Chris Paul knew what he was doing. Let’s not forget, folks: Chris Paul always knows what he’s doing.
So when the recently traded future Hall of Famer went out of his way to pull back the curtain on the Phoenix Suns’ new operation on Monday, highlighting Isiah Thomas’ (unofficial) role in the Bradley Beal trade during several interviews that were part of his book tour, you didn’t have to start a league investigation to find out what he might have been trying to accomplish. The 38-year-old has been as savvy and calculated off the floor as he has been on it for decades now, and this was likely no different.
“I guess (Suns owner) Mat (Ishbia) and Isiah just wanted to go in a different direction,” Paul, a former president of the National Basketball Players Association, told The New York Times during an interview in which he referenced Thomas’s influence on three occasions.
Paul has always been as slick a political operator as there is in the association, and surely this was his way of telling the world whose fingerprints were – and weren’t – all over the deal. Keep in mind that the head of the Suns’ front office is president of basketball operations James Jones, who once sat on the NBPA’s executive board with Paul and was largely responsible (along with Paul himself) for the trade that brought him to town from Oklahoma City in November 2020. According to Paul, they had spoken the day before and there was no mention of this trade coming soon.
No, this move was just Ishbia, the 43-year-old businessman who bought the team for $4 billion in February and has been on a superstar shopping spree ever since. And more importantly, as Paul made clear, this was Thomas.
But Paul’s choice to reveal Thomas’ actual level of influence may make it harder for the Sun to continue to avoid the uncomfortable questions that come with his involvement. Thomas, to review, is 17 years removed from the troublesome Knicks scandal, in which then-Knicks executive Anucha Brown Sanders ultimately received a settlement of DKK 11.6 million from the Madison Square Garden company after accusing Thomas, then head of their front office, of sexual harassment.
While his job as an on-air analyst with TNT and NBA TV means his profile around the league is very high these days, he hasn’t held a job with an NBA organization since leaving the Knicks in 2008. And considering , that the Suns are less than a year removed from their own toxic workplace saga, in which former owner Robert Sarver was found responsible for sexist and racist misconduct by the league en route to his yearlong suspension, $10 million fine and eventual sale of the team, the optics of this particular organization facilitating Thomas’ NBA return couldn’t be much worse.
The suns denied a report that Thomas joined their front office in early February, but it was no secret that the Hall of Famer turned broadcaster was a trusted advisor to Ishbia. Anyone who saw Thomas sitting with Ishbia during the playoffs could tell as much. In retrospect, the public denial of Thomas’s involvement was clearly a ruse to get around all the unwelcome headlines which surely followed. For better or for worse, the time has long since come for Ishbia to recognize the role Thomas plays in his circle of friends.
As for where Paul will go next, either via trade or if the Wizards decide to waive him, I’d be amazed if it’s not one of the LA teams. Not only does there appear to be significant interest from both the Clippers and Lakers (to varying degrees), but the attraction for Paul of playing in the same city where his family is living for the first time in five years is known to also be an important factor. There’s not a bad story between the two options: It’s either Paul reuniting with the Clippers franchise where he spent six seasons of his prime, or Paul finally joining the Lakers organization vetoed by the late David Stern back in 2011 (while probably also playing with his close friend LeBron James for the first time).
Chris Paul to the Clippers? Why LA is interested and how a trade could be done
Super team strategy lives on
So much for the Nuggets’ championship marking the end of the super team era. It was never quite that simple, as teams will always try a variety of ways to get to the top of the league.
However, seeing the Suns go all in on the Beal move less than a week after Denver’s largely homegrown core hoisted the trophy should serve as a reminder that the path of patience is not for everyone. And certainly not Ishbia, who now owes his new core of Beal, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton a combined $719 million over the life of their respective contracts (with massive luxury tax ramifications still pending when the new CBA takes effect).
For the Nuggets’ purposes, their combination of elite talent (Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray), depth, continuity and the chemistry that comes with it should serve as a stark contrast to teams like the Suns, who simply don’t want those kinds of ties. tissue. Any team can build that crucial element over time, but it’s almost always a missing ingredient in the early stages of these kinds of hoops experiments.
As Denver approaches its first title in franchise history, I talked about these two opposing strategic approaches with someone whose perspective is as qualified as it comes: Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“It’s OK to have one or two (star players) on the team, but everybody else has to fit around them,” Caldwell-Pope said, “and (to fit into) the organization’s plan for the team.”
For anyone who forgets, Caldwell-Pope was a key member of the Lakers team that won it all in 2020 (in his third season with the team) before being shipped to Washington to play with Beal in the summer of 2021 as part of by Russell. Westbrook deal. The Lakers’ impatient pursuit of stars would ultimately cost them dearly, and Caldwell-Pope would continue to prove his worth again with the Nuggets after being shipped to Denver with Ish Smith last summer in exchange for Monté Morris and Will Barton.
In the meantime, though, he was part of the Wizards’ plan to help give Beal the kind of role players that could get them back into the playoffs.
“When (the Lakers trade) happened, I was a little hurt, no doubt about it,” Caldwell-Pope said. “But I had to move on. I thought I was going to be there (with the Lakers) for a while, especially after the championship. But that did not happen. I felt at the end of the day that business is business.
“I got a call from my good friend Brad (Beal, the day before the deal went down) and he just asked me how I’d feel about playing with him. I had (known) him since we were 15 and it’s one thing we always talked about was playing with each other. And then the next morning it happened.”
Fast forward 22 months, when the Wizards finished No. 12 in the East in the 2021-22 campaign and No. 11 the previous season, and now Beal is the one on the move. Finally.
Inside the Nuggets championship and how it was built to win it all
Will Beal finally live his best basketball life?
By all accounts, Beal is as good a guy as you’ll find in the league. I’ve never dealt with him on a consistent basis, but that’s the feedback from reporters, managers, coaches, teammates and the like. Seeing him get a real chance at a game at this stage — just a few weeks short of his 30th birthday and 11 seasons in — feels like the kind of thing the basketball gods decided was well-deserved.
The incredible money these star players make is a huge part of their NBA experience, and Beal certainly has plenty of it. But the competition and legacy still matter a lot. And while he’s been to the playoffs five times — falling in the first round twice and the second round three times — he’s never had an opportunity like this. The question now is which version of Beal will we see.
While the health concerns of the last few seasons are well-founded, it wasn’t long ago that he played in all 82 games in back-to-back campaigns (2017-18 and 2018-19) en route to his best ever results. Averaging 30.5 points in 2019-20 (in 57 games during the COVID-shortened campaign) and 31.3 points in 2020-21 (in 60 games), he recorded two of the 20 seasons since 2009-10 in which a player averaged 30 plus points. The list of the others, according to Stathead.com, is full of either all-time greats or players who look set to reach that status: Steph Curry, Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Damian Lillard, LeBron, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
None of that will help the Suns figure out how to slow down Jokić, but they’re hardly alone on that front. Good luck to Ayton – if he’s still around – and whoever else they recruit to handle the unenviable task. But these all-or-nothing Sols will be even more potent than before offensively, and Beal was (another) gamble Ishbia decided was worth taking.
With an assist from Isiah, of course.
(Photo of Isiah Thomas and Suns owner Mat Ishbia: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)