As a Phoenix Suns fan since the days of Kyle Macy running point in the 80s next to Sweet D, I’ve seen the rise and fall of many Suns stars over the years.
First, there were Jeff Hornacek - who is still my favorite all-time Sun and spirit animal for many stereotypical white guy reasons - and Mark West, Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson.
I basically missed all the drug allegations, investigations and convictions that spurred those massive trades among a terrible Suns team. As a teenager who moved to Phoenix in the mid-80s, my whole sports world revolved around the morning paper’s coverage (Arizona Republic) and the TV-9 games. There was no social media. And no self-respecting teen sits and watches the news casts with their parents at 5 and 9.
I wasn’t a fan long enough to be that disappointed in losing Leaping Larry Nance for a dumb rookie and some pocket lint that the playoff bound Cavaliers used to fleece the Suns. None of Mark West, Tyrone Corbin or rookie Kevin Johnson were starters for the contending Cavs or ever would be.
But as soon as they hit the floor for the Suns, once all the other smaller trades were done as well, it’s like they were a breath of fresh air. Clouds lifted. Flowers bloomed. Smiles grew wider.
Mark West could man the middle for the small-ball Suns, and rookie Kevin Johnson proved quickly that he could be an All-Star player, if not Hall of Fame some day.
But I digress. I was just setting my personal timeline on Suns’ history. I missed the Westphal and Van Arsdales. I missed most of Walter Davis and Larry Nance.
My time was KJ, Chambers, Horny and Majerle and the others.
Then on to Charles (sorry Horny) and Danny Manning (sorry Danny).
Then it was a series of early playoff exits behind the likes Jason Kidd, Wesley Person, Michael Finley and Cliff Robinson as the headliners.
Anfernee Hardaway, I wish you’d brought both knees with you to Phoenix.
Stephon Marbury, I wish you’d brought your entire mind with you.
Googs, I wish you'd brought Antonio McDyess’ athleticism and skillset, though neither of you enjoyed healthy careers after that crazy free agent period.
And then finally.
Shawn Marion comes in as a small forward who can’t shoot but by god he can do everything else and apparently assimilated a tazmanian devil at some point that wouldn’t ever let him sit still. He almost immediately became a double-double machine and soon turned into one of the league’s best defenders as well.
Amare Stoudemire happens on the scene and we all know he’s special from day one. Who cares that he went to nine different high schools. You could see the magic every time he took the court that he could accomplish anything and everything. His dunks. His finishes in traffic. Those hands. Those moves. No, he didn’t care a whit about defense, but he rebounded enough and blocked enough shots to hold his own and was just so freaking dominant offensively that defense didn’t matter.
Joe Johnson was a flash in the pan for the Suns. He had one good season, then left for literally greener pasture to be “the man” in Atlanta. I have no fond memories of Joe. None. Zippo.
Coming into the summer of 2004, the 29-win Suns were full of young “could be’s” without a leader.
And then there’s Steve Nash. Two-time All-Star point guard to return to his drafting team and lead these young guns into a new era of basketball.
Nash helped the Suns remake the NBA in their image, building upon what Sacramento had done earlier in the decade to make the run-n-gun, three-point shooting barrage even better and longer-lasting - and enough of a blueprint to literally change the NBA forever.
Like Amare, Nash couldn’t play any defense either. But with Raja Bell and Shawn Marion around to take on the pair of offensive guards any opponent had, the Suns had enough in place to be able to win games anyway. A lot of games. Just not those against the Spurs, most of the time.
Ahh, the memories.
Why did I go down that lane?
Because I am trying to place the Suns latest star Devin Booker among these luminaries to see how he stacks up, historically for the Suns franchise and across the league.
In Devin, we have a sublime offensive player with a developing secondary skill - passing, playmaking - but someone who only really contributes on one end of the floor and needs to be hidden by a scheme on defense.
To me, that’s pretty much the blueprint of Suns history.
Stoudemire made 6 All-Star teams, 5 All-NBA teams and played superbly in the playoffs and a pair of Western Conference Finals (2005, 2010) despite being a disinterested and ineffective defender.
Charles Barkley, league MVP with the Suns, made 11 All-Star teams, 11 All-NBA teams and carried the Suns to the 1993 Finals despite being a poor defender. He once boasted (paraphrasing) “I get paid a million each to score and rebound. You want me to defend? I’ll need another million.”
And then there’s Two-Time.
Steve Nash, twice the league MVP, made eight All-Star teams, seven All-NBA teams and led the Suns to three Conference Finals (2005, 2006 and 2010) despite being a spirited but poor defender.
Not one of Amare, Chuck or Two-Time would say that they were a good league defender in their own right.
