Chris Paul Leads Suns to NBA Finals Two Years After 'Worst Contract' DumpJuly 1, 2021
In his 16th NBA season, 36-year-old Chris Paul is on his way to his first NBA Finals following the Phoenix Suns' 130-103 Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.
After dropping Game 5 at home, the Suns have their future Hall of Fame point guard to thank for closing out his former team.
When CP3 sat down with just under four minutes left in the third quarter, Phoenix was up 89-72. The Clippers quickly rattled off 10 straight points, causing Suns coach Monty Williams to put Paul back in earlier than expected.
The man long ago dubbed The Point God completely took over the final 1:43 of that frame. He drilled a three, made a mid-ranger, drew a technical foul on DeMarcus Cousins and made another three. Phoenix went into the quarter break up 97-83. Overall, Paul scored 14 of Phoenix's next 16 points after L.A.'s run.
"Don't lose," Paul told ESPN's Rachel Nichols when asked what he was thinking during that run. "Don't lose mission. Damn, that feels good."
Paul's final line? Forty-one points (including a career-high for a half with 31 after halftime), eight dimes, three steals and zero turnovers. He was 7-of-8 from three-point range.
With a chance to represent the West in the Finals, Paul registered a whopping 39.6 game score ("...a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game," according to Basketball Reference). It's the second-highest mark for a single postseason game in his career.
For CP3 to reach this level, at this point in his career, is truly remarkable. Yes, plenty will detract in the moment. Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard missed all or most of their teams' series against Phoenix. But his whole career has been something of a war of attrition. It's almost fitting that he's closer to a title than ever before in the season of attrition.
After a career full of high-profile postseason losses and poorly timed injuries, Paul was darn-near salary dumped by the Houston Rockets two years ago.
After the decision was made to break up the CP3-James Harden duo, Houston attached two first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps in the deal that sent the former to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook.
"That trade was made because [Rockets owner] Tilman Fertitta wanted it made," ESPN's Tim MacMahon said on The Lowe Post (h/t CBS Sports). "He thought Chris Paul's contract was the worst that he'd ever seen in business or sports..."
At the time, it was assumed that OKC would re-route Paul elsewhere, but ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski suggested the Thunder might have to "incentivize" a deal by including picks of their own.
With nagging injuries and three years and $124.1 million left on his contract, that line of thinking made sense. But Paul was nowhere near as close to done as many thought.
In his final season with the Rockets, CP3 averaged 22.9 points, 12.7 assists and 2.2 steals per 75 possessions when Harden was off the floor. And when Paul returned to the alpha role with the Thunder, after they were unable to find any takers for him and his massive contract, numbers like that became far easier to find.
He was the ultimate mentor on a team no one expected to make the postseason in 2019-20. Behind Paul's leadership and averages of 17.6 points and 6.7 assists, they did. And he left an impact on his former teammates.
"He was a great help to me in my second year," Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I got a brother for life. ... I’m thankful for being his teammate."
The better-than-expected results made Paul a good value again in just one season, and OKC landed another first-round pick for him this past offseason.
Then, somehow, he increased his value again.
CP3 finished fifth in MVP voting this season. He has the Suns, a young and inexperienced team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2010, in the NBA Finals. He's shown in the biggest moments, like Wednesday's, that he can still completely take over a game.
And now, just two years after his contract was thought to be among the worst in the league, Paul declining his $44.2 million player option for 2021-22 doesn't feel outside the realm of possibility. If he entered free agency, a two- or three-year deal paying him $20 to 25 million per year wouldn't be surprising.
If Phoenix wins a championship, something in that range might even be expected.
More importantly, a title would seal the legacy of a surefire Hall of Famer. Whatever happens during his next contract, that would be basketball gravy.
Paul is fifth in NBA history in career box plus/minus (BPM is "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference) and ninth in playoff BPM.
He has career averages of 18.3 points, 9.4 assists and 2.1 steals, and he's top-five all-time in both assists and steals.
The only thing missing is a ring.
Right now, Paul is at or near the top of the group of ringless legends that includes Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and James Harden.
A championship could vault him into conversations with Stephen Curry, Oscar Robertson and a handful of others for second greatest point guard of all time (behind Magic Johnson).
These are just the kind of legacy-based discussions that fans and analysts obsess over, though. For Paul, this is about the "Don't lose mission" he called out immediately after Wednesday's win.
The Atlanta Hawks or Milwaukee Bucks won't be walkovers (though Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both hurt), but this almost feels like a year of destiny for CP3.
There's just one more objective on this mission.