When Chris Haynes reported on the first day of the NBA Free Agency period that Chris Paul would be returning to Phoenix, Suns fans were mostly thrilled. Paul re-signing with the club was not a surprise, but seeing it made official gave us a sense of relief and hope.
BREAKING NEWS: Free agent star Chris Paul reaches agreement with Phoenix Suns on four-year, up to $120 million contract that will expire when he’s 40, league sources tell @YahooSports.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) August 2, 2021
The deal was for 4 years and up to $120 million, and there are two distinct ways to view such a large contract for a player who turned 36 earlier this year. On the one hand, the Suns just came off of an amazing run to the NBA Finals, with Paul as arguably the best player on the team. The title window is open for Phoenix now, and opportunities like this are rare enough that you have to pay CP3 whatever it takes to keep him. This line of thinking is correct, and it is how the majority of Suns fans reacted.
That doesn’t mean, however, that other people are wrong to question how that contract will look in a few years. That’s the other side of the argument, and it’s also valid. Teams often have to hurt their own future to capitalize on an opportunity to win a championship. While most Suns fans focused on the necessity of bringing Paul back to compete for a title now, the comments under Haynes’s report mainly focus on the back end of the deal.
Personally, I believe that if a team has a legitimate chance at a championship, they need to do everything they can to maximize that chance now, even if it means stifling their future. At this point in time, however, no one knows whether or not Paul’s contract even will hurt the Suns in the future. CP3 earned every penny of his enormous salary this last season despite his age. The question is, how long can he keep up that greatness?
In an attempt to predict what is possible for Paul over the course of this new contract, I looked back at other point guards in NBA history who maintained a high level of play at an advanced age. It would be foolish to compare CP3 to the average mid-thirties NBA player because Paul was an MVP candidate just this last season. He has to be compared to others who were great in their mid-thirties. To start my search, I used Basketball | Stathead.com to find the point guards who had similar production to Paul in their age 35 season.
There are 6 point guards in NBA history that had at least 8 Win Shares in their age 35 season. Chris Paul is third on the list for his outstanding season last year, and the other five players are all Hall-of-Famers.
The Immediate Future
These five players varied greatly on how long and how well they played over the rest of their careers, but for the most part, they were all still pretty good in their age 36 season. Here’s a quick summary of how they performed when they were 36:
I think there is a good chance this next year that Chris Paul plays as well or better than each of these players did at age 36. This past year he averaged 16.4 PPG and 8.9 APG on .599 TS%. He has never had a season in his career where he averaged less than 15 points per game, so assuming he keeps that up he should be the best scorer of the bunch at age 36.
His passing will presumably also hold up from last season when he was second in the NBA in total assists. CP3 may or may not be an MVP candidate again next season, but he can certainly put up similar numbers for another great Phoenix team.
Of the 4 years Chris Paul’s new contract covers, the 2021-22 season will likely be the one where the Suns have the best odds to compete for a title. Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges will still be making salaries from their rookie contracts, whereas the 2022-23 season is when their rookie extensions would kick in, giving the Suns much less capital to work with. If Paul can give the Suns one more elite season this next year, Phoenix should once again be in position to compete with all the best teams in the NBA.
The Long-Term Future
After that season, the Suns’ chances will go down, but hopefully not down to zero. At age 37, Jason Kidd was the starting point guard for the 2011 Champion Dallas Mavericks while averaging around 8 points and 8 assists per game.
Kidd was one of the players that kept up a solid level of play through his final season at age 39. Not all the aforementioned point guards I studied did this, however. While all five of them were still good in their age 36 season, what they did after that had a lot of variance. To demonstrate this, I took those five point guards to have at least 8 win shares at age 35, and charted their win shares each year throughout the rest of their careers:
While all of these point guards were still good at ages 35 and 36, there is a large disparity in what they did after that. Lenny Wilkens, for example, had a steady decline and decided to hang it up after his age 37 season. John Stockton, on the other hand, produced at an extremely high level all the way through his final season at age 40.
I feel confident that Chris Paul will not decline as rapidly as guards like Wilkens and Payton. Can he continue to produce at the level of Stockton, though? Stockton was so good late in his career that it’s almost unbelievable. His 9.0 Win Shares at age 40 are nearly twice as many as any other player has had in a season at 40 or older. And yet, when I think of Chris Paul’s game, I can’t help but predict that he will age in a similar way to Stockton.
CP3’s elite handle and playmaking aren’t dependent on athleticism, so he should be able to keep those up. He will surely be able to knock down his mid-range fadeaway until he’s 70. The one area that may become problematic is his defense. Paul has been an excellent defender for most of his career despite being undersized because of his speed, strength, effort, and basketball IQ. If his quickness declines to the point that he can’t consistently stay in front of his man, he could become a target for opposing offenses. I do still believe the offense will stay steady, though.
No one knows for sure how Paul’s body will hold up throughout this contract and how the inevitable breakdowns will affect his game. I think it’s safe to say he will still be great in the 2021-22 season at age 36, but after that, it is hard to predict based on history. John Stockton is the only point guard in NBA history who maintained excellent play into his late thirties, so the odds are against CP3, but I would never bet against him.
It would be perfectly understandable if his game declines like almost every other point guard have, but it would also not surprise me if Paul matches or even exceeds what Stockton did. His dedication, work ethic, and love of the game are such that CP3 will do anything he can to continue to contribute to winning basketball for as long as he can.
Follow Cody on Twitter: @Co_dhunt