Chris Paul’s legacy of basketball genius with Suns will last in Valley

Jun 18, 2023, 7:25 PM | Updated: 9:51 pm

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns rests during a break in the game against the Washington Wizards a...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns rests during a break in the game against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena on December 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Speedrunning is a competitive form of playing video games in which players attempt to beat a game as quickly as possible, competing with each other to set new personal bests and climb the all-time ladder.

Chris Paul basically speedran becoming a franchise icon in a way we will never see again across all Valley sports. The only argument I see for anyone else on the Phoenix Suns past or present is if Kevin Durant gets the franchise its first championship.

Paul’s three years in Phoenix before getting traded as a part of the Bradley Beal blockbuster were monumental in their scope of impact. When considering the sorry state the franchise was in a year prior to his arrival, he played a part in moving mountains to help turn the Suns into one of the league’s current premier franchises.

He will go right alongside Devin Booker, James Jones and Monty Williams in that regard.

What makes Paul who he is as a basketball player was infused into the Suns’ DNA. He is an all-time competitor, often as a detriment to his relationships with some teammates in the past. All Paul wants to do is win. And that’s all he knows how to do.

He and Jae Crowder came into Phoenix overflowing with the type of experience and knowledge a young group around Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson required to take the next steps. Both veterans are stuffed with edge too, an unreal amount of toughness that was a prerequisite for them to get where they got to. It rubbed off on all of the pups. You can’t help but specifically see it when you watch Booker and Bridges now years later.

Those few steps in Year 1 turned into a leap, all the way to the NBA Finals. The vision surely ended with contending but it was more about the youngins learning how to win. They excelled to a point where Phoenix nearly won a championship in its first stab at it and was the favorite for one the next two go’s.

It was on the backs of Booker and Paul. Booker was always ready for that moment. There were doubts about whether Paul was anymore.

Even after his All-NBA form with his one season for Oklahoma City, Paul was turning 35 years old and viewed as more of a transitional piece. There were red flags from how it ended for him in Houston. Arguably the best defensive point guard ever inevitably had lost a lot of quickness on that end.

If Paul’s career had ended with Phoenix getting solid contributions from Paul with a pair of playoff appearances, his legacy was already cemented as an all-time great and someone that has to be mentioned when rattling off Magic, Oscar and so on for the top floor generals ever.

But in the Valley, Paul added to his legacy even further. That made it feel like there was almost a stubbornness to his excellence.

Paul made Second Team All-NBA in Year 1 while getting mentioned in the MVP conversation. With the trash narratives hovering over him in the past of his lack of playoff success and his own performances in the postseason, he absolutely thrived when healthy. He gutted through a brutal-looking shoulder injury against the Los Angeles Lakers, later admitting he basically couldn’t shoot, still giving the Suns enough in the form of 18 points and nine assists for a critical Game 4 win to even up the series before Booker’s flight to superstardom took off.

In a four-game sweep of the Denver Nuggets the next round, Paul was masterful. He dismantled Denver’s hopeless defense with 41 assists and five turnovers while shooting 62.7% from the field and a perfect 22-for-22 at the foul line.

After a COVID-19 spell to begin the Western Conference Finals, Paul found his footing the more the series went on before one of the best closeout performances in NBA history. In Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul shot 16-of-24 and scored 31 of his 41 points in the second half, all while there were torn ligaments in his hand. He scored 14 of the Suns’ 16 points during a 16-3 run that began the celebration and ended Phoenix’s Finals drought of nearly three decades.

That is the point in the road when Paul’s limitations unfortunately became too prominent. With more injuries and after going 22-of-39 from the floor in the first two games of the Finals versus the Milwaukee Bucks for 55 total points, both Suns wins, he never looked like himself again in four consecutive losses.

It’s part of Paul’s legacy and why he became so polarizing with the fanbase in the back half of his stay. He once again wore down and/or got hurt in the last two postseasons, leaving Booker in a position where he had to do just about everything. These troubles go across most of Paul’s career and he would certainly have multiple championships right now if he got some luck on the injury front. He never did, and the quest for his first ring continues.

