After more than a decade and a half of disappointing finishes, Chris Paul will play in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
Paul’s resume at age 36 – 11 All Star Game appearances, 10 All-NBA Team selections, nine All-Defensive Team nods, and the 2006 Rookie of the Year award – is enough to put him up there in the “greatest point guard of all time” conversation, but his lack of postseason success has stained his case.
This year, as the leader of this young Phoenix Suns team, he will finally make his debut on the league’s biggest stage and has his best opportunity yet to finally take home the title.
It was not an easy path to the Finals for Paul, who made his first postseason appearance in 2008 with the New Orleans Hornets franchise–now known as the Pelicans–that drafted him third overall in the 2006 NBA Draft after two years at Wake Forest University. That 2008 campaign saw the Hornets finish with the second seed in the ever-brutal Western Conference which saw two teams with a .500 record or better fail to make it to the postseason.
Paul, who was just 22-years-old at the time, averaged 24.1 points and 11.3 assists, but the inexperienced Hornets fell in the Western Conference Semifinals to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. They pushed the Spurs, still led by the Hall of Fame trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, to seven games behind the pick-and-roll tandem of Paul and All-Star forward David West before bowing out.
That 2008 run would be Paul’s lone second round appearance with the Hornets as the next three seasons were riddled with injuries and roster instability. He was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011 after a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers that would have paired him with a 31-year-old Kobe Bryant was vetoed by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.
With the Clippers, Paul formed a dynamic partnership with high-flying big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan known as “Lob City”. He played six seasons with the franchise, making it to the playoffs in each one and qualifying for the second round three times, but the Western Conference Finals remained elusive.
The Clippers’ best chance to make it to the Western Conference Finals–and even win the championship–came in 2015. The race was wide open after they eliminated the defending champion Spurs in a classic seven-game first round where Paul hit a game-winning floater with a second left to play in Game 7.
They proceeded to build a 3-1 lead in the following series against James Harden and the Houston Rockets despite missing the “Point god” in the first two games. Griffin, who was third in the NBA Most Valuable Player race the season before, had emerged as Paul’s best teammate in the league at that point in his career, and they were flanked by veteran role players, including Jordan, JJ Redick, and Jamal Crawford.
Los Angeles had a championship-caliber roster and lofty aspirations, but they missed their first chance to send the Rockets home in Game 5. They bounced back in Game 6 and looked poised for the first Western Conference Finals appearance for both Paul and their franchise after building a 19-point lead late in the third quarter at home after a Paul lay-up.
A dejected Harden was subbed out of the game, but the Rockets’ second unit then mounted what is arguably the decade’s most surreal rally. The journeyman pair of Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, both of whom shot less than 30% from three over their careers, rained three-pointers on the Clippers to steal Game 6 with a furious fourth quarter charge.
It eventually opened the door for Houston to take Game 7. The Rockets then fell in the following series to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the Golden State Warriors who won their first championship as a group.
This was the turning point for Paul and Los Angeles, and it was all downhill from there. They went on to blow 2-0 and 2-1 leads, respectively, in the first round of the next two seasons’ playoffs before Paul was traded to the same Rockets franchise that humiliated the Clippers in 2015.
Paired with Harden, who was named the NBA Most Valuable Player in their first run together, the Rockets stormed through the regular season and won their first two playoff series in five games. Now 32-years-old, Paul spent most of his time off-ball for the first time in his career as he ceded the reins of the offense to Harden though he still averaged 21.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.8 assists in the 2018 playoffs.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets were met by the Warriors who were at the peak of their run atop the NBA in their second season with one of the all-time great scorers in Kevin Durant. Houston took a 3-2 lead after eking out a four-point Game 5 win, but it came at the cost of Paul who injured his hamstring while attempting a floater with the Rockets up by one with a minute left in the contest.
Paul missed the next two games and the Rockets unraveled without him despite leading by double digits entering halftime of both matches. The Warriors went on to win their third championship in four years while Paul and the Rockets were left wondering about what could have been.
Houston and Golden State had a competitive rematch in the Western Conference Semifinals the following year which saw no team win by more than six points. The Warriors were without the injured Durant, but they still managed to oust the Rockets in six games behind the sublime shooting of Curry and Thompson.
