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NBA All-Star Game: Chris Paul wins teammate Devin Booker, remains one of NBA’s surest winning bets




If you were one of the people Chris Paul wrote off a few years ago, Tuesday was another reminder of how awful that was when Paul, who is in danger of playing a 50-40-90 season, was named after the second row and 11th career All-Star team about his arguably equally deserving teammate Devin Booker.

Whichever side of the Paul-Booker All-Star fence you’re on, let this be your last wake-up call if you’re not paying serious attention to the Phoenix Suns. On Tuesday, despite three overtime losses, they will enter a tie in the loss column with the Lakers and Clippers for the fourth-best winning percentage in the league. They are one of two teams, along with the Jazz, with a top-eight offense and defense. And if the playoffs started today, the Suns would have a path to the Western Conference finals avoiding both LA teams.

This is, in the simplest terms, what Chris Paul does.

If you’re already a good team, he makes you better.

If you’re a broken team, he’ll fix you.

Unlike the Hornets and BC Clippers (before Chris), the BC Suns weren’t necessarily a broken team. They had Devin Booker. They’ll forever regret not drafting Luka Doncic (or Jaren Jackson Jr. or Trae Young, for that matter), but Deandre Ayton is, despite surprising on-off numbers alongside the Booker-Paul combo, a double-double man with 20-10 potential if he could figure out how to get to the free-throw line like ever. They’ve ripped off the 76ers for Mikal Bridges, and the initially maligned 2019 Cameron Johnson design pick looks brilliant.

Still, the Suns were 13 games under .500 before going 8-0 in the Bubble, a run with strange conditions that no one quite fathomed. Now, six months later, they are thisBooker has an All-Star season, probably a better year than Paul, but the math of adding Paul to your team just keeps adding up. Check out the winning percentages of Paul’s five career teams in the season before he arrived and the season after.

You look at that New Orleans Hornets team, which isn’t even a franchise anymore, and it’s easy to forget that Paul was called up way back in 2005. He will turn 36 in May, the same age as LeBron James, who has become everyone’s standard of previously unimaginable longevity. Paul is not LeBron. He’s played 250 fewer career games and 151 fewer playoff games. But it is also 1.8 meters long. LeBron plays in a Hulk suit. That Paul, as a petty guard who has never shied away from physicality, is still playing at this level is almost a LeBron-esque feat.

Like LeBron, Paul, for all the lazy, “he can’t get a team over the post-season humps” is a sure thing for franchises. LeBron equals instant championship streak, yes, but Paul has never had the support talent that James has enjoyed since he went to Miami and became champion. The only year that James had no co-superstars, with the Lakers in 2018/19, he did everything he could to stay in the West’s top four, just as Paul does now with the Suns.

That Hornets team that Paul fielded won 18 games the year before he arrived. They won 36 the following year. The Clippers were a joke to Paul. The first season, the Rockets added Paul that they werethis the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry Warriors nearly bounced in the conference final before Paul ripped his hamstring and missed Games 6 and 7. When the Rockets traded Paul, they were worse. Last year’s Thunder was thought to be in full rebuild mode after swapping Paul George and Russell Westbrook, only for Paul to make them better than they were when they had both guys.

And now here we have the Suns, who, despite all of Booker’s greatness, have Paul’s prints all over them. Start with tempo. Paul has always played methodically, a size-twice-cut-once kind of guy who prefers control over even an effective dose of chaos, precision over passing on volume, and indeed last season the Suns have gone in pace of ninth (101.7 assets per 48 minutes) to No. 29 this year, with an average of 97.4 assets per 48 minutes.

It doesn’t mean they play slow all the time. Paul is pushing the ball aggressively, as he always has, but he’s super selective with the shots he allows, and that selectivity has rubbed off on his new teammates. The suns don’t insist on good photos. They insist excellent shots. If there is a good photo early, they take it. The Suns lead the league with 1.22 points per substitution possession. But they also take and make more shots than any team in the league within the last four seconds of the shot clock.

This ability to thrive in both early and late attacks is one of the sneaky things that make Suns so dangerous. They look really good already because Paul, who can still get to his mids, demands so much, patiently manipulating a foul that generates the third most ‘wide open’ shots (24.3) per game, which the NBA defines as the closest defender standing at least six feet away – but then, on the rare occasions when all that work hits a wall, the Suns also have one of the best hard-shot makers in the business in Booker to save their belongings.

On Tuesday, Booker scored 66 points in the last four seconds of the shot clock, behind only LeBron, Fred VanVleet and Julius Randle, none of whom come close to the 52 percent Booker shoots from the field or the 60 percent where he from shoots. 3 in these situations. All told, Booker has converted 51 of his 98 ‘tight’ shots, defined as a defender who is within 2-4 feet, with an effective field goal percentage of 58.7, falling only behind Kevin Durant’s 59.8 among all players who at least 50 such recordings.

That’s kind of an offensive combination, and a real luxury for Monty Williams to always have one from Booker or Paul on the field, especially when they play with a really solid banking unit in Phoenix. Last season, when Booker was off the track, the Suns were operating minus -5.8 points per 100 holdings, with the offense dropping 13 points per 100.

This year they’re gold anyway: when Paul is on and Booker off, the suns are plus -14.1 per 100; when Booker is on and Paul is off, they are plus-13.6. So why is Phoenix only plus-1.2 when Booker and Paul play together? The answer is Ayton, who is not a three-point threat on the floor. Take Ayton off, and all other lineups with Paul and Booker are a cumulative plus-26.4 per 100 with stunning offensive and defensive ratings.

In short, the suns are real. They have a great balance of youth and experience. They are selectively fast and efficiently slow. They are defensively long and versatile. They take easy pictures and make hard ones. Booker is probably the best player, but this is a Chris Paul team, which remains as good as ever.

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