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LOS ANGELES – Finally, the two teammates embraced each other instead of arguing again.
The Phoenix Suns had just advanced to their NBA Finals after defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in a decisive Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. Suns guard Chris Paul also secured the first Finals appearance of his 16-year NBA career. So after Paul had what he called “some heated conversations this season” with Suns third-year center Deandre Ayton, Phoenix’s big man hugged Paul.
The reason for the embrace stemmed from two things: The Suns advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. In Paul's first season with the Suns, Ayton viewed Paul’s demanding leadership style as "the best thing that happened to my career.”
“We went through it all, huh?” Ayton told Paul. “Getting on my butt, getting on my behind and getting on my tail every day? It turned out well.”
Things have not always turned out well for Paul.
During stints with the former New Orleans Hornets (2005-2011), Los Angeles Clippers (2011-2017), Houston Rockets (2017-2019) and Oklahoma City Thunder (2019-20), Paul failed to advance to the Finals. With the Clippers, Paul experienced three first-round exits and two second-round losses amid various injuries to his hamstring (2015) and right hand (2016). Paul reached the Western Conference finals in his first year with the Rockets only to suffer another hamstring injury (2018).
During those times, Paul also saw how his demanding leadership style yielded mixed results. Though it elevated the play and expectations for himself and those around him, Paul also experienced tension with other star teammates. It happened with former Clippers teammates Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan. It happened with former Rockets teammate James Harden. And Suns coach Monty Williams observed it happened when he coached Paul during his final season in New Orleans.
“Leadership is tricky,” Williams said. “It's only leadership if people follow you. Otherwise you're just taking a walk by yourself.”
In Oklahoma City and Phoenix, Paul received praise for his leadership and mentorship. What are the reasons? Did the 36-year-old Paul receive a more attentive audience simply because he played with younger teammates instead of established veterans? Or did Paul change the delivery and substance of his message?
“There are times where he has to tell people directly what the deal is, and then there are times where I've seen him lead in a different way than he did 11 years ago,” Williams said. “It's better to be effective than right. Sometimes when you're in leadership positions, if you feel like you have to be right all the time, you're probably going to be by yourself trying to figure out ways to be effective and bring everybody along with you.”
Paul said he has leaned on his “experience” to learn when to become demanding or nurturing.
When the Clippers chipped away at the Suns’ leads in Game 6, Paul conceded a younger version of himself “would have jumped up and been yelling over there on the bench.” Instead, Paul reacted calmly both when he played on the court and sat on the bench.
“You learn how to deal with different guys,” Paul said. “If you go crazy like that, that might make them a little bit nervous or gun shy. But I'm grateful for all of the experiences, good or bad.”
The Suns have mostly said they had good experiences with Paul’s leadership style. Though he said he has tempered his demands, Paul still has not shied away from confrontation. Throughout the playoffs, Paul was seen pulling Ayton to the side after making a mistake. The same thing often happened in practice when Paul preached the importance to Ayton about perfecting angles on screens, postups and defensive coverages.
Paul has backed up those expectations with his own actions. Team accounts depict Paul as remaining consistent with film study, sticking to his plant-based diet and training.
“It all worked out, man, and it was all for a good purpose,” Ayton said. “Everything that Chris tells me or tells me what to do, it's from the heart. That dude loves to compete. If you're a real competitor, you're not just listening to how somebody's saying it. You're just getting the message that we're going to get this done. That's the type of relationship we have.”
That is also the type of relationship that Suns' guard Devin Booker has with Paul.
Booker had idolized Paul during his childhood. So just imagine Booker’s giddiness when Paul worked out with him, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns in 2016 during their pre-draft workouts. When the two matched up against each other, however, Booker conceded that both he and Paul endlessly talked trash.
Once the Suns acquired Paul before the season, the two made sure they would not have tension as teammates. They quickly huddled up to outline roles with Williams, who quickly decided “to get out of the way.” The day after the trade was completed, Paul and Booker also worked out together in what become a consistent ritual.
“There's zero ego involved,” Booker said. “I think that's the most important part. We both want to see each other succeed, we both want the team to succeed, we all want the team to succeed. So when you're all on the same page that way, the relationships tend to happen.”
That relationship has blossomed. With Paul and Booker living near each other in Phoenix, the two often visited each other's house to watch games, train and host teammate-bonding events. After those visits, Booker often remarked to friends, “That’s CP3!” Booker might show a hint of childhood nostalgia with those remarks, but he is no longer a “fanboy” as he put it. Paul observed that the 24-year-old Booker reminds him of an established veteran because of his consistent work habits. Yet, Booker has still kept a youthful spirit by listening to Paul’s feedback.
“I appreciate him a lot. I've been a sponge to him since the day he got here,” Booker said. “Our relationship definitely took off since he's been here.”
As a result, Paul and his young teammates have reached a destination that was once unfamiliar to them. While the Suns toiled in mediocrity, Paul experienced early playoff exits amid ongoing struggles with injuries and star teammates. Not anymore.
“It's a fun group to be around, and when you're around a group like that, you want to win,” Paul said. “You don't ever want the season to end because you actually like being around each other.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suns' Chris Paul changed demanding leadership ways after mixed results