EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Chris Paul still Suns’ top offseason priority despite disappointing close

Jul 21, 2021, 12:15 PM | Updated: 12:16 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, middle, huddles with head coach Monty Williams, bottom left, center ...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, middle, huddles with head coach Monty Williams, bottom left, center Deandre Ayton (22) and teammates during the second half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Saturday, July 17, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Charles Barkley and Steve Nash face ridicule or at least receive asterisks because they’ve never won NBA titles. It probably eats at the retired MVPs, and it certainly attaches — fairly or not — to their individual legacies.

Phoenix Suns observers know none of those things define their levels of stardom or importance in the Valley.

Same goes for Chris Paul.

Before this year, Paul had lived all those same storylines as those two past Suns. Even as he got that Finals monkey off his back, the eventual Hall of Famer’s own legacy took another turn as his Phoenix squad came so close but fell short of winning a title.

Paul is the first NBA player to, in different seasons, lose four playoff series after taking a 2-0 edge in a best-of-seven. He’s also lost series in which his teams had 3-1 and 3-2 leads.

Injuries have played more than a fair share in those results. This year, hand, wrist and shoulder problems during his playoff push only added to that list.

Unfortunately, that will all be part of his legacy. It’s why Paul’s own perspective on the loss understandably bends darker than it would for his younger teammates.

The Suns on Tuesday in a Game 6 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks resorted to sometimes asking power forward Jae Crowder to act as Paul’s safety valve, simply to get the ball past halfcourt. Yet Paul still put up 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting to close the Finals averaging 22 points and eight dimes per outing while shooting well above 50% from the field and from three.

Experiencing the grind of injuries, heartbreak and what-ifs just to make his first Finals and fail on that stage led to Paul wearing the pain on his face after the loss.

“I’ll take some time to think about (what this season meant), but right now you just try to figure out what you could’ve did more,” Paul told reporters in Milwaukee after the Suns fell, 105-98. “It’s tough. Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this is going to hurt for awhile.

“For me, I just look at myself and figure out how I could get better, what I could’ve done more, and make sure I come back next season ready to do it again.”

How does that heartbreak impact Paul’s decision-making when, for the next two weeks, his future in a Suns uniform isn’t certain?

The point guard said that his upcoming contract situation “will take care of itself.”

The 36-year-old can opt in to a $44 million final year on his current contract that will give him another go with Phoenix. But at his current age and still going strong, Paul deserves more security by opting out or fighting for an extension after picking up the final year on the deal.

From the Suns’ perspective, neither Paul’s weird injury history in this playoff series alone, nor his playoff performance should change how he’s viewed.

Unless a younger perennial All-Star point guard finds himself on the trade market and is somehow logistically feasible as a target for Phoenix general manager James Jones, Paul should get his cash from the Suns in one way or another (A perturbed Damian Lillard might fall in this category, but he’s not even formally pushed his way out of Portland yet, and the Suns have but a few weeks to make decisions regarding Paul).

In more concise words, there’s no way in hell the Suns should consider not finding a way to keep Paul in Phoenix.

Suns owner Robert Sarver intimated as much in June.

“That’s not a hard decision,” Sarver said on CNBC when asked about Paul’s contract situation. “I know those numbers are kinda hard to fathom for the general public, but for me, he’s been worth every penny of it.”

Even though Paul’s team lost four in a row — again, to a still-rising superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo during the NBA Finals — and even as the point guard attempted to downplay his nicks and dings, his performances this season and in the playoffs justify a huge payday coming.

The Athletic’s John Hollinger ranked Paul as the second-best free agent when the moratorium opens on Aug. 3.

Because of a Collective Bargaining Agreement restriction that limits players once they reach 38 years old, Paul’s best route is to either pick up his option and ask for a two-year extension or to opt out and sign a new three-year deal.

Phoenix could offer Paul as much as $144 million over the next three years, about $21 million more than any other team could, according to Hollinger, whose BORD$ formula values Paul’s production for next year at $36 million. For what it’s worth, Hollinger is fine with any overpay Sarver alluded to.

Based strictly on BORD$, a deal like that may look like an overpay by Phoenix, especially since Paul will be getting into his late 30s. However, given Phoenix’s position as a top contender (especially with the possibility of no Leonard next year) and Paul’s obvious leadership of said team, this is one of the easier cases to justify paying above BORD$.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The Suns are already paying Devin Booker on a max deal, while Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are up for extensions that would make the roster extremely top-heavy from a money standpoint starting after next season.

Still, Paul’s regular season of playing 70 of 72 games at an All-NBA Second Team level justifies making the financial commitment.

So do his leadership capabilities, and so does a playoff run that despite its physical hiccups closed with Paul averaging 19.2 points, 8.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game on shooting splits of 49.7/44.6/87.7.

“All season long with our team, ain’t no moral victories,” Paul said Tuesday.

“I mean, it’ll take awhile to process this or whatnot, but it’s the same mentality, get back to work,” Paul said. “You know what I mean? I ain’t retiring. … That’s out.”

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