The Phoenix Suns were famously the worst team invited to the NBA bubble in Walt Disney World,1 beginning play six games back of the No. 8 seed with only eight games left. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based projections gave the Suns a less than 1 percent chance of making the postseason. Naturally, the Suns then proceeded to take the bubble by storm, going 8-0 in the seeding games behind sparkling performances from Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton (except for the one time he missed a COVID-19 test) and just about everyone else, ultimately falling short of the play-in round only because of a tiebreaker.
Now the Suns are pushing all their chips to the middle in an effort to build on that success. On Monday, the Suns acquired Chris Paul and Abdel Nader from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a (protected) 2022 first-round pick.
Almost immediately, most basketball fans began dreaming on a Paul-Booker backcourt. My mind instead turned to Ayton, because throughout his career, Paul has made a habit of getting the best out of all kinds of big men.
In New Orleans, he partnered with David West and Tyson Chandler, helping turn the former into one of the league’s best pick-and-pop threats and the latter into one of its premier dive men. With the Clippers, Paul teamed with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to form Lob City, rocking rims all over the country. In Houston, he and Clint Capela became nearly as unstoppable a duo as Capela and James Harden. And last year in Oklahoma City, he formed beautiful partnerships with all of his bigs: Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari (admittedly more of a stretch big) and Nerlens Noel, for the most part, but even Mike Muscala and Darius Bazley got in on the fun every once in a while.
In Ayton, Paul gets his most versatile dance partner since Griffin. Remember, though, that it took a few years for Griffin to become the type of all-around player we now see. Ayton is actually a better shooter right now than Griffin was when he and Paul teamed up: Ayton has hit shots outside of 8 feet at a 40.6 percent clip in his young career, per NBA Advanced Stats, compared with just 33.6 percent for Griffin in his rookie season in L.A., before CP3 arrived. (Griffin was and is a significantly more adept passer.)
More important from the Suns’ perspective, though, is how Paul’s pick-and-roll brilliance will aid Ayton in his pursuit of stardom. With all due respect to Booker, Rubio, Jerome, Lecque, Troy Daniels, Jared Harper, De’Anthony Melton, Jevon Carter, Jamal Crawford, Tyler Johnson, Elie Okobo, Isaiah Canaan, Jawun Evans and Jimmer Fredette, Paul is by far the best operator with whom Ayton will have played in his young career. There’s a reason they call him the Point God — he’s not just one of the best in the league, he’s one of the very best of all time.
Paul has a special combination of quickness, pace, precision, vision, shooting touch and spatial awareness that allows him to find creases in defenses that few others can access. He is arguably the best midrange shooter in the history of the league, and despite his size, he can get that shot at any time, over any defender, with his body facing in just about any direction before he decides to turn and unspool it toward the rim.
Because he has that particular set of skills, Paul is able to find success with damn near any kind of pick-and-roll partner, from rim-runners like Chandler, Jordan and Capela to short-rollers like West and Griffin and even pure pick-and-pop threats like P.J. Tucker and Ryan Anderson. He can do it in optimal, shooting-oriented environments like the one he had in Houston or even in the spacing-starved ecosystem in which he so often operated in L.A.
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Despite Griffin’s shooting shortcomings at the start of their partnership and Jordan’s total lack of range, for example, the CP3-Blake pick-and-roll pairing was an extremely fruitful one. In their Clipper careers, the duo paired for 3,899 regular-season ball screens that yielded an average of 1.142 points per possession, per Second Spectrum tracking data. While that wasn’t the most efficient of Paul’s pick-and-roll pairings over the years, it was still quite good — and far more efficient than Ayton pick and rolls have been during his first two NBA seasons.
In fact, Paul has paired on at least 200 pick and rolls with 11 different big men during the Second Spectrum era,2 and nine of those partnerships have proven more efficient than Ayton pick and rolls in two seasons. There’s little reason to believe that Paul won’t be able to make Ayton an even more efficient ball-screen scorer than he has been so far.
Of course, Paul’s mastery extends beyond the pick and roll. He’s a premier half-court operator in all senses of the term, and he excels at getting the ball to his teammates in positions where they can succeed. For example, according to Second Spectrum data provided to FiveThirtyEight, the average NBA post-up touch since 2016 has started 13.9 feet away from the rim. But post touches on entry passes thrown by Paul during that time have come just 12.3 feet away from the rim.
A difference of more than a foot and a half means the world to a post scorer like Ayton, who is already better at establishing position close to the basket than the players Paul has been feeding. In his two seasons, Ayton’s average post touch came just over 10.5 feet away from the hoop, per Second Spectrum.
Give a big man who excels at getting himself open close to the basket an elite entry passer who also happens to be a knockdown shooter,3 and he’ll become even more dangerous. Surround that pairing with even more shooting — in the form of Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson — and he’ll become more dangerous still.
And Ayton is already an above-average post scorer to begin with. His 1.014 points per direct post-up ranks 37th out of the 109 players with at least 100 post-ups over the past two seasons, per Second Spectrum.
Paul prefers a slower style of play (none of his teams has ranked inside the top 10 in pace since the 2013-14 Clippers), which should mesh with Ayton as well; but he’ll also be sure to reward the big man with feeds if and when he runs the floor, ensuring him a decent helping of easy baskets. He’ll undoubtedly aid Ayton’s efforts to become a better defender, too. Ayton already made strides on that end during his second season — especially in the bubble — and now has the look of a player who should be average or better on defense for most of his career.
Paul is no longer the world-class defender he was in his prime, but he’s still a good one, and few players work consistently harder on that end than he does. The example he sets and the stinginess he provides at the point of attack should each help Ayton progress further.
Of course, Paul is also 35 years old. He’s got two years remaining on his contract, assuming he picks up the $44.2 million player option he holds for the 2021-22 season, and he’s already defied the typical aging curve for players his size by remaining effective this deep into his 30s. He’s undoubtedly nearing the end of the line.
And while there are many great advantages to having him on your roster, there are also some drawbacks. Just ask Jordan or Griffin or Harden. Paul is so smart, so demanding and such a perfectionist that anything less than full effort and flawless execution is deemed unacceptable. Because he so rarely makes mistakes himself, he can even get away with that type of leadership — for a while. But the taskmaster style can eventually wear thin.
The Suns surely know that, though, and they can’t realistically view him as a long-term fixture. Instead, he’s more like an oasis in the desert, there to give Ayton and Booker the fuel they need to reach another level — and, if all goes according to plan, help take the Suns back to the playoffs in the process.