms of pure offensive production, Paul has averaged 16.2 points per game, 4.5 total rebounds per game and 8.9 assists per game in 66 games played (66 GS) heading into May 9 action. While his point and rebound averages are slightly down from his previous season (he averaged 17.6 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game during the 2019-20 season), his .492 field goal percentage (FG%) is currently his highest since (ironically enough) the last time Phoenix made the playoffs (he had a .493 FG% with the New Orleans Hornets during the 2009-10 season).
It does not end there. While Paul is averaging less three-pointers (3.7) and free-throws per game (2.6) this season, Paul’s .392 three-point percentage (3P%) and .931 free-throw percentage (FT%) is the fourth highest and the highest in his career, respectively.
While the base statistics suggest a productive player, what do some of the advanced analytics say?
Glad you asked.
Despite turning 36 years old a few days ago (May 6), Paul’s 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) – which measures the per-minute offensive production of a player with 15.00 being average – leads all Phoenix players (Ayton’s 20.6 PER ranks second) so far this season. This suggests that when Paul is on the floor, Phoenix is putting together some of the best (if not the best) offensive totals against opponents.
Where Paul specifically thrives, though, is how efficient he is in sharing the basketball. Among 185 qualified NBA players, Paul’s 40.7 Assist Percentage (which estimates the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted on) is tied for sixth with MVP-frontrunner in Nikola Jokic. When looking at all qualified players 30 years old or older, Paul’s AST% ranks third (James Harden and LeBron James are ahead of him with a 44.4 and 41.5 AST%, respectively).
While several prominent veterans like James and Harden might rank ahead of him, remember this – Paul was brought into the fold to facilitate the offense, not be the sole contributor of it. With the addition of Paul to a lineup with Booker, Ayton and Co, the offense has started to take more strides – after the team collectively compiled an Offensive Rating (the estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) of 111.7 last season (12th in the entire NBA), the addition of Paul has made them climb up to an offensive rating of 116.8, seventh in the entire NBA.
With a more efficient offense means a team that, naturally, is winning a lot more, and Paul has significantly played a part in it even if he is not the star offensive player. When looking at Win Shares, which looks at the estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player, Paul’s 8.6 Win Shares rank first on the team (Ayton ranks second on the team with 8.3 Win Shares). In fact, the last time a Phoenix player 30 years old or older was able to amass 8.0 Win Shares or more in a season was 2009-10, when Steve Nash compiled 9.9 Win Shares.
There might have been question marks regarding how Paul would transition into a young and speedy offense. However, the transition has been seamless.
If you explain this to the Phoenix front office, it would be old news.
They believed in him, after all.
While blockbuster trades might not pan out for every team under the Sun (no pun intended), there is no denying that Paul has been a significant piece toward Phoenix’s offense becoming that much more potent. So potent, in fact, that Phoenix has clinched their first playoff berth in 10 years, a century in terms of the NBA.
It is all about making a statement or two, and if everything continues to operate the way it has been, Phoenix just might become a force not to be taken lightly.