At 35 years old, Chris Paul’s career looked almost over. The point guard was then traded for a fourth time and Paul is once again showing with the Phoenix Suns how he can shape a franchise. And why he remains a “point god”.
The NBA finds itself in a major shift. The days of players who filling only certain roles are gone and stars like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic dominate a new position-less basketball. The evolution has seen point guards basically turn into three-point marksmen – think Steph Curry, Damian Lilliard and James Harden. The days of the classical point guard are just about done and dusted. That is except for Chris Paul, who almost deserves the nickname “Point God”.
Even as he spends his 16th year in the league at 35 years of age, Paul is not slowing down at all. He is averaging 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 9.6 assists per 36 minutes and is hitting 39.7 percent of his three-pointers – his best percentage since 2016-17. All that made him an All-Star for the second straight season and 10th time in his career. Paul has played a major role in the Phoenix Suns being able to carry over their strong showing in last season’s playoffs bubble to the 2020-21 regular season. At the time of writing, the Suns were in fourth place in the Western Conference with a 20-11 record, leaving the team on course for the franchise’s best winning percentage since 2009-10. Suns management did not go uncriticized for its trade to acquire Paul in the off-season. After all, the Suns were the only undefeated team in Orlando thanks to their youthful carefreeness. And now they were testing that, giving up the 24-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr and a protected first round pick for a 35-year-old who will get paid 85 million dollars over the next two years. But Paul’s acquisition made sense in a number of ways. The Suns have done an almost 180 degree turn and improved their defense massively with Paul on board. Their current seventh place in defensive rating would mean a top-ten finish for the first time since 2000-01. And since the arrival of star Devin Booker, the Suns have not finished better than 24th place in that stat. And Paul’s experience will be a leading factor in helping the Suns end their 10-year playoffs drought. His experience has been a huge help for Booker to take the next step, learning from a veteran day in and day out at practice. Booker was slowly reaching the status of a “good stats on a bad team” player. And maybe an antithesis like Paul was exactly what he needed. Paul’s resumé in the league and his consistently strong performances speak for themselves. But the 35-year-old has emphasized that the youngsters like Booker have taught him things as well. The beginning of the season did not go so well as Booker and Paul were figuring out how to play together with an 8-8 start. But they have harmonized since then, reeling off 12 wins in the next 14 games, including statement victories over Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia in the span of a week. Phoenix also knocked off Western Conference direct playoff contenders such as Golden State, Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis and Portland in that stretch. While Booker was injured at the start of the turnaround, Paul took over and averaged 18.5 points with 49 percent on three-pointers, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists and just 2.2 turnovers. That included a Booker-described “piece of art” by Paul who collected 5 points and 7 assists within 6 minutes of a 41-12 fourth quarter to give Phoenix a 132-114 win in New Orleans.
New success fo New Orleans
That was a special game for Paul, who started his NBA career in 2005 in New Orleans. As the fourth pick in the draft, he conquered the NBA – or at least the point guard ranks in the league. It seems like a joke today that there was a discussion back then whether Paul or Deron Williams was the best point guard in the league. Paul was named an All-Star in his third year in the league as he led the NBA with 11.6 assists to go with 21.6 points. The then 22-year-old guided a group of veterans into the playoffs – still New Orleans’ deepest post-season run, getting eliminated in seven games in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs. The franchise could not keep up the momentum and after two first-round playoff exits, Paul’s time in New Orleans was over after the 2010-11 campaign following six years. The 2011 off-season saw Paul get traded to the Los Angeles Lakers only to have then NBA commissioner David Stern axe the deal because the New Orleans club did not have an owner and was unofficially under Stern’s control. Paul would eventually land in Los Angeles that off-season – going instead to the Clippers.
Bringing new life to the Clippers
As much as Stern destroyed the dreams of the Lakers as well as Paul’s wishes, the move essentially meant the rebirth of the Clippers, who put together the trio of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. That was the birth of “Lob City”. The Clippers had never won 60 percent of their games before Paul’s arrival. In Paul’s six years in L.A., the Clippers accomplished that every season – taking them from a laughingstock of the league to a serious contender. Still just like in New Orleans, Paul could never reach the Conference Finals. Some questioned head coach Doc Rivers’ coaching abilities while others wondered if Paul had the winner’s gene. A number of crunchtime losses for Paul’s men didn’t help those questions. Paul ended up leaving Los Angeles in 2017 in a trade to Houston.
Next step in career
Team basketball was not always the easiest for Paul in Houston, where he played two seasons alongside James Harden – and in a heavily dominated isolation system. That did however nearly bring Paul the ultimate success. Houston and Paul reached the 2018 Western Conference Finals – the first time (and only time) that Paul had gotten that far in the post-season in his career. The Rockets were leading Golden State 3-2 in the series but Paul missed the final two games with a thigh injury. And Houston lost both games. In Game 7, the Rockets missed 27 three-pointers in a row. And Paul’s chances of becoming an NBA champion were getting slimmer and slimmer. The star duo of Harden and Paul apparently had problems playing with one another. Many in the game say Paul is a major reason for that given his character – not one with which is easy to get along, many say. Paul ended up leaving and heading to Oklahoma City. Nobody expected the high-priced veteran to play for the rebuilding Thunder. But just the opposite happened and OKC played stronger than any had expected. And Paul played well and acted as a mentor to OKC’s young star Shai Gilgeious-Alexander. Maybe Paul’s stint with the Thunder marked the start of another career step for the playmaker. Even at 35, Paul is too good to be just a “ring chaser” and sit on the bench at the end of a rotation and just get a championship ring. Looking at Paul’s game, which is based on pride, it’s hard to imagine him doing that. Most people rank players by the number of rings on their fingers and not by their winning percentage. But Paul has won 63.6 percent of all of his games and Tony Parker, Derek Fisher and Dennis Johnson are the only other point guards to have played at least 1,000 games. And they all had the luck of playing for model franchises such as the Spurs, Lakers and Celtics and lining up alongside Hall of Famers. Paul’s winning percentage is better than other playmaking legends like John Stockton and Steve Nash. Those playmakers also didn’t go through an evolution which saw the importance of point guards get reduced more and more. But through it all, Chris Paul has prevailed and remains the “Point God” of the NBA.
by FIVE Magazine #177 – Chris Paul– Text: Manuel Baraniak