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Why the Suns Will Rise in the West During CP3’s First Season

 

The Suns clearly believe they’re ready to become a threat in the Western Conference, but was acquiring an aging point guard with a big contract the right move? We’re taking a deep dive to measure Chris Paul’s potential impact in his first season in the desert. 

By: Taylor Bechtold

By now there’s little doubt about how the Phoenix Suns organization feels about its teams’ stunning performance in the NBA’s bubble.

Suns general manager James Jones has chosen to double down on an 8-0 finish at Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort in July and August, acquiring 10-time All-Star Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder for four players and a 2022 first-round pick.

It could be considered a risky move given that Paul is 35-years-old and has a sizable contract – two years remaining at $80-plus million total. And there’s still a question about whether the club has truly arrived or it’s basing this move on a hot streak over a small sample size in the bubble after going 26-39 in its previous regular-season contests.

New Suns PG Chris Paul has elevated his play each time he’s joined a new team.

But what does the data tell us about Paul’s potential impact on the rising Suns? We’ve gone on a mission to find out using our lineup data and Stats Perform’s Adjusted Team Ratings, which is a model that uses advanced metrics on both sides of the ball to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse a team was than the average during those specific seasons, including the playoffs.

While it’s true that Paul is entering his 16th season, he seems to be rejuvenated every time he faces a new challenge with a new team. After averaging 15.9 points in his final season in New Orleans in 2010-11, he put up 19.8 in his debut campaign with the Los Angeles Clippers the following year. CP3 also had 18.6 points per game with the Houston Rockets in 2017-18, after finishing with 18.1 the previous season with the Clippers.

And after averaging 15.6 points in his final season with the Rockets, Paul had a somewhat surprising rebirth with 17.6 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds for the Oklahoma City Thunder. His 48.9 field-goal percentage last season was his highest since shooting 49.3% in 2009-10.

That was also the last season in which the Suns reached the playoffs, but looking at the chart below, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that drought will be coming to an end in 2020-21.

Using our Adjusted Team Ratings, we see that CP3 has not only had an immediate impact on his new teams but that they also take a major step backward once he moves on. In 2004-05, the New Orleans Hornets finished 18-64 before taking Paul fourth overall in the NBA draft.

They would go on to win 38 games as Paul won the rookie of the year award in the following season. He led them to three playoff appearances in four years between the 2007-08 and 2010-11 seasons before getting traded to the Clippers.

Chris Paul helped the Thunder exceed all expectations in 2019-20.

Los Angeles finished 32-50 in 2010-11 before acquiring CP3, but the Clips went 40-26 during the shortened 2011-12 campaign and reached the playoffs in six straight seasons for the first time in franchise history with Paul as their floor general. The Rockets were already a good team, finishing 55-27 in 2016-17 before acquiring Paul for quite the package: Sam Dekker, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, a top-three projected 2018 first-round pick and $661,000.

But the Rockets took a big leap forward with Paul, winning a franchise-record 65 games and taking a 3-2 series lead on the Golden State Warriors in the West finals before Paul went down with a leg injury late in Game 5. Without CP3 this season, the Rockets finished with a .611 winning percentage (44-28) – their lowest since going 41-41 in 2015-16.

While the Oklahoma City numbers aren’t impressive on the surface, remember that not much was expected of the Thunder in 2019-20 after Russell Westbrook was moved to the Rockets (for Paul) and Paul George was traded to the Clippers. In fact, ESPN forecasted that OKC would finish 13th in the 15-team West with a 33-49 record.

With Paul on board, the Thunder earned the fifth seed in the West at 44-28 and took Westbrook, Harden and the Rockets to seven games while CP3 averaged team highs with 21.3 points and 5.3 assists and was second with 7.4 rebounds.

So what does Paul’s arrival mean for his new teammates Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton? Well, Booker is already considered a player on the rise after placing ninth in the NBA and matching his career high with 26.6 points per game on a career-best 48.9% shooting in 2019-20.

He also showed glimpses of becoming a star capable of putting a team on his back in the bubble, where he averaged 30.5 points during Phoenix’s eight straight wins.

Devin Booker averaged 30.5 points while the Suns went 8-0 in the NBA’s Orlando bubble.

If our lineup data is any indication, expect Paul to help Booker take his game to another level in Year 1. It might not be an MVP level just yet like Harden won alongside CP3 in 2017-18, but the chart above shows how each of Paul’s top teammates has made a larger impact on his respective clubs with CP3 as opposed to before his arrival; while he was on the team but not on the floor; and after he moved on to another franchise.

David West’s scoring average went from 6.2 PPG in 2004-05 to 17.1 in Paul’s rookie year and he averaged 19.2 points in his six seasons with CP3. After they split ahead of the 2011-12 season, West averaged just 12.8 points with the Indiana Pacers and didn’t put up more than 18 per game in any season after that.

Blake Griffin’s ratings with Paul compared to without him aren’t even close, and we mentioned Harden’s 2017-18 MVP. His scoring average increased from 29.1 PPG to league highs of 30.4 and 36.1 in his two seasons with CP3 before going down to 34.3 (albeit also a league high) last year without him.

One area that Paul has really excelled in has been getting the most out of big men, which should bode well for Ayton. Tyson Chandler went from a defensive specialist to half of a dynamic pick and roll lob duo with Paul in New Orleans/Oklahoma City.

Then Los Angeles became known as “Lob City” after CP3 arrived because of his constant highlight-reel alley-oop passes to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan during the most successful stretch in franchise history.

Clint Capela became the benefactor in Houston, where he averaged career highs of 13.9 points in 2017-18 and 16.6 in 2018-19 while playing alongside Paul, before his PPG dipped back to 13.9 without him in 2019-20. Even Steven Adams, who is not a go-up-and-get-it type and played six seasons with either Westbrook/Kevin Durant, Westbrook/Oladipo or Westbrook/George, had a tremendous increase in his net rating while with CP3 last season.

While it might not be all that surprising that a player of Paul’s caliber makes those around him better, the extent to which CP3 has improved his teams and the impact he’s had on teammates has been staggering. Booker and Ayton should be smiling, because we expect more of the same now that Paul is in a Suns uniform.

 

Data modeling provided by Matt Scott.

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