Chris Paul Injury Throws the Western Conference Race Wide Open

Chris Paul made a cameo appearance at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland on Feb. 20. But a thumb injury will sideline the 12-time All-Star for the next six to eight weeks, throwing the Phoenix Suns’ position atop the Western Conference into some jeopardy.

The Point God sustained an avulsion fracture in his right thumb in the Suns’ final game before the midseason festivities. The injury timeline could sideline Paul for the rest of the regular season, which ends on April 10, seven weeks away.

Phoenix entered the All-Star break with a 6.5-game lead over the second-place Golden State Warriors in the West. The Suns (48–10) have a game in hand on Golden State (42–17) and resume their schedule on Feb. 24 at Oklahoma City.

Do the Warriors or anyone else in the West have time to make a late run?

Chris Paul reversed the injury-prone narrative

Chris Paul will miss six to eight weeks with a right thumb injury. The Phoenix Suns have a big lead in the Western Conference, but is it enough of a cushion to hold off the rest of the West?
Chris Paul will miss six to eight weeks with a right thumb injury. The Phoenix Suns have a big lead in the Western Conference, but is it enough of a cushion to hold off the rest of the West? | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After the 2018–19 season, there were whispers that Chris Paul was nearing the end. Injuries limited the veteran to 58 games for the second consecutive season, and he had missed 69 contests over a three-season span.

That’s not counting the crucial hamstring injury that sidelined him for the final two games of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. The Houston Rockets lost both, and the Warriors advanced to the NBA Finals.

The Rockets pulled the plug on the two-year Paul-James Harden experiment, trading the four-time assists champion to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook. A new diet revived his career, and he returned to All-Star form. A trade to the Suns in 2020 brought CP3 his first Finals appearance.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN reported on Paul’s injury.

Before the thumb injury, Paul was one of only two Phoenix players (Mikal Bridges is the other) to appear in every game. Since the start of the 2019–20 campaign, he’s missed just four.

That number will grow significantly over the next seven weeks. Can the Suns hang on for the top seed?

The Phoenix Suns made a fortuitous addition at the trade deadline

With Chris Paul sidelined for potentially the rest of the regular season, the Phoenix Suns will have to rely on their depth.

They’ve done so at other positions this season. Starting center Deandre Ayton has missed 21 games this season, but Phoenix weathered his absences with backups Frank Kaminsky, JaVale McGee, and more recent addition Bismack Biyombo. Phoenix is 18–3 without Ayton this season.

So, yeah, there’s a precedent for struggling through injuries to key players.

Cameron Payne is the primary backup for Paul. But he’s been out since Jan. 22 with a wrist injury. John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM reported via Twitter that the team expects Payne to return against the Thunder on Feb. 24.

Phoenix also has veteran Elfrid Payton on the bench and added a potential X-factor at the trade deadline. The Suns acquired 25-year-old Aaron Holiday from the Washington Wizards for cash considerations. He’s averaged 7.3 points and 2.7 assists in 13.3 minutes over his first three games in The Valley.

Holiday, the 23rd overall pick by the Indiana Pacers in 2018, went to DC as part of last summer’s massive five-team transaction that sent Westbrook from the Wizards to the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s in the final year of his rookie deal and has a chance to get some run down the stretch to potentially set up his next contract, either in Phoenix or somewhere else in the NBA.

All-Star Devin Booker will likely take on a larger share of the playmaking load. He averaged 6.6 assists per game in the two seasons before Paul’s arrival, so he’s familiar with the role.

Chris Paul isn’t the only significant injury in the West

After the New Year, the Phoenix Suns sprinted away from the pack in the Western Conference. Since the calendar turned, they are 21–2 and on pace for 68 wins. Without Chris Paul, that pace may wane a bit.

The Warriors have a lot of ground to make up and not much time to do so. They’re also dealing with a significant injury, as All-Star Draymond Green has played only seven seconds since Jan. 5 because of a lower back problem.

Golden State ran off nine straight victories from Jan. 21–Feb. 7 but are just 13–9 since Green was hurt.

The only other team potentially within range of the Suns are the Memphis Grizzlies. Third in the West at 41–19, the Grizz have the NBA’s third-best record. Memphis suffered a let-down loss right before the All-Star break, losing at home to the Portland Trail Blazers’ remains on Feb. 16. That snapped a six-game winning streak.

The Grizzlies are also without second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, out with a sprained left ankle since Jan. 8. According to Damichael Cole of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Brooks is behind schedule in his recovery. The team was quiet at the trade deadline. But general manager Zach Kleiman saw a silver lining.

“I think you can certainly say in a way that Dillon Brooks is the trade deadline acquisition,” Kleiman said. “To give an update on where he’s at, Dillon is doing very well in his rehab. A little behind the schedule that was out there initially. It’ll probably be early March, I would say, is the likely target for Dillon’s return.”

The Phoenix Suns likely have enough weapons to hang on to the top spot in the west with Chris Paul sidelined. But they may have to go through some adjustments if he cannot return before the postseason opens on April 16.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference. Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

RELATED: Chris Paul Injury: How CP3’s Likely Absence Will Test Devin Booker