by Cody Cunningham

Headline

Uncanny Parallels Connect Four Phoenix Icons
Chris Paul’s impact in The Valley has rejuvenated Suns basketball with an MVP-caliber season

Only the sound of sneaker squeaks and the ball bouncing could be heard through the music as the two All-Star guards began to work up a sweat on Nov. 17. 

Chris Paul and Devin Booker had shared the court together many times throughout their careers, dating all the way back to a memorable pre-draft workout in 2015. 

But this time was different. Now, they were teammates. 

The two went to a Valley resident’s home where the 2009 NBA All-Star Game court now resides, featuring the large orange Sun around each free throw line and the signature cactus logo center court. Paul played on the floor more than a decade ago, when Booker was only 12 years old. But less than 24 hours after being traded to the Phoenix Suns, Paul teamed up with his new backcourt-mate to run through drills, get up shots and, most importantly, start training together the moment they had an opportunity.

Whether a foreshadowing that the two players would be named All-Stars again just a few months later or a reminder of Paul’s legacy since being drafted in 2005, the moment highlighted the self-motivated mindset that the future Hall of Famer has carried with him his entire career. Paul had yet to get accustomed to Phoenix, but was already eager to reach out to Booker, put his head down and work by example.

By doing so, Paul set the early tone for the season that night. 

Fast forward six months, the Suns boast the NBA’s second-best record at 48-19. They have created a “work-team” atmosphere, dedicated to grinding behind the scenes through preparation, while leaving all they have on the floor when the final whistle blows.

Through his team’s journey to out-perform external expectations, his league’s-most-efficient playmaking and the leadership and passion he’s provided to the organization, Paul has entered the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation. And while making Paul’s case, one can draw parallels to the other Phoenix basketball icons who have won the award: Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Diana Taurasi.

Following their improbable 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble, the Suns were already a popular pick to take another step forward entering the 2020-21 season. After falling just short of the postseason, breaking through that benchmark looked like a realistic possibility.

General manager James Jones had constructed a roster featuring some of the best young talent in the league. But the addition of Paul raised the floor and heightened the ceiling of the young core, similar to the trade that brought Barkley to Phoenix in 1992 and the signing of Nash in 2004.

All three of those Suns teams had momentum. All three had the talent. Yet the incorporation of these future Hall of Famers sparked waves throughout the Valley and generated three of the most successful seasons in team history. The Suns went to the 1993 Finals, pushing the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls to six games. The 2004-05 version won 62 games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals.

Paul became a leader for Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges in the same way that Nash did for Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson, and Barkley did for Kevin Johnson, Richard Dumas and Dan Majerle. But, as Paul has stated, he wasn’t just coming in to provide veteran guidance, but to also be their teammate and win basketball games.

“We’re here to hoop. We’re here to compete,” Paul said during his introductory press conference.

With just five games left in the regular season, the Suns continue to jockey with the Utah Jazz, a team they swept 3-0 during the regular season, for the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA. The Suns have been the league’s top overall seed twice in team history: 1992-93, when Barkley won MVP, and 2004-05, when Nash won MVP. Looking at the WNBA side, Taurasi was named MVP following the Phoenix Mercury’s first-place finish in 2009. 

This season’s transformed Phoenix Suns Arena, fresh new Valley-themed uniforms and the addition of one of the greatest players in basketball history also reflects the 1992-93 season.

That season marked the debut of then-America West Arena in downtown Phoenix and the release of the fan-adored sunburst jerseys, with Barkley leading the charge on the floor to turn a good team into a championship contender.

With the Phoenix Cardinals’ recent relocation, and the Phoenix Coyotes and Arizona Diamondbacks still a few years away from arriving, Barkley gave Phoenix a superstar to foreshadow the mega professional sports market Arizona would become. Nash and Taurasi carried that torch through the 2000s, and Paul now continues that legacy.

Paul’s impact is fused with elite playmaking once seen by another franchise MVP in Nash. In fact, Paul’s season statistics in 2020-21 are quite comparable to that of Nash’s from 2004-05.

Paul (2020-21): 16.2 points, 8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals, .492 / .392 / 93.1

Nash (2004-05): 15.5 points, 11.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1 steal, 50.2 / 43.1 / 88.7

Paul is recording just the 14th season in NBA history of eight-plus assists on at least 48/38/88 shooting — the second time he has personally done so in his career (2014-15 with LA Clippers). As it currently stands, it would mark just the fourth time ever that a player has done so while playing for a team that secured a top-2 seed in the NBA Playoffs. Each of the previous three were accomplished by Steve Nash for the Suns, including both of his NBA MVP seasons (via Stathead).

Paul has built his career off of bettering everyone around him while taking care of the ball, with 44 games of 10-plus assists and zero turnovers. The next closest active player is Rajon Rondo, with 13. Paul has had six such games this season alone — while no other player has more than two — in addition to 10 games with six-plus assists without a turnover.

