One of my favorite title teams ever was the 2006 Miami Heat, and it wasn’t because of Dwyane Wade or Shaquille O’Neal. There were three elder players on that squad who I thought deserved the validation that comes with a ring, and it was great seeing happiness ooze out of Gary Payton, Jason Williams, and Alonzo Mourning. While all significantly past their primes, the trio contributed to that championship, adorning their careers with the proverbial cherry on top.
Like or fear it because he’s set to make $30 million each of the next two seasons, it’s painfully obvious that Chris Paul is in the late-stage Glove, White Chocolate, or Zo part of his NBA tenure, and after Monday’s injury, the prospects of getting that career-achievement title this year aren’t great.
Suns were already lacking depth
The Phoenix Suns were thin before Paul got hurt, and even if he can gut out the rest of the series against the Denver Nuggets, I don’t think it’ll be enough to flip the outcome because he was barely effective before the groin tightness sidelined him. Devin Booker and Kevin Durant are logging an irresponsible amount of minutes just to keep games competitive, and the supporting cast is a shit show.
Cam Payne is back and was a minus-16 in 17 minutes. Damion Lee logged six rebounds, two assists, and no points in 26 minutes of action. With Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray essentially canceling out Durant and Booker, the spotlight is on the role players. Seeing as Phoenix traded anyone who’s worth a shit to Brooklyn in the KD deal, it’s easy to see how they find themselves in an 0-2 hole.
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, it was the “Suns in Four” series where Denver got its ass kicked on the court and in the stands, so I’m not surprised that the Nuggets are actively seeking retribution. Honestly — and don’t let Durant and Book see this — the Suns should feel fine bowing out at this juncture. What’s the point of trading your asset cache for a superstar if he pops a tendon trying to churn cream into butter?
From the seven playoff games I’ve seen, the KD-Book tandem has championship potential and pedigree. It sucks they’ll have to do it all over again next year, and nothing is guaranteed, which is why both will likely play 40-plus minutes the rest of the way, but I don’t see a path to a title or the Finals this year that doesn’t involve injuries to opponents or match-fixing.
However, the biggest impediment to the Suns filling in the cracks around their two stars and making a run next year is Paul’s contract.
Can’t restructure, so gotta re-something
Being a team leader doesn’t merit $30 million per year — look at Udonis Haslem — but unfortunately restructuring for a pay cut isn’t really a thing under the NBA’s current CBA. So even if Paul wanted to take less money, I’m not sure he could.
That’s an issue because while his numbers this season weren’t terrible, the eye test the past two playoffs has been alarming. In the first round of 2022, Jose Alvarado was up in Paul’s jersey so much that the Suns’ needed a different ballhandler to bring the ball up, and the Clippers employed similar pressure last round.
If Paul can’t consistently perform the basic functions of a point guard, while shooting 32 percent on wide-open threes, Phoenix is going to need a legit backup PG in addition to everything else. The good news is it’s never been easier to find a capable guard in this league. The bad news is they’ll probably be picking off the discard pile because they have nothing to trade.
Who knows, perhaps CP3 is counting on that extra $60 million because he’s halfway in on a Greek island with brother Cliff, or he just doesn’t want to forgo $60 million, but the only answers to Phoenix’s conundrum are a Paul retirement announcement, or an unpredictable CP-third-stage-of-his-career resurgence. I’m talking 2011 Jason Kidd on the Mavs hitting set shots and doing administrative duties at $8.5 million Jason Kidd. Getting out of the way and going full role player is the next logical phase for Paul.
Flipping Deandre Ayton for parts is tempting, and a center-by-committee approach might work, but the Suns will need vets on minimums, other ring chasers taking fliers, and every other trick in the maxed-out contender playbook in order to make a run at the title.
The drawback of being good enough to get your team in the playoffs year after year but never dominant enough to will a team to a title is front offices will shell out large contracts to spite their roster just to make the postseason. It’s not Paul’s fault they gave him a weighty bag. It’s simply the nature of the business.
Life is often unfair, and cruelly so for NBA stars on the fringe. Not every ring chaser gets their wish, and maybe a couple of years ago was the CP3’s best chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The most difficult part of regrets and what-ifs is sitting with them, and accepting that you can never change what happened.
That’s it. That’s all I got. No silver lining, no grand meaning behind a storied career. Just a human being staring at the possibility of going through life with his dream unfulfilled.