Chris Paul added to his impressive legacy after Game 1 of the NBA Finals by joining the elite company of Michael Jordan. And the hungry-for-a-championship fan base in Phoenix was thrilled to see it.
Paul is symbolic of a Suns team that has struggled for years to reach the NBA Finals. Now that they’ve arrived, tickets are at a premium – StubHub had nothing cheaper than $660 options on Thursday afternoon – national media has descended on the city and the Phoenix Suns Arena team shop is quickly selling out of Finals gear.
The Suns lead the championship series 1-0 and will face the Milwaukee Bucks for Game 2 in Phoenix Thursday night.
Paul, 36, became the first player since Jordan in 1991 to record 30 or more points and eight or more assists in an NBA Final debut. He became the oldest player to record a 32-point, nine-assist game in finals history, passing Lebron James. The Larry O’Brien championship trophy is clearly within reach.
“He just understands how to score the ball,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s just a really good basketball player. He’s one of those rare guys that can see the floor and knows where all five guys should be.”
Yet with all the success the team and Paul have experienced this year, a question remains: Will Paul be a Phoenix Sun next season?
He has a player option for $44.2 million to stay in Phoenix next year, but that is no guarantee.
“You know I like to drink, right? I’ve never been drunk enough to say no to $45 million dollars,” former Suns standout Charles Barkley told The Arizona Republic.
I asked Charles Barkley about Chris Paul's player option for next season to stay in Phoenix.
"You know I like to drink right? I've never been drunk enough to say no to $45 million dollars."
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) June 9, 2021
Many believe Paul will decline his player option for next season with the hope of securing a multiyear contract. Doing so would make him a free agent at season’s end. No matter what happens, Paul has left his mark on the Suns organization.
“If he doesn’t play another game for us, you can still pay him his contract,” guard Devin Booker said. “His effect is that big, you know what I’m saying? So he moves the team, he leads this team daily. Just having him in the locker room. I’m not even talking about anything he does on the court. He takes the team to the next level.”
It seems only fitting for Paul to cap this story line with an NBA title because he has experienced so many ups and downs in his career. He has been called “washed up.” His contract once was tagged “worst in the NBA.” He has played on three teams in three years, making this season extra special.
“Chris Paul is stamped regardless, anything else from here is extra,” Booker said. “I know he wants it bad, I know he’s happy about this for his first time, but I know what he’s on the pursuit of and we have the same understanding. We don’t talk about it much, but we know what we’re trying to get to.”
Paul is the driving force behind a well oiled Suns machine. He helped the team to a 51-21 record, which was the second best in the NBA and a win improvement of 17 games. He typically makes teams he is on better. Last year, he led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs after they were given a 0.2% chance to advance to the postseason.
He has compiled an impressive resume during his 16-year career. He is an 11-time All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, an NBA Rookie of the Year and an NBA All-Star game MVP. Yet it’s an NBA championship that he continues to pursue. Many believe that it’s the last piece he needs to solidify himself as an all-time great.
“Chris Paul is one of the best point guards in the history of the NBA,” ESPN personality and former coach Seth Greenburg said on ESPN’s “Get Up.” “When you are thinking about the best point guards, I think that’s the cherry on top of the sundae. … A championship separates him from a lot of people.”
Paul has been close in recent years to reaching the NBA Finals, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2018 while a member of the Houston Rockets. Now that a championship is in reach, Paul’s teammates are doing everything in their power to help him secure a championship.
“He deserves a ring,” Suns forward Mikal Bridges said. “Now I am in this seat where I have an opportunity to help him get one.”
Injuries and bad luck throughout the playoffs have derailed his ability to break through. In 2015 as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, he suffered a hamstring injury and ended up losing in seven games to the Houston Rockets in the second round. The following year, he broke his hand in the first round against the Portland Trailblazers and lost that series in six games.
As a member of the Rockets, Paul and company had the series tied at two in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. He injured his hamstring in the closing minutes of Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors. The Rockets ended up winning that game, but Paul was unable to suit up for Games 6 and 7 as Houston lost both. This year has had its ups and downs as Paul missed two games due to the league’s COVID-19 protocol. He has also played with partially torn ligaments in his right hand.
“I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I’ve learned so much from him this year,” Booker said.
“Just understanding how bad he wants this and how much time he’s put into it … 16 years, that’s a long time.”