Averaging 8.9 assists to just 2.2 turnovers this year, Paul is the only player in the NBA this season averaging more than eight assists and less than three turnovers per game, a feat only notched five other times in a franchise’s history that features multiple Hall of Fame playmakers.

As they say, the best ability is availability, and few stars have played more games than the 36-year-old Paul this season. While only missing one game, Paul has accumulated 22 double-doubles, a triple-double and 47 wins in 66 games this year. His triple-double occurred in a 17-point victory over the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers.

But similar to Nash, the numbers don’t tell the full story of Paul's leadership and impact.

Suns head coach Monty Williams said that it’s not just one individual thing that Paul does, but rather an overall compilation of impactful qualities that the point guard has consistently displayed since arriving in Phoenix. 

“The energy, the focus, the ability to care every single day about the team, individual teammates, being there for them, willingness to teach, also listening to them,” Williams said. “He’s been pretty consistent as a leader for us this year, and obviously on the floor he’s been tremendous.”

Paul has not only led the Suns to their best season in years, but his impact is felt on both ends of the court. Phoenix is one of only four teams to rank top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. A team that went 19-63 just two years ago, Paul and the Suns have the potential to become just the third team since the NBA-ABA merger to jump from a bottom-two to top-two team in two seasons or less, joining the 2007-08 and 1979-80 Celtics teams. 

A mix of extreme passion and extraordinary talent, it would be challenging to find a more competitive athlete across sports than Paul. The closest might be one door over in the Mercury locker room. 

Paul and Taurasi train like roster invitees with Hall of Fame resumes, leave it all on the floor night-in and night-out and raise the level of their teammates through their elite basketball IQ as well as their often-tough-love leadership.

On the sideline, in the huddle and sometimes even during game action, Paul has been spotted breaking down plays to teammates, expressing how a sequence can be run better, and correctly predicting what will happen two or three possessions in advance. But as Paul has reiterated, “I’ll never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.” 

In an interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews, Booker recalled a moment at the beginning of season when the team was talking about the potential of reaching the playoffs, which would be new experience for many on the roster. However, Paul had bigger plans. According to Booker, Paul yelled out in the locker room, “Sixteen teams make the playoffs. That ain't what we're going for.”

Paul gave his teammates the confidence and belief that they could compete with anyone on the floor. That competitive spirit has transformed the Suns locker room. Paul has provided the Suns a newly developed identity of hustle, determination and focus fused with a sense of urgency on every possession.

And similar to Taurasi, when the clock starts dwindling down, there are few more equipped to have the ball in their hands. 

On April 26, the New York Knicks entered their matchup against the Suns as the hottest team in the league. The Suns were on the final night of a grueling five-game road trip against five of the six best teams in the Eastern Conference.

With less than three minutes remaining, Paul found Bridges cutting baseline for a two-handed slam to put the Suns up by nine. Paul followed that up with his patented midrange fadeaway a few possessions later.

But the Knicks just continued to knock down shots on the other side. With under a minute remaining and only leading by three points, Paul went to work on Most Improved Player frontrunner Julius Randle. Displaying his bag of handles, Paul crossed over Randle, spun and flicked up an improbable midrange jumper as the shot-clock buzzer went off to give the Suns a five-point lead. He followed that up with a 3-point heave from the top of the key to seal the victory and snap the Knicks’ nine-game winning streak. 

One of the league’s best closers, Paul also knows when it’s the right time to draw the attention, trust his teammates and delegate to those around him.

In a highly contested battle against the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 1, Paul notched 34 points on 14-of-20 shooing to go along with nine assists, nine rebounds and two steals. However, the Suns found themselves down by two with 10 seconds remaining. Despite having the hot hand, Paul forced the Mavericks to switch, drew his defender into the corner and fed Booker with the perfectly timed bounce pass to give him just enough separation to knock down the game-winner. 

The late-game heroics in both the Knicks and Mavericks victories came on the road, where the Suns are 22-10 this season. Their .688 winning percentage in road games is best in the NBA and currently sits as the second-best in Suns history behind only the Nash-led 2004-05 team (31-10).

Back home, the Suns fans have begun to show their gratitude. Nearing the end of the playoff-clinching victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on April 28, a game in which Paul notched 28 points, 10 assists and three steals, the chant “MVP. MVP. MVP.” echoed throughout Phoenix Suns Arena. And since then, they’ve only grown louder.

Unsurprisingly, that November-night workout with Booker was just the beginning of Paul’s impact on the Suns.

His early commitment to the game, to his teammates and to the organization has illuminated far beyond the stat sheet, and has translated into leading one of the NBA’s top teams. His immediate presence within the overall culture of the locker room, the way he has aided his teammates’ growth and the tallies in the win column he has contributed to have been as valuable as any player in the league.

That’s why, like Barkley and Nash and Taurasi before him, Paul is a deserving MVP candidate.

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