The Phoenix Suns’ acquisition of All-Star guard Chris Paul should vault them into the heart of the playoff race and make them a dangerous offense.
The Phoenix Suns are not coasting upon their undefeated Bubble laurels, counting on just momentum to snap a 10-year playoff drought. On Monday, they acquired nine-time All-NBA guard Chris Paul (and Abdel Nader) in exchange for Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a protected 2022 first-round pick.
The departures of Rubio and Oubre are noteworthy, but Phoenix still holds the No. 10 overall pick in Wednesday’s draft, as well as the Mid-Level Exception (roughly $9 million) and Bi-Annual Exception (roughly $3 million) to plug the holes left behind by those two. But the headliner here is Paul joining a roster already featuring burgeoning All-Star and offensive wunderkind Devin Booker, a complementary two-way big in Deandre Ayton, and the rangy, versatile wing duo of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.
In 142 minutes together last season, the Rubio-Booker-Bridges-Johnson-Ayton quintet posted a plus-16.5 net rating. This is not to say such an advantage would extend across a bigger sample, but watching this group in the bubble made clear the cohesion with which it functioned. Next month, that same unit should open games, only with Paul instead of Rubio — a move that preserves the lineup’s ethos while greatly improving its talent.
Rubio is a good point guard and someone whose addition last summer was understated, ultimately playing a sizable role in Phoenix’s rise back to the playoff discussion. Yet the beauty of Paul’s presence is providing many of Rubio’s traits that benefited the Suns, while also offering an enhanced offensive repertoire, which could find even more utility in Monty Williams’ creative schemes.
Despite no longer touting any sort of consistently functional burst to pressure the rim, Paul is a premier pull-up shooter. He’s comfortable hoisting from a variety of angles and areas and remains a high-level tough shot-maker. Rubio, for all his exploits, does not evoke fear off the dribble snaking around screens or probing the paint. His patience, savvy and intelligence allow him to shoulder a substantial playmaking burden, but there is a limit to his on-ball aptitude without scoring gravity.
The Suns are upgrading from Cam Payne, who only played eight games last season, as their second-best off-the-dribble scoring guard to Chris Paul. That leap, of course, is massive and Paul ensures a marvelous facilitator will still be next to Booker, even without Rubio in tow. Last year, Paul finished in the 89th percentile off the bounce; the two seasons prior, he ranked in the 88th (2018-19) and 95th percentile (2017-18). Two elite tough shot-makers at the end of tight games is quite the resource to lord over an opponent.
He is methodical in approach and some adaptation will be necessary, given Phoenix’s movement-heavy offensive style, but regardless, another star-caliber perimeter creator is in the Valley. Booker is among the league’s most potent three-level scorers and is joined by a future Hall-of-Famer with this live-dribble shooting in his bag of tricks:
Most importantly, Paul blends Rubio’s shrewd table-setting with the scoring of Oubre — even if it comes in a starkly different manner than the latter’s slashing ability. More so, Paul is one of the sharpest decision-makers in NBA history, while Oubre habitually struggled with that responsibility. The Suns now get to orchestrate offense through Booker or Paul for the majority of each game, compared to Booker and Rubio, while leaning on Oubre to provide supplementary creation from the perimeter.
How will Chris Paul make Devin Booker an even more dangerous scorer?
Booker is a lethal enough scorer for virtually any shooting decision to be considered prudent and has improved his passing each year of his career. Paul, albeit somewhat rigid and anchored in his approach, has long generated effective offense as a conductor. His passing excellence should only further unlock a playbook filled with screening, decoy actions and off-ball motion. As a result, Paul can leverage these schemes that occupy various defenders into his advantages for himself, whether it’s as a scorer or passer. The gap between Rubio and Paul purely as passers is not overwhelming, but Paul’s scoring gravity commands attention Rubio cannot emulate.
