Why Isn't Anyone Taking Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns Seriously?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IApril 21, 2021

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) against the Houston Rockets during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 12, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

The Phoenix Suns have been the surprise team of the NBA this season.

They are led by Chris Paul, who continues to be the league's ultimate fixer-upper in his 16th season.

Paul is playing with his fifth team. The previous four averaged 8.3 more wins in the year he arrived than they did the season prior.

The Suns (41-16) are no different, having already won seven more games this season than they did a year ago.

Improved play in the regular season has never been a huge issue for Paul-led teams.

The playoffs?

That's another story.

Despite all his success, Paul, who will turn 36 years old May 6, has never advanced further than the Western Conference Finals. That was in 2018, when Paul along with James Harden led the Houston Rockets to a league-best 65-17 record. Houston faced the Golden State Warriors in the West Finals, and it led the best-of-seven series 3-2. But in the closing moments of Game 5, Paul suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him for Games 6 and 7.

Houston lost both, and the Warriors advanced to the NBA Finals, where they swept the Cleveland Cavaliers for their third title in four seasons.

It was viewed as Paul's last shot to win a championship.

And while rival executives and scouts believe Phoenix is good enough to compete for a title this season, most are far from bullish on the Larry O'Brien Trophy taking up residence in the Valley of the Sun.

"They're a good story. The league needs a few good stories, you know? But I just don't see them coming out of the West," a Western Conference executive said. "They'll be a tough out for whoever they face; no doubt. But I just don't see them getting past either one of the L.A. teams. You can't come out of the West and not see one of them along the way. But like I said, they're a good team, man. They're really good."

The Suns have been one of the best teams this season in large part because of their play on both ends of the floor. Phoenix is one of just three squads (with the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks) ranked among the league's top 10 in offensive and defensive rating.

There's no mistaking that while several factors have contributed to the Suns' success, the addition of Paul stands out.

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

"There's nothing like having a floor general, a leader that can help his teammates but also his teammates need," Suns general manager James Jones told Bleacher Report. "They all know they need him to survive; they need him to thrive. That's what's so unique about him. That's what Chris enjoys. He enjoys seeing those guys thrive."

Even before Paul's arrival, Devin Booker was an All-Star. But the addition of Paul has made Booker an even more dangerous force offensively.

"Devin plays tremendously off the ball," Jones said. "He needs Chris to take on the ball-handling duties and put him in position to succeed."

This season, Booker is shooting 43.4 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts (one of his many strengths) and 43.9 percent on pull-up jumpers. His numbers in those categories are better than they were a year ago, when he connected on 41.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts and 42.1 percent of his pull-up jumpers.

The concern executives voiced about the Suns as a title contender stems from their youth beyond Paul, Booker and Jae Crowder. Booker is 24 years old but in his sixth season.

"There's growing pains that most teams go through before they break through unless you got LeBron James playing for you," an Eastern Conference scout said. "It feels like they're a step or two away from being ready to really, really compete for it all."

The numbers, however, tell a different story when it comes to Phoenix's age and experience relative to the rest of the NBA.

At the start of the season, the NBA's annual survey showed the average Suns player was 26.8 years old, which made them the ninth-oldest team in the league. The survey also showed the average Phoenix player had 4.7 years of experience, which made it the ninth-most experienced team.

A Western Conference scout who has seen the Suns play "countless" times this season believes they are ready to win it all.

"I hear the 'they're too young' argument all the time," the scout said. "But you look at their roster, they have everything right now you want to win a championship. They have leadership. They have good scorers. They have stretch-big versatility in the frontcourt. They have quality depth, good coaching. And they got a real legit chip on their shoulder because everybody has been saying they would fall all season. And they're standing, kicking ass damn near every night. Sleep on them if you want to."

In addition to Paul and Booker, 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton has emerged as a force around the basket and the beneficiary of Paul's elite pick-and-roll game.

Darryl Webb/Associated Press

Mikal Bridges was among the breakout performers in last year's bubble outside of Orlando, Florida, and has only gotten better this season, averaging 12.9 points while shooting a career-best 41.7 percent on threes.

The roster also features perimeter depth (Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne), and that versatility in the frontcourt (Ayton, Crowder and Dario Saric), and the aforementioned chip on the shoulder—which is the wildest wild card of them all.

Jones, a 14-year NBA veteran with three championship rings to his credit (and a ridiculous seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals from 2011 to 2017), has learned from some of the best basketball minds and franchises in the NBA.

He has experienced what a championship-caliber roster looks, feels and plays like.

That's why he believes the Suns are built to win a title right now.

"I truly believe that," he said. "That's not to say that it's easy. But we have the players, and we have the desire. We have the mentality to win it. If you do that, you give yourself a shot. That's all you want. That's all I want. There's a lot that goes into it. But if you compete, and we stay healthy, I believe we're as good as anyone."