The season was over, but Chris Paul wasn’t.
The Phoenix Suns veteran point guard kept working at the team’s practice facility the day after the Denver Nuggets elimniated the Suns with a Game 6 rout Thursday at Footprint Center in the Western Conference semifinals.
Paul thought he was “close” to returning from a left groin strain suffered in Game 2 of the series, but he didn’t make it back in time to help the Suns stave off elimination.
“It was getting close, but it doesn’t matter now,” Paul said Friday after the team’s exit interviews.
The question now becomes will Paul be back in Phoenix next season?
The firing of head coach Monty Williams on Saturday could very well be the beginning of major changes for the organization under the leadership of new Suns team owner Mat Ishbia.
Paul still has two years left on his four-year, $120-million contract, but the last year is non-guaranteed. The third year of it going into next season is partially guaranteed.
It becomes fully guaranteed June 28. The Suns could certainly look to trade him in the offseason.
“Unfortunately, I’m not the GM or anything like that,” said Paul, when asked if he thinks he’ll be back next season. “So, we’ll see.”
The Suns traded for Paul before the 2020-21 season and he proved to be the catalyst for their run to the NBA Finals.
The future Hall of Famer led the league in assists for the fifth time in his career in the 2021-22 season as the Suns posted the NBA’s best record with a franchise-best 64 wins, but Phoenix fell to the Dallas Mavericks in a decisive Game 7 of the West semifinals.
This season, Paul played more off the ball as Devin Booker continued to evolve as a playmaker. He averaged a career-low 13.9 points on 11.3 shot attempts, which matched a career low he set in 2021-22, and team-high 8.9 assists.
“It was cool,” Paul said about playing off the ball. “You don’t play 18 years in this league at a high level and not understand how to adjust and adapt to the game. I’ve been in this NBA a lot longer than some of the people who have been covering it. I remember when the games ended in 80 to 85 scores.”
Paul was the fourth overall pick out of Wake Forest in the 2005 draft.
“I don’t talk about it too much, but I know this game better than just about anybody,” he continued. “I put that up against anybody. That’s what’s not going to change. Is my knowledge of the game and I’m going to keep putting in the work. If you mad at it, you hate it, it’s on you.”
The Suns ended the season with a second straight embarrassing playoff exit in Phoenix with Paul not on the floor this time due to injury. The Mavs beat them by 33 points in last year’s Game 7 and the Nuggets led by as many as 32 points in last week’s 125-100 victory.
With Phoenix making the blockbuster move for Kevin Durant right before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, the Suns have two ball handlers in Booker and Durant who can create offense for themselves and their teammates, thus putting in question Paul’s role as he’s been the guy to set the table for everyone else his entire career.
In addition, Paul has had some slippage on the defensive end and continues to be injury prone.
Paul played just 59 games in the regular season, missing 21 due to injuries. He sat 14 games with right foot soreness and seven with right hip soreness.
Then Paul watched Phoenix’s postseason run end from the bench.
“It’s tough man, it’s part of professional sports,” Paul said. “It happens, unfortunate. You don’t want it to. If it happens, you try to heal up as fast as possible and you get back at it.”
Paul certainly sounds up to the challenge of working his way back for what will be his 19th NBA season.
“I don’t know if it gets harder when you get older,” said Paul, who turned 38 years old May 6. “I’m grateful. It’s a lot of people who would love to be in this situation. To be able to play basketball every day. I’m 38 years old. You can call it what you want to, but I come in, I work hard every single day. I’m not going to act like I’m here by luck or something like that. I put the work in and put the work in for a long time.”
Making the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, Paul is a 12-time All-Star and 11-time All-NBA selection. He made the All-NBA Defensive team nine times, led the league in steals six times and in assists five times.
“You can analyze, say whatever you want to about it, but for me, it’s not hard because it’s the work and not everybody wants to do the work,” said Paul, who is third all-time in assists. “A lot people want to talk about it and analyze it, but all I do is put my head down and do the work and when you do that, I can live with the results.”
A change of pace
Paul still has a voice that’s been earned by not only his Hall of Fame career and knowledge of the game, but the impact he’s made in Phoenix since joining the Suns from Oklahoma City.
However, the Suns won Game 3 and 4 to even the series with Cameron Payne as their starting point guard. Payne pushed the tempo as the Suns played faster with him in the lineup.
In Game 1 and Game 2 playing in Denver’s high altitude, their pace was at 95.25 and they registered 190 possessions. The Suns averaged just 97 points and had an offensive rating of 102.1.
In Game 3 and Game 4, their pace rose to 98.28 and they generated 196 possessions. The Suns averaged 125 points and posted offensive rating at 127.6 in those two wins.
“I feel like it’s picked up a lot, but even when I’m off the court now, it’s like, sometimes when you see something, you kind of replicate it,” Payne said before Game 5 in Denver the Suns lost 118-112. “I feel like it’s been very beneficial for us. Working them in transition instead of coming down and trying to play half-court offense all the time.”
The Suns totaled 34 fastbreak points in Games 1 and 2. In Games 3 and 4, they cranked out 43.
“I think we’re a lot better when we’re moving in transition and running fast,” Payne added.
Payne scored a playoff career-best 31 points in Game 6.
While Paul is a better and more proven player than Payne, the Suns may look to find a point guard who can push the pace like Payne did.
Paul was recently named a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award along with Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr., Celtics forward Grant Williams and Spurs guard Tre Jones.
The NBA will announce the winner during the conference finals and give a $100,000 donation for a social justice organization of the winner’s choosing. The remaining four finalists will each select a social justice organization to receive a $25,000 contribution on their behalf.
Paul has been an advocate for historically black colleges and universities, showing tremendous support for HBCUs, their students and alumni. He recently graduated from Winston-Salem State University.
Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Chris Paul of Phoenix Suns addresses critics as questions linger about future with team