Offensive congruity and potential is never as dominant or simple as an optimist projects; specific coverages and opponents will pose hurdles. But the concept of Paul in this system, surrounded by his fellow starters is rather intriguing. Both Paul and Booker are ball-screen maestros, comfortably adept at dictating the events as they wish. Their mastery, if they so choose, and as Paul did frequently last year, should allow each initiator to engender favorable switches regularly.
Guard-guard screening actions are worth exploring, empowering Paul to torch big men — a preference of his — and Booker to dice up undersized back-court opponents. Some slowly marinating, yet ultimately effective, possessions are in store this season for the Suns.
The long-standing wish for Booker has been to play alongside a handler capable of competently organizing the offense, freeing him to showcase his off-ball talents. Rubio wielded enough on-ball equity for him last season and the result was 26.6 points per game on a career-high 61.8 percent true shooting (5.3 points higher than league average, also a career-high by a wide margin).
Paul will permit Phoenix to allocate Booker’s on- and off-ball usage however it deems suitable. Given Booker’s lead handler stardom, there is no need to overindulge off the ball and the balance across usage contexts should change game to game, depending on the opposition’s defensive framework.
Booker is a heady cutter, applying his frame and feathery touch to score near the rim. He’s a crafty off-ball space creator, using subtle hand motions and agile footwork to bolt free for open jumpers. Phoenix, particularly last season, wisely schemed, screened and deployed him into advantageous spots, let him roast mismatches and operate off the catch to weaponize his 6-foot-5 stature and assortment of scoring tricks.
More tantalizing than the avenues Booker experiences novel success next to Paul is how the veteran All-Star assimilates and the optionality he may encounter. Phoenix’s offense is tailored to shape advantages off the ball, sending guys off of screens, toward the rim or other spots in which they are most comfortable. For Paul, someone who increasingly leans on difficult shot-making rather than clean looks as a scorer, the Suns may remedy some of those hurdles for him.
Ideally, when Paul is without the ball but still acting as the focal point, he catches on the move, his defender trailing him, and flows into stress-free side pick-and-rolls, early clock stagger-screen actions or seamlessly transitions into his pull-up jumper for open shots. Possessions won’t unfold as smoothly as they do when Booker functions off the ball; he’s taller, a more refined scorer and wilier. But Paul can thrive in this ecosystem, which is structured to ease some of the creation burden he shouldered last season in Oklahoma City by manufacturing higher-value shots within the scheme.
On a fundamental level, he’s netted 42.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples since 2017-18, albeit on just 166 total attempts. So, to help further facilitate Booker’s blossoming as a primary guard, he’ll need to embrace swapping some ball-dominance for quick-hitting scores.
While the possibilities and potentially symbiotic benefits of this star guard tandem are central to the Paul-In-Phoenix experiment, the other three members of the starting five will benefit too. Paul’s knack for ingenious interior passes to rolling bigs, fluent in executing them from an array of angles, will boost Ayton’s efficiency.
Johnson’s off-movement shooting, when paired with Ayton’s rolling and Paul’s handling, could construct some daunting three-man sets, too. Booker’s scoring threat and Bridges’ elite cutting/serviceable outside jumper mean other wrinkles can be incorporated as well. Or, replacing Johnson with Booker, inviting the All-Star to work downhill off of an advantage sparked by Paul’s ball-screen virtuosity (92nd percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency two out of the past three seasons), is available for the Suns. The depths of this offense with Paul at the helm is vast and you’re likely to see each guy flourish, assuming he settles in.
Phoenix finished 12th in offensive rating last season. That is bound to improve. Paul positively influences what this team can do offensively, implementing welcomed skills, flexibility and diversity, while preserving — and blending into one player — many of the necessary components produced by Rubio and Oubre.
Playoffs are the objective for this team and they should earn a spot. Chris Paul is a Phoenix Sun. Everywhere he goes, success follows. His latest Western Conference pitstop will soon learn that.