The Long Two: How will the Suns navigate Chris Paul’s absence?

Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images /

We won’t know the full impact of Chris Paul’s injury for a while, but with a deep cast of skilled players, the Suns may have enough to thrive in spite of his absence.

Once the strangeness of Chris Paul playing in the NBA All-Star Game with a fractured right thumb faded, a more pressing question emerged: how would the Phoenix Suns, who have casually rolled to the NBA’s best record this season, handle playing without their most important player for the final weeks of the season — and potentially even the start of the playoffs?

The Suns likely don’t appear in danger of losing the top spot in the Western Conference (they hold a six-game lead over the Warriors with 21 games to play), and the time off may even give Paul fresher legs than he’s had in years. But life without his stabilizing presence will require Monty Williams to reimagine his team’s identity in the face of its greatest challenge of the season.

What will the Phoenix Suns look like without Chris Paul?

The Suns’ defense has struggled in the four games Paul has missed (perhaps a result of losing his communication and sound positioning, or merely the product of small-sample variance), but they may ultimately feel his absence more on offense, where he has been a supremely efficient shot creator and devastating late-game closer. Paul scrounges for every possible advantage, turning even the smallest holes in the defense into exploitable gashes, and picks out his preferred spots on the floor with surgical precision. That exacting style is a safe pathway to an efficient — and often elite — offense when he’s in charge, but it also forces his team to play a very different style when he isn’t. Phoenix’s offense falls off by over six points per 100 possessions when Paul leaves the floor, including steep declines in shooting percentage and assists with a spike in turnovers.

There’s no replacing that kind of steady and singular player. Instead, the Suns will fill his minutes and production by committee, with everyone taking on slightly more responsibility so as not to overburden any single player. Devin Booker is the next-closest thing the Suns have to an undeniable offensive force, and will certainly be tasked with taking and creating more difficult shots when necessary (assuming he won’t be too long for the NBA’s health and safety protocols). Yet even Booker has been a mediocre isolation scorer and pick-and-roll playmaker this season, and his own numbers dip significantly with Paul off the floor. Rather than cranking his usage up to a breaking point or asking other Suns to play outside of themselves, Phoenix would be wiser to lean on its collective strength.

It’s not just Paul and Booker’s individual brilliance that has made the Suns so dominant over the last two seasons, but the varied contributions from the entire roster. It’s the way that role players like Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder complement Paul and Booker’s primary creation, and how Williams alchemizes those skills into something more than the sum of their parts. Tough shot-making is the safety net that keeps the offense from stalling out, but Phoenix is at its best when creating easy looks with ball and player movement.

No one else can work out of set actions like Paul does, but nearly everyone in the rotation is capable of attacking closeouts, making the extra pass and converting open looks. Sunday’s game against Utah demonstrated how effective Phoenix can be using that approach. Though they lost narrowly, the Suns scored nearly 1.3 points per possession against a top-10 defense primarily by sharing and taking care of the ball to create open looks. All five players passed and moved with urgency, and Phoenix aggressively pushed the ball in transition for some of its easiest looks of the game:

Those plays represent an elite offense at its best: an All-Star guard initially compromises the defense, teammates cut into the resulting open space and the ball finds a shooter before the opponent can recover. The Suns rattle off those kinds of sequences even with Paul on the court, but they now they’ll be even more important to the offense’s success. Whether that group effort sustains over the rest of the season will largely depend on Booker’s willingness to embrace it.

Where most of his teammates naturally look to make the simple play in search of the best look, Booker tends to be more single-minded as a scorer, which can occasionally lead to him forcing the issue in search of his own shot. That overzealousness was evident in a 15-point loss to New Orleans just after the All-Star break, in which the Suns’ offense often stagnated as a result of over-dribbling.

That isn’t to pin the entire team’s success or failure solely on Booker, or to suggest he somehow hurts the team’s offense (he doesn’t); but with defenses now locked in on him, Booker faces the choice of either letting his teammates relieve that pressure or trying to overcome it on his own. How he responds could sway the rest of the Suns’ season firmly in one direction or the other.

