Will Chris Paul, Devin Booker coexist well on the Phoenix Suns?
Chemistry experiments can blow up in your face. Some are combustible, others incompatible. Oil and water. Cats and dogs. Shaq and Kobe. Mentos and 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker?
Our future as a thriving NBA metropolis depends on it.
“We added a first-ballot Hall of Fame point guard to our team,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Tuesday. “Obviously, that comes with a bit of sacrifice.”
Williams was referencing the losses of Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr., collateral damage in the pursuit of a true NBA superstar. But the biggest sacrifice will come from Booker, who is entering Year 6 of his NBA career, already of the Valley’s biggest and brightest stars.
Booker is becoming famous beyond basketball. He’s dating a Hollywood celeb icon. He became a bonafide star during his team’s 8-0 run in the Orlando bubble.
Will he allow Paul to walk through the doors and assume the throne?
Will Booker embrace Paul’s leadership and the new alpha presence in the room? Will Booker be cool when the Suns become one of the hottest stories in the NBA and the new point guard gets all the credit? Will he view Paul as a threat?
No one expects Booker to react poorly because Booker is hardcore. Because Booker must be tired of all the losing in Phoenix. Because Booker and Paul share the same agency, and surely, this relationship has been vetted and brokered at the highest level.
But we’ve seen basketball kingdoms crumble from clashing personalities in the past. In the NBA, it doesn’t take much.
“Firstly, I think there’s a negative connotation with demanding from your teammates,” Williams said. “I think all great players, all good players, in one way or another, demand from their team.”
Paul did not get along with his co-star in Houston, butting heads with James Harden in a feud that spilled over to press conferences and timeouts. Harden didn’t like Paul’s brand of leadership one bit, all the constant pestering and relentless harping on details.
Paul was also spectacular with Oklahoma City last season, the unquestioned leader of an underdog team that outperformed expectations. So:
Is Booker smart and mature enough to welcome the incoming sacrifice? Especially when Williams already has a deep connection with Paul, a relationship that goes back 10 years?
Williams went deep on that subject during a heartfelt media session on Tuesday. He recalled his rookie season as head coach in the NBA, taking over the Hornets at age 39.
Paul had five years of experience in the books at the time, just as Booker does now.
“I think we both were really headstrong, too, back then,” Williams said. “I was walking around like a dictator ready to cut somebody’s head off, trying to implement my way and my program. I don’t think I was really go at allowing him to do what the great ones do. There were times when I felt like I took the paintbrush out of his hand.”
Williams didn’t stop there. In a press conference turned confessional, he blamed himself for needlessly blocking Paul’s greatness that season. He spoke as if it were a circle becoming a whole, a wrong that needed righting.
“I felt we could’ve been even better on that team, looking back,” Williams said. “I was talking to him about that … how I may have gotten in the way a ton on that team. So I’m hopeful the 10 years apart have helped us both grow in many areas of our life.”
Paul’s brand of leadership will have dramatic effects on Deandre Ayton, the lovable, low-motoring goofball who needs a jolt of electricity. Paul is a great facilitator for his big men. But he demands a lot. He will test Ayton to his core, triggering fight or flight at long last. He will help make or break Ayton’s future in Phoenix.
But the biggest change will occur in Booker’s world, and whether the resident star will willingly accept a demotion to 1-B at best, second fiddle at worst. Will he legitimize and empower Paul’s place in the locker room? Will he step back and step aside when necessary? Or will he cringe at the new driving force in Phoenix, even though a change in leadership is sorely needed.
There will come a time when Paul grates on Booker’s nerves, when Paul lays constructive criticism at the feet of the previous team leader. Maybe it happens in front of everyone. Those moments will determine everything.
“Culture is driven by players,” Williams said. “I’ve told our guys that. I realized it when I played. There’s not a coach in the world that walks into a gym and says, ‘I hope you three cuss me out; you five please don’t get back on defense; and five of you don’t show up on time tomorrow.’ Nobody’s preaching that.
“We all try to preach and teach and try to implement certain things. But players drive culture.”
Excited, Planet Orange? Me, too. But keep your fingers crossed.
Some chemistry experiments are highly combustible. Some can even destroy a NBA city.
This one feels like pizza and beer, chicken wings and sports bars. A combination destined to end our decade of misery.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.