— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 1, 2021
The Suns were well aware the 36-year-old 11-time All-Star's decision whether or not to enter free agency would set the tone for a pivotal offseason. Opt in, and Paul rejoins their promising young core in a ringing endorsement of their surprising Finals run, likely with a hefty two-year contract extension looming. Opt out, and he puts enormous pressure on Phoenix owner Robert Sarver to meet his demands for running it back.
Paul is limited to a three-year contract window due to the NBA's "Over-38" rule.
The Suns acquired Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder last offseason for a 2022 first-round draft pick and unwanted contracts. He enjoyed a second straight resurgent season after a downward turn to his career. Paul averaged 16.4 points (on 50/40/93 shooting splits), 8.9 assists against 2.2 turnovers and 4.5 rebounds in 31.4 minutes a game in his first season with Phoenix, capturing Second Team All-NBA honors.
He reunited with Monty Williams, his former coach in New Orleans, and together they proved instrumental in the development of rising Suns stars Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. The partnership produced the Suns' first playoff appearance since 2010, and Paul's playoff performance keyed victories against the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and L.A. Clippers. His 41 points in a close-out Game 6 of the Western Conference finals was the coronation of a legend, bonding Paul's career arc with Phoenix.
Following Thursday's draft, when the Suns traded reserve Jevon Carter and the No. 29 overall pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Landry Shamet, general manager James Jones reiterated his faith in the mutual interest on both sides and expressed confidence they would find common ground to "make everyone happy."
On the local "Burns & Gambo" radio show, Sarver was less assured. He did not overtly endorse Paul's return, telling the future Hall of Famer at season's end, "You’ve only been a part of the organization for nine months, so there’s really not a lot of history here, but from a team perspective, it was my best season in 17 years and it was your best season in 16 years, so there’s really a lot there to keep the two of us together."
Pressed on the issue, Sarver said "there probably is" another team willing to pay for Paul's services, and "there probably is" a potential roadblock to ensuring the fifth-place MVP candidate's return to Phoenix.
Sarver did suggest he is willing to pay luxury taxes to continue contending for a championship. How much remains a question, since he shed assets from the last great Suns teams to avoid too large a bill in the late 2000s. Over the ensuing decade, Phoenix became a laughingstock — until Paul legitimized the franchise.
Paul's decision is not the only one to impact the Suns' bottom line this offseason. Ayton and Bridges are due for rookie extensions, respectively in the maximum contract and $100 million range through 2027. Along with Booker's max deal, the payroll may result in escalating repeater tax penalties for years to come.
It is worth it if Phoenix replicates its Finals campaign, but that too is not easy. The NBA is ripe with talent, especially in the West, where Phoenix knows better than anyone how hard it is to even make the playoffs.
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