Steven Adams, subtly expanding his game

Many analysts wondered whether the Grizzlies downgraded at center last summer when they traded Jonas Valančiūnas to New Orleans for Steven Adams. Valančiūnas was coming off a career year for the feisty Grizzlies, and gave Memphis a crucial offensive punch with his bruising post game and relentless offensive rebounding; Adams, meanwhile, had just had arguably his worst statistical year since 2015 and was due $35 million over this season and the next.

Valančiūnas could at least plausibly space the floor, while Adams offered no shooting whatsoever. The Grizzlies, however, bet on fit over talent and statistical production. Removing Valančiūnas from the rotation cleared more opportunity for the Grizzlies’ younger players, and Adams was precisely the sort of screen-and-dive big man who might give Ja Morant the space he needed to become a pick-and-roll monster.

The move seems to have worked out for both sides, but it has been transformative for the Grizzlies. The team’s playstyle and charisma clearly stem from Morant, but Adams allows Memphis to fully lean into its identity as a dynamic spread pick-and-roll offense with multiple threats while anchoring a mean defense on the other end.

Adams almost immediately established seamless pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant, and the two amplify one another’s best offensive traits. One of the best screeners in the league, Adams ranks third in the NBA in screen assists and has mastered the subtle (and borderline illegal) tricks of creating space both on and off the ball with his burly frame. He gives Morant — and Memphis’ other ball-handlers — lengthy runways to the basket with bone-rattling picks, and is one of the NBA’s foremost practitioners of screening his own man as he rolls to the basket in order to take away help at the rim:

Whether in pick-and-roll with Morant or dribble-handoff actions with Desmond Bane or Jaren Jackson Jr., Adams creates wider openings than almost any other center in the league. He isn’t the athletic leaper he used to be — his efficiency at the rim and as a roll man are both well below his career marks — but Adams can still get up to cram home alley-oops, giving Morant a kind of two-man partner he didn’t previously have. (Of Morant’s 37 made baskets in the last two games, 18 came off either a pass or screen from Adams.)

Overall, Memphis is outscoring opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions with Adams on the floor — an eight-point improvement over when he sits — with a blistering 117 offensive rating. He has provided an even bigger boost on the offensive glass than Valančiūnas did, only instead of mashing defenders in the post, Adams almost exclusively does the dirty work on both ends of the floor, setting screens, finishing lobs, putting back misses and pivoting the offense from the middle of the floor.

This year, Adams has leveled up as a passer, dropping more dimes than ever before in the Grizzlies’ read-and-react offense. His 15.1 percent assist rate is a career-high and one of the best marks among centers, and he has quietly become a legitimate fulcrum off of whom teammates can pass and cut. He isn’t Nikola Jokic (no one is), but Adams can thread tight needles for high-value shots with downright audacious deliveries:

Bane in particular routinely finds open layups by looping around Adams in the high post and cutting into the lane. Adams can also feather high-low entry passes to other bigs like Jackson, Kyle Anderson or Brandon Clarke, allowing the Grizz to impose their size against smaller teams inside:

Defensively, Adams has been a slight upgrade over Valančiūnas. Memphis holds opponents under 109 points per 100 possessions in his minutes, largely because they take 6.5 percent fewer shots at the rim when Adams is around, without a meaningful uptick in 3-point volume. The Grizzlies also allow significantly fewer free throws and offensive rebounds with Adams on the court, and the 28-year-old is virtually always in the right position to make the disciplined play.

Lumbering, non-shooting centers like Adams have become increasingly scarce in the modern NBA. They must find ways to compensate for their limitations, often by becoming elite at the ancillary skills that allow better players to produce at higher levels. Taylor Jenkins may find it harder to keep his center on the floor against elite playoff opponents, but that won’t diminish the integral role Adams has played in helping Memphis earn a top-three seed in a stacked Western Conference. Credit Adams for knowing exactly who he is, the Grizzlies for knowing exactly how to use him, and both parties for finding a way to subtly expand his game.

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