Chris Paul gives Devin Booker top-tier help, pushes Suns into win-now mode

Nov 16, 2020, 1:35 PM | Updated: 8:16 pm

Oklahoma City Thunder's Chris Paul shoots a free throw against the Phoenix Suns during the first ha...

Oklahoma City Thunder's Chris Paul shoots a free throw against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)

(Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)

When Chris Paul rumors swirled for weeks around the Phoenix Suns followed by a report of trade discussions taking place, there was a strange sense it needed to be added that Devin Booker wanted to play with Paul and would approve of a potential deal.

Um, duh?

Booker has established himself now for three full seasons at an All-Star level and will threaten for much more beyond that with Paul. The 24-year-old first got there when his starting point guards after Eric Bledsoe’s departure three games into the season were Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Canaan, Mike James, Shaquille Harrison and Elfrid Payton.

It’s as safe to say that Booker wants to play with the Point God as it is to say we don’t really know what heights Booker’s game will reach playing alongside Paul.

The Suns announced on Monday night that it will be Paul and Abdel Nader coming to Phoenix in exchange for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a protected 2022 first-round pick. That pick goes from top-12 protected in 2022 to top-10 protected, top-8 protected and then unprotected in 2025, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Paul has a masterful command of the game. He’s working the refs as much as he’s working the pick-and-roll coverage. He will floor general the hell out of a game for three-and-a-half quarters and then ice it if he has to for those last six minutes.

He had to quite a bit for the Oklahoma City Thunder and played well enough to earn a Second Team All-NBA nod as easily the most clutch player in the league last season.

Per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Paul shot 46-of-86 (53.4%) in the last five minutes of close games. Over the 160 minutes of those situations, the Thunder were a baffling plus-109.

He did it in the playoffs too. Here in Game 6 of the first round against the Houston Rockets, CP3 scored over half his points in the fourth quarter with all those shots being unguardable makes over great defense.

Paul is an eight-time All-Defense member and was still defending near that level just last season.

If you’re a local Valley sports fan, do you often find yourself amazed by how great DeAndre Hopkins truly is for the Arizona Cardinals? Sure, you knew he was great, but I bet not this great. It will be a similar experience for Paul.

Yes, Paul is 35 years old. He makes over $40 million each of the next two seasons. The undefeated figure known as father time suggests he will decline this year and the next.

But this was very likely the most general manager James Jones could improve the roster over the next two years and he did so with a trade he very obviously did well in.

The upgrade from Ricky Rubio to Paul is massive. One of the most underappreciated dynamics of the NBA is how large the gap is between the top 20 players in the league and everyone else, even the guys that can make a case for the 30s and 40s. That’s not even Rubio.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was headed for unrestricted free agency in a year and the replacement duo of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson just proved in the bubble what they’re capable of playing increased roles.

The sprinkles on top from the Oklahoma City perspective is the protected 2022 first-round pick, which Jones expertly fortified. The only way that burns him is if things go south.

Which is where we have to address the obvious risk in this deal.

The nonexistent vibes in Phoenix’s locker room were restored by Oubre, who Booker continuously praised for making a difference. He was close with Ayton and Rubio, forging a legitimate bond with his teammates as Valley Boyz.

The Suns quietly outscored teams by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Rubio and Booker were on the court last season, the fourth-best mark for a starting backcourt that logged at least 1,000 minutes. Rubio was never the problem.

Paul arrives as a heralded leader, one that will drastically shift the day-to-day mentality of not only the team, but the organization as a whole. Booker will be cool with that. He grew up on CP3 and just wants to win. What about Ayton, though, when Paul lays it into him on national television for not rolling hard to the basket or watching his back on a ball screen?

We’ll see! Monty Williams can only calm your nerves so much.

Phoenix now has some depth concerns. Under a guaranteed contract for next season are Paul, Booker, Bridges, Johnson, and Ayton. After taking in the near-certainty of Cameron Payne’s option being picked up and Jevon Carter’s return, that’s still only seven guys. Nader has a team option of only $1.5 million, so maybe him as well, potentially on top of (gulp) Frank Kaminsky’s $5 million and Cheick Diallo’s $1.8 million.

The deal being finalized Monday night is a significant development. That means the Suns are choosing to operate as a team over the cap as opposed to opening up a potential $14-18 million in cap space to make a run at a big-time free agent power forward like Davis Bertans, Danilo Gallinari or Jerami Grant.

With that in mind, Phoenix has the full room midlevel exception of $9.3 million and the biannual exception of $3.6 million at its disposal, along with the ability to go over the cap by re-signing unrestricted free agent Aron Baynes and restricted free agent Dario Saric. The issue is that contenders who are also over the cap are offering those same exceptions, so that’s a very competitive market space.

It also challenges Suns owner Robert Sarver to spend. Those exceptions aren’t requirements, but rather tools to upgrade the team if they choose to do so. They should heavily pursue a third guard with that full MLE, retain Saric and look for another wing or two from there. They’ll probably draft one with the 10th overall pick in the NBA Draft, or could shop it for a veteran, and maybe they look into some sign-and-trade possibilities.

Even in that scenario that seems light, a rough estimate would still put Phoenix $10-15 million over the cap of $109 million, and they should try and push it further. Sarver’s going to find some stuff in his pockets he didn’t even know was there if he goes that deep into them. The hard part is over but there’s still plenty of work to do for the front office in the next week.

In the grand scheme of it all, just because this is clearly the best path for the Suns to take doesn’t rule out the possibility they would have been perfectly fine in their ascent without Paul and with Rubio and Oubre. While there’s a rocket-propelled boost Paul provides, this at the end of the day will always come down to the development of Phoenix’s core around Booker.

But, you know what, screw that. Enough with that nonsense. It’s time to start winning basketball games again in Phoenix. Paul is going to help Booker do that more than anyone else the Suns could have realistically acquired in the short term, and Jones did so at a wonderful opportunity cost. The bad T.J. Warren trade (to clear space to sign Rubio) and Trevor Ariza signing (traded for Oubre) actually somehow turned into Paul.

All the Suns needed to do was put enough pieces around Booker during his rise before he was ready to lead them himself in his prime.

A Hall of Fame point guard showing Booker how to win in the postseason after he learned how to do so in the regular season around proper veterans is an excellent job of doing that and a phenomenal two-year accelerated rebuild by Jones and his staff.

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