'I'm still me. I expect a lot': Inside what's working for Chris Paul with the Phoenix Suns

HE CONCEDES DURING a rare, unguarded moment that he envisioned his arrival in Houston in 2017 as his final, triumphant pièce de résistance. Chris Paul was acquired, after all, by then-Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who so obsessively pursued Paul that he manufactured a bobblehead with the point guard and his son, young Chris II, nodding side by side in an attempt to lure him four years earlier as a free agent. After he finally became a Rocket, Paul assumed the relationship would germinate deep roots.

"I moved about 15 people there with me," Paul says.

His wife, his kids, and his brother and wife and their kids. Cousins. The nanny, the trainer, the masseuse, security people, the chef. Team Paul settled in for the long haul in Houston, perhaps, even, for that elusive trip to the NBA Finals, which none of them ever talked about, even though it hung in the air like the humidity at a sticky Texas barbecue.

But Paul's tenure with the Rockets was quick, ruthless. The tally was two seasons of searing laments: a ravaged Paul hamstring away from a Finals berth in Year 1, and an eventually fractured relationship with James Harden in Year 2.

After another playoff series loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2019, Morey shared with Paul that there was a deal brewing with the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul expressed his disappointment and preference to play for a contender.

Morey, pressured to land Russell Westbrook by ownership and a star in Harden who had grown tired of Paul's constant chirping, made the deal. Team Paul packed up and left, most of them back to Los Angeles, except Paul himself, who stuffed some clothes in a duffel and started looking for an apartment in Oklahoma City.

When Paul's friend and former teammate Matt Barnes heard about the trade, he thought, "Damn, that's a cold way for this to end."

Paul resisted the urge to express his feelings of betrayal and shock in the immediate aftermath of his unceremonious departure from Houston.

"There ain't no 'woe is me' here," Paul says. "No one wants to hear it."

Paul's cerebral approach to the game has always been above reproach; the rub has been an inflexibility that occasionally rankled coaches and teammates, and made him, as Barnes says, "an acquired taste."

"I loved playing with Chris," says Barnes, who played on those LA Clippers teams from 2012 to 2015, "but you've got to have a strong stomach."

Just 21 months after the Rockets gave up on him, Paul is at the helm of a Phoenix Suns team that sits just one game behind the Utah Jazz for the best record in the NBA. Their leading scorer is 24-year-old All-Star Devin Booker, and their budding young big man Deandre Ayton continues his ascent. Paul's gravitas has transformed this young roster into a disciplined, potent operation that has posted the best road record (20-8) in the NBA, with its the latest victory ending a New York Knicks nine-game winning streak.

With Paul running the show, Phoenix ranks seventh in offensive efficiency, as opposed to 12th last season. They have jumped from 17th to fifth in defensive efficiency and are poised to eradicate a decadelong playoff drought.

"Chris' fingerprints are all over that team," says his former Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni.

Suns coach Monty Williams and Paul spent one season together with the New Orleans Hornets in 2010-11. Paul was a young, headstrong 25-year-old star on the rise, and Williams was a young, headstrong 38-year-old coach on the rise. Both of them had firm ideas on how the team should be run, philosophies that often collided.