The 2019 playoffs marked the end of the road for the fruitful yet disappointing two-season partnership between Paul and the Rockets. He was shipped to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the triple double machine Russell Westbrook and the team was expected to begin a rebuild around the promising guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Paul had other plans, though, and he rallied the Thunder’s rag-tag roster to the fifth seed in the Western Conference. In his 15th year in the league, he averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists in the regular season and made his first All-Star game appearance after a three-year hiatus. They fell to Paul’s former team, the Rockets, in the first round of the playoffs, but Paul proved that he still had gas in the tank despite the miles on his legs after several years in the league. Remember, this was a squad that ESPN gave a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs, and Paul basically gave them the finger.
While Paul was busy leading the Thunder above and beyond expectations in the 2020 season, another team in their conference was also making strides. The Suns, who had gone through a decade of turmoil and disappointing seasons, entered the NBA Bubble with just the 13th-best record in the West before winning all eight of their games at Florida and missing the playoffs by a mere tiebreaker.
Devin Booker was emerging as a bonafide star for the Suns while 2018 NBA draftees DeAndre Ayton, the top selection of that draft, and fellow lottery pick Mikal Bridges made significant strides in their second season. Their young core benefited from the presence of pass-first veteran Ricky Rubio who filled the primary playmaker role for the team after the franchise curiously paraded rosters without legitimate point guards for several seasons.
Suddenly realizing the value of a true floor general, the Suns made an upgrade in the abridged 2020 offseason and traded for Paul. Phoenix proceeded to finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference, 51-21, behind the Utah Jazz while Paul made his second consecutive All-Star team at age 35.
The prolific backcourt of Paul, who finished fifth in the NBA Most Valuable Player voting after averaging 16.4 points and 8.9 assists in the regular season, and the high-scoring Booker propelled the team to its first playoff appearance since the Steve Nash-era Suns were eliminated in the 2010 Western Conference Finals.
Phoenix drew LeBron James, one of Paul’s closest friends off the court, and the reigning NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of this year’s postseason. They fell behind 2-1 after Paul suffered a shoulder injury in the opener that bothered him for most of the series, but an unfortunate injury to the Lakers’ eight-time All Star forward Anthony Davis gave the Suns a golden opportunity to pounce.
They proceeded to win the next three games against the Lakers in convincing fashion, with Paul regaining form as the first round progressed. They rode their momentum to a second round sweep of newly-minted NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Paul turned back the clock in Game 4 to close out the second round with a dominant 37 points on 14-of 19 shooting and seven assists.
However, Paul’s bad luck in the playoffs reared its ugly head a few days after the Denver series when he had to enter the league’s COVID-19 protocols. The silver lining was that their sweep of the Nuggets gave them leeway and Paul missed just the first two games of the Western Conference Finals versus the Clippers, his former team, which were both Phoenix wins.
When Paul returned to the court, he made sure not to let the opportunity slip away for the nth time and they closed out the Clippers in six games. Paul put the finishing touches on their Game 6 win with a 41-point, eight-assist, and zero-turnover masterpiece.
Paul will finally make his debut in the NBA Finals this coming week versus the Milwaukee Bucks or the Atlanta Hawks who are locked in a tight Eastern Conference Finals showdown that has seen both teams’ best players miss time due to injury. It has been a long time coming for the resilient 6’0 guard who has received his fair share of criticism for his playoff shortcomings through the years.
The Suns, who are making their first finals appearance since Charles Barkley led them to a runner-up finish in 1993 versus Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, are in a prime position to win their franchise’s first-ever NBA title, especially if the Bucks or Hawks are without Giannis Antetokounmpo or Trae Young, respectively.
The Suns’ roster may be young, but Paul will be sure to remind his youthful teammates of how rare this opportunity to compete for the NBA championship is. The league has gone through countless changes over the 16 years since he was first drafted though his thirst for a title is stronger than ever as he continues to defy Father Time.
Paul is now closer than he has ever been. A mere four wins separate him from the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. We can expect him to bring out the best in himself and his teammates in what may be his one and only chance to lead a team to the promised land.
Now, let’s see if he can complete his long journey and finally erase all the heartbreaks from his career.