When Booker tweaked his hamstring in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, Paul, Bridges and Ayton all stepped up tremendously to get Phoenix by an incredibly pesky New Orleans Pelicans squad on the rise. Paul’s Game 6 WCF masterclass somehow has competition for his best closeout game, and that’s because of Game 6 in New Orleans.

Paul didn’t miss, posting a 14-of-14 shooting line for 33 points with eight assists.

I cannot explain to you how much energy that building had throughout the night and the way it shifted as Paul levitated through it to singlehandedly drain the soul of each and every Pelican fan one by one, like a dementor. They all knew exactly what was happening because they had seen Paul do just that in the first half of his career. I don’t even know what to call the noise that echoed through the large room each time he rose up in the second half. What do you call a groan consisting of anger and misery?

They didn’t even need to see if the ball was going to go in. None of us did. The fans were preemptively upset as the ball went through the air.

Paul fizzled out one round later, as did the Suns. And in this past postseason, he didn’t have any greatness to offer.

That’s a word I want to keep coming back to. Greatness. I’ve gone this long without mentioning the way Paul manipulated the game, unlike anyone it has ever seen or will.

There will never be anyone like him again in this regard. He is a basketball genius. I felt so immensely stupid asking him detailed basketball questions that insinuated some type of stance on an intricacy of the game, because who am I to prod him on basketball’s minutiae? It was difficult to tip toe that line with him, which is part of what made him so fun to cover.

Paul let a little bit of what I’m talking about seep out at exit interviews in May. The conversation around him regarded his new role more off the ball and if how he was getting used to it.

“Let me tell you,” he said. “You don’t play 18 years in this league at a high level and not understand how to adjust and adapt with the game. I’ve been in this NBA a lot longer than some of the people been covering it. I remember when the games ended in 85-80 scores. I don’t talk about it too much but I know this game just about better than anybody. I put that up against anybody.”

If you’re skeptical of this or rolling your eyes, please read this piece from two years when I was able to ask all his teammates about some of Paul’s signature moves on the court. The Takeback. The Manipulator. The Mixtape. All those are supremely unique to him and are constants because of his intelligence.

He used it to any means necessary and gave the Suns an innate advantage because they had a coach on the floor at all times.

Paul would often let the ball roll up on inbounds passes when the Suns led late, draining the game clock while the shot clock didn’t start yet. He’d point out obscurities like when a team illegally had four players on the floor or some other rule even experts weren’t aware of. He would even explain it to officials sometimes. His rip-through move when the Suns were in the bonus was his crowning achievement. Because of Paul’s understanding, referees routinely pissed him off, to the point where it clearly set him off to destroy the other team. He’d flop to trick them, seeing another potential edge he just had to have.

Paul would call out routine plays opponents knew just to run something else, putting his competitors in a figure four leg lock when they had the audacity to think they were getting one up on him. One of his favorite things to do was hit a shot forcing a timeout from the opponent, telling the opposing coach to call it either as they did or prior to the motion. He got mad when drop coverage was played on him, insulted by a game plan giving one of the best midrange scorers ever those shots.

All of it made me laugh constantly. I’ve never cracked up more watching a basketball player and never will.

I know this is a controversial statement, but for a franchise that saw Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash at the peak of their powers, I really believe Paul is the best of them all. “The Point God” elements of his play are undeniable.

His handle and shot-making combination are incomparable. Paul had this way of intensifying his dribble that would make you sit up to see what was about to happen while hearing that poor basketball squeal out on life support. If that didn’t create enough separation from a defender, he could shoot over anyone anyway. There was no proper way to contest his jump shot. Think about that! He’s six feet tall!

Paul always knew where he was on the court. He didn’t have to see where the rim was. It was a layup in the right spot.

I could keep going. But the highest compliment I can provide him is that someone who has zero knowledge of basketball or even sports could watch Paul and quickly realize they were seeing someone special, knowing there was something different about him. I saw it happen dozens of times.

For what Paul was in Phoenix, his legacy is fitting, and I’m sure it’s similar for his career as a whole.

He made everyone watching the game smarter. I had friends relatively new to basketball’s intricacies understanding the importance of a weak-side defender because of Paul’s stranglehold on that guy’s noggin every night. They’d text me in the early first quarter, “Drop coverage. Going to be a good night for us!”

For a guy that loves the game as much as anybody, I’m sure he’ll take that.

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