I like this role for Chris Paul, where he roves the landscape, slightly diminished but still sharp and with an undamageable intellect, transforming decent enough teams into tough playoff outs. It’s what you might have imagined for him when he was carrying some unremarkable New Orleans Hornets squads in the late aughts, and if the feeling that he was going to star on championship contenders did end up proving true, those failed runs were redolent with grievance and acrimony. As each season slipped away, the lawyering became indistinguishable from when dad bangs his thumb with a hammer and yells at the dog. If you’re not a Clippers or Rockets fan, and perhaps even if you are, this is better. This, of course, being only a single season in Oklahoma City. It’s possible that we’re trying to wish a more pleasant Chris Paul into existence.
The Thunder, framed when he was traded there last offseason as the site of some sure to be short-lived personal hell, were close to a perfect situation. Everybody in that rotation—save Dennis Schroder, who deserves a lot of credit for refining his game without losing the overcaffeinated verve that makes him so fun to watch—was either an established, set-it-and-forget-it vet or a young guy not yet given to blanching at an overbearing graybeard handing out pointers. For Paul’s part, he did seem to genuinely appreciate the blooming talents of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, in a way he did for about five seconds in Los Angeles with Blake Griffin. He apparently provided the correct amount of admonition and advice, mixing in crucial encouragement, because he and Shai had terrific synergy. Their Seussian arrangement—big guard, small guard, young guard, old guard—made for one of the most enjoyable backcourts in the league. For whatever reason—introspection, a helpful book, gap year graciousness—Chris Paul took it down a notch, the Thunder overachieved, and as they departed Disney World, everyone agreed that they had had a swell time.
Do those vibes travel? Devin Booker is more fully formed than SGA, possessed solidly of his own opinions and experience, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The guy can score, and has grown quite a bit as a playmaker over the past couple of seasons. Losing as prodigiously as Booker has over his five-year career—last season was the first time the Suns topped 30 wins with Booker on the roster—has contradictory effects on good young players. They cultivate a certain laziness, because it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a tough time staying locked in while your team sinks into weeks-long losing streaks as if dozing off on a train, and while they yearn for a better environment, they also tend to cling to their methods. Sure, we suck, but I put up 26 and 6 in all those Ls. A koan passed along by a therapized friend: comfort is not the same thing as happiness. You can be miserable, and not particularly want anything to change. Athletes are competitive, but they’re also people. They like routine and they don’t like to be told what to do.
Whether Booker’s ready or not—he thinks he is; we’ll check in with him around March—playing alongside Chris Paul is a huge change. (Especially considering he’s replacing Ricky Rubio, perhaps the most amiable man on the planet.) In theory, they fit together well as a sort of bizarro version of Paul and SGA. While those two were a nightmare defensively, Paul smart and strong and SGA with sky-darkening length, the Suns are immediately going to become nigh impossible to guard just on the basis of what Booker and Paul bring. If Deandre Ayton, guaranteed to get chewed out by Paul several times per night, can continue his ascent toward becoming one of the league’s three or four centers who actually matter, the West will have a real pain in the ass on its hands. Whether Booker and Ayton cotton to Paul’s (decreasingly?) scrutinous brand of leadership, whether everybody down to Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges finds a slightly elevated level, is something we’ll be raving about or quietly disappointed by. The headline is the Suns were vaguely interesting last year. Paul, provided he isn’t struck suddenly by age or injury, gives them the opportunity to become damn compelling.
And that’s probably the ceiling. And that’s okay. It is maybe for the best, for the health of both the player and the workplace, to keep Chris Paul some distance away from the possibility of a ring. When the pressure ratchets up, he sees every teammate as Caesar did the Roman senate, and he’s not a young man anymore; you fear he might expire in a stress-related toilet incident. What was so gratifying about the work he did in Oklahoma City last year was its pastoral element. Paul had the relieved, approaching beatific air of a burnt out actor who skips town to raise horses and write YA fiction in the Hudson Valley. You don’t become a different person in a different place, but if you’re lucky, the light catches you differently. The light in OKC was just right. Phoenix is a similar but wholly unfamiliar venue. We’ll see if it proves nourishing or disrupts Paul’s delicate bliss.