EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Checking in on Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul ahead of returns to face Suns

Nov 21, 2023, 9:29 AM

It is reunion week not only for those returning home for the holidays but also at Footprint Center.

Deandre Ayton’s Portland Trail Blazers stop by to face the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, followed by the Golden State Warriors and Chris Paul on Wednesday. Ayton did come back for the preseason, although he didn’t play, so it’ll be his first time suiting up since getting traded in late September. It is Paul’s first trip back since the deal landing Bradley Beal with Phoenix in late June.

Both those guys, like the 7-6 Suns themselves, are going through some growing pains. Here’s a check-in on where that process is at for the both of them, while citing a disclaimer this is not at all meant to reflect who “won” each trade so early on.

Deandre Ayton’s reality on likely lottery-bound Blazers

Portland was dealt blows with injuries to guards Scoot Henderson (five games played) and Anfernee Simons (one), not really giving the Blazers much of a chance to see what it has at its disposal before a 3-10 start.

Ayton himself is averaging 12.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks and 2.0 turnovers a game. It’s a drop in his scoring while his efficiency (56.7% on field goals) is on the lower end of where it’s been in his career. He hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer yet, so that part of his development is still not off the ground. The steals are a big jump, nice to see.

The brief summary is it’s the version of Ayton we’ve come to expect, with the difference being it’s on a terrible young team, so the variability is a lot more extreme.

The most difficult adjustment for the big man is that Portland hasn’t instantaneously turned into a spot where he’s the No. 1 or No. 2 option offensively. He’s still serving a similar role as someone opening up offense for his ball-handlers through not only his screening but dives to the rim as well. You can imagine on a team with suboptimal shooting (last in 3P% by a whole 2.5%) and a lack of threats how tough the windows are to get him the ball.

“That’s impacted his touches,” head coach Chauncey Billups said Friday of the team’s shooting via The Oregonian. “And then as you can see, like tonight, when he gets it, there’s three or four guys right there slapping. He doesn’t even have room to put it down. So, he’s getting a little anxious to get it and go. It’s kind of tough for him out there a lot of nights, especially with how we’re situated right now.”

“Just giving it time,” Ayton said Friday. “We don’t have as many guys, so teams are trying to take me out as much as possible.”

Ayton, in only the way he could, quipped right after that saying, “I’m having fun with this, man. Me being the attention? About time!” while comically darting his head around the room. He’s still got his sense of humor, too!

I’m sure it’s also frustrating for him. Ayton’s post-ups per game have actually dropped significantly from 3.8 a game last year (tied for fifth in the NBA) to 2.5 (tied for 19th), per NBA Stats. If anything, there should have been a notable jump. Through that attention and large gaps in not getting post touches, he doesn’t have an elite (or even good) guard like Paul or Devin Booker finding him open around the basket on a semi-consistent basis.

Thus, the lulls in his scoring production are still present. In a Tuesday loss to the Utah Jazz, Ayton had a season-high 22 points, his lone time breaking 20-plus this year. It not so coincidentally was supported by a top mark in field goal attempts (17) as well.

He was aggressive with, you guessed it, his dribble and Portland did a better job getting him the ball.

Portland’s just not seeing that guy every night, an experience we grew accustomed to here in the Valley.

Ayton in 13 games has attempted nine free throws. Nine. For reference, to use the free throw attempt rate metric and 300 minutes played to qualify guys with real court time, his .067 FTr trails only Tyus Jones, Royce O’Neale, Eric Gordon and Dorian Finney-Smith for the worst in the league, according to Stathead.

That’s more of the same issues in the past. He’s not forcibly going through contact to draw fouls on his own, has a predictable set of moves and the lack of getting set up right next to the basket where he would get fouled is also a problem. No consistency in the required aggression of his approach. I don’t see that ever changing and it will prevent Ayton from becoming a great offensive player.

The same story goes on defense, where it’s hard to peg much of this on Ayton given the squad around him.

But if you watch enough of him, you’ll see the same roller coaster ride of ups and downs we’ve been on far too many times. The highs still being there is not worth just glancing by, and Billups in Phoenix said they see a guy who should eventually be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year given his skillset and past production. The expectations have been set. Maybe he gets there on that end of the floor at least. It had always been the more consistent part of Ayton’s game.

His lack of effort has already inspired some clips going viral on social media, like this awful screen setting in Utah or his frozen moment on a key loose ball in Los Angeles. I’m sure Suns fans saw that pop up on the timeline with a, “I know that ain’t who I think it is.”

Ayton’s got a lot to take in and still figure out, an adjustment someone like Paul is having to go through too with the first stretch of his career coming off the bench.

