NBA

Opinion: In trading for Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns already one of the most improved teams in NBA

In one of those middling December NBA games, the Phoenix Suns traveled to Oklahoma City. The Suns were 11-16, and Thunder All-Star point guard Chris Paul told reporters, “Phoenix man, it’s actually really fun watching them play.”

Veteran intel and a harbinger in one sentence.

Paul said that in part because he has great appreciation for Suns coach Monty Williams, who used to be Paul’s coach in New Orleans a decade ago. Paul also said that because he recognized Phoenix’s talent.

Paul and Williams will be reunited soon. On Monday, the Suns and Thunder reached a deal that will send Paul to Phoenix for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a future first-round draft pick, a person with direct knowledge of the deal told USA TODAY Sports.

The person requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly until the deal is official.

Thunder guard Chris Paul handles the ball against Rockets in Game 2. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

Quickly, the Suns have turned from woebegone franchise to one of the most entertaining and improved teams in the NBA led by guard Devin Booker and center Deandre Ayton.

At the beginning of the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Suns were 26-39 and six games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. In the bubble, the Suns kept winning, Booker kept scoring, Ayton kept improving, young players, such as Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges, kept emerging.

Phoenix won all eight restart games and almost made the playoffs despite such a deficit when games resumed. The future started to look a little better for the Suns.

Booker averaged 26.6 points and 6.5 assists and shot 48.9% from the field, including 35.4% on 3-pointers, and scored at least 30 points in five of Phoenix’s eight restart games.

Paul will bring a Hall of Famer’s talent and perspective to a team that needs it as it tries to climb in the ultra-competitive and talented West. Yes, the Suns have a ways to go, but Williams in his first season with Phoenix in 2019-20 instilled a style, commitment and culture that breeds competitive basketball and can lead to the playoffs.

Getting Paul accelerates that process. It’s an encouraging sign for Suns fans, too, with owner Robert Sarver committing to Paul’s salary of $41.3 million in 2020-21 and $44.2 million in 2021-22.

Paul is 35 years old but still directed the offense at a high level, averaging 17.6 points, 6.7 assists and five rebounds while shooting 48.9% from the field. He will be a great set-up man for Booker and Ayton and take pressure off them, too.

In the NBA, the ties that bind are no further than a text message, a road trip and a previous player-coach relationship. In that December meeting between the Suns and Thunder, Williams and Paul raved about each other.

“His basketball mind, I used to get so excited before the games about the plays he was drawing up,” Paul told reporters then.

“He’s the kind of player that makes you look better than you really do,” Williams said. “To have a point guard like that my rookie season as a head coach was a blessing for me. No doubt about it. I learned so much from him and David West that season. They taught me a lot about how to handle situations, end-of-game stuff, how to trust players and the value of a really good point guard.”

Williams mentioned they sometimes butted heads – the veteran point guard trying to influence the first-time NBA head coach.

“He really pushed me to be better, because I knew I had to be sharp with him,” Williams said. “I knew that we had some synergy because I’d be ready to call a play, and he would call it. And it would mess me up.”

A decade is a long time. Williams is a better coach, Paul a wiser player and the Suns are better off for having both.

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