Chris Paul on and off the bench with Warriors

While injuries to Stephen Curry and the current suspension for Draymond Green have kept Paul starting at times, he’s been a reserve in nine of Golden State’s 15 games.

Per The Athletic’s Anthony Slater, head coach Steve Kerr held a meeting in the preseason with his normal five starters plus Paul telling them who starts and closes will depend on the night, with the underlying message being Paul’s gonna have to come off the bench for the first time in his career after starting 1,365 straight games.

Paul is posting 9.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 turnovers per game in 28.8 minutes a night while shooting a career-low 39.8% from the field and 32.8% at 3-point range.

The 7-8 Warriors are waiting on the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson and Paul to produce at higher levels after slow starts. Meanwhile, Curry is putting together another tremendous season.

So far, the biggest challenge is activating Paul’s scoring more, because the ball management is something the Warriors have direly needed to improve for years.

Throughout their dynasty, Golden State has been one of the worst teams in the NBA with turnovers and points off them, a byproduct of incomparable levels of ball movement. Paul has 115 assists and 18 turnovers, good for an insane 6.39 assist-to-turnover ratio, helping to tip those scales in a great way.

Paul’s just always going to be a positive on the floor because of this and his basketball IQ, especially if he’s making 3s in more of an off-ball role. And that’s where he’s actually been great, despite what the low numbers say.

On catch-and-shoot 3s in the 12 games with tracking data, Paul is an outstanding 10-for-19 (52.6%). But on pull-up triples, he’s an ugly 1-for-23 (4.3%). When watching ’em back, there’s a few heaves and late-clock tosses involved but it’s also just not converting off screens when the space is available. He should be in the high 30s and expect to see him get back around there.

At the same time, I’m not sure we’re going to see him taking many more shots overall once he’s comfortable. Paul’s field goal attempts already dipped across his last two years in Phoenix as he took more of a backseat to Booker and this is a whole different ballgame with the type of player Curry is, plus how stylistically different Paul’s game is to what the Warriors do. Kerr, to his credit, is running a fair bit for Paul to get that part of his game valued.

Paul’s just going to have to get his efficiency right in his area of the floor, since he historically is someone who shoots somewhere in the low 50s percentage-wise from the midrange but is at 44% this year, per Cleaning the Glass. Given how those numbers also regressed last season, perhaps this is just a decline in his ability, but it’s too early on a new team to go that far.

It’s a drop-off of involvement hard to fathom. Paul’s 15.6% usage rate is by far the lowest of his career average of 23.4%, and that’s on a low sample size buffed up by stretches without Curry and Green, the pair that run Golden State’s offense.

The low usage will ultimately be a good thing for Paul long term, keeping him fresher for the postseason and hopefully for his sake lessening the chances he gets injured in it like he has in previous seasons. In terms of limiting minutes for their older guys, the Warriors do that better than anyone else. And in the short term, Golden State hopes Paul initiating keeps Curry fresher every game as well.

The benefits should especially be the case defensively, where Paul’s viability highly hinges on how his legs hold up, because it’s difficult to get away with him and Curry on the floor together. Even last year at 37 years old, there were nights you’d see Paul pissed off enough for whatever reason to get incredibly active on and off the ball, still capable of being the nuisance that built up a resume of one of the best defensive point guards ever. It was just too many games where he clearly didn’t have the gusto to move like that and was more of a negative.

In 184 minutes on the floor this year with Curry and Paul together, Golden State’s defensive rating is a fine 111.5, an indicator it is managing just fine in the regular season thus far. And the Warriors are outscoring teams by a terrific 9.6 points per 100 possessions when the duo is out there. Paul never gets enough credit for how much he does as an overall on-floor communicator and organizer, where he and Green together make me confident it could work against great teams in mid-April and beyond.

It’s difficult to compare Paul to Ayton because Paul’s significant steps down in responsibility compared to Ayton will naturally make it easier for him to be a more positive player most nights and are a better match for where he’s at in this point of his career. Plus the team is far better.

For both Ayton and Paul, it’s been more of what we saw last season in Phoenix. Both have declined compared to their contributions from the 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns, to the point where their effectiveness on a night-to-night basis can wane more than desired. We’re still going to see nights where those true difference-makers come out. But at this early point in the year, it’s about if their new situations can unlock consistency the Suns couldn’t for the players they once were, and the returns thus far have suggested that’s not on the horizon.

That shouldn’t excuse them from how it seems like all three parties are better off for it. Ayton gets to spread his wings (metaphorically speaking at this point). Paul has another good shot at that elusive championship. And Phoenix became a better basketball team.

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