Yet they combined for gobs of awards and enjoyed a great deal of success in the league because they eventually settled on teams with teammates talented enough to cover for them when needed.
Nash and Amare had all-league defensive talents like Raja Bell and Shawn Marion, respectively, taking on the the tougher assignments each night. They matched the stars, minute for minute. Marion eventually got tired of being the third fiddle while doing so much of the dirty work while also being superb offensively.
During his most successful years, Sir Charles had Mark West covering his backside, and the dogged efforts of Dan Majerle on the wing and Kevin Johnson at point guard. Even guys like Danny Ainge played hard enough to limit the times Charles was forced to take on a driving guard.
I bring up these Suns luminaries to make a point.
Who cares that Devin Booker can’t play good defense?
Booker doesn’t try hard enough. His eyes often wander from his man to the ball, resulting in an easy backdoor cut for a score. He also has trouble getting through picks, freeing up his man to go four on four while Booker is plastered to the screener. And Booker’s focus on team defensive principles declines with every second the shot clock dwindles.
But should that deficiency keep him from becoming a 5+ time All-Star? Or an MVP candidate?
Didn’t affect Amare, Chuck or Steve, did it?
Barkley enjoyed his early years on 50+ win teams thanks to Moses Malone and Julius Irving around him. Barkley made his first All-Star team in his third year, after dominating the year before but still overshadowed by the veteran Malone. Beginning his third year, Barkley ran off a string of 11 consecutive All-Star games. But even then, those appearances arguably began a year later than they should have.
Was Barkley ever kept from being an All-Star or All-NBA because he notoriously didn’t play much defense? No. He scored, rebounded and passed so well that nothing else mattered. He was a winner, unafraid to take the big shot or make the big play to turn a game.
Steve Nash had a bit slower ascension to All-Star level. After being drafted by the Suns, sitting behind Kidd and KJ, he got his starting chance in Dallas alongside a young Dirk Nowitzki. Nash needed more time to develop than his team did, becoming a 54-win team the year before Nash perfected his game and made the All-Star team.
Nash’s defensive deficiencies were covered by the likes of Michael Finley and Howard Eisley on the wing in Dallas, and then later by Marion and Bell, starting a string of mid-pack defensive finishes for Nash-led teams that lasted the apex of his career.
Amare Stoudemire was a bit of latter-day Charles, in that he could do anything he wanted offensively and had a personality larger than the game itself. But couldn’t hold a candle to Charles’ passing and elite rebounding. Amare got a defensive pass for many years as an out-of-position center who wasn’t supposed to do well protecting the rim, but he was also protected by the team around him. Shawn Marion did a lot of Amare’s defensive work for him, and the Suns supreme offense made the “big center” obsolete anyway. I still remember a game where league MVP candidate Shaquille O’Neal sat out most of the second half of a Suns-Heat game because he was getting beaten way too often by the Suns speed.
Devin Booker, the Suns latest star who burgeoning career doesn’t look a whole lot different than Amare, Charles and Steve in terms of stats and personality, has not such lineup protection.
The Suns are holding out hope that rookie Josh Jackson can someday offer that protection for Booker. They hope JJ can become the kind of defensive genie they can spot for the next decade on the opponent’s best offensive player. He has the tasmanian devil in him like Marion did. He can move laterally and vertically with the best of them. He’s got long enough arms to protect more ground and cut off more passing lanes than most wings.
But will he be a quicker Trevor Ariza on that end? Or latter-day Corey Brewer? We just don’t know yet. Right now, Jackson is still trying to figure out the league and is surprised on a nightly basis how fast, strong and smart these players are. They use every advantage - picks, rubs, screens, switches - to take Jackson completely out of plays.
If Devin Booker is to one day be an All-Star, he’s going to need defensive support around him to minimize his clear flaws. He’s going to need Nash’s Raja. Amare’s Shawn. Heck, even Nash’s Grant Hill or youthful Jared Dudley.
Booker cannot be protected defensively by Tyler Ulis. At least not while the ball is live. And he can’t be protected by any of Isaiah Canaan, T.J. Warren or Troy Daniels either. Those guys have their own talents, none of which is to neutralize the other team’s 1-2 really good perimeter guys and give Booker a safety net.
This year’s draft picks were the Suns first real attempt to give Booker that defensive cover on the wing. Davon Reed has yet to play (no, I don’t count those mop up minutes against the Pacers) while he recovers from a knee surgery. But he’s got 7’1” wingspan and reputation for defensive effectiveness. Josh Jackson has every tool a wing defender could want and the intensity to deliver it consistently. He just needs time to adjust to the league. And about 20% more strength for fighting through picks.
It’s possible that Dragan Bender will eventually provide consistent defense in the front court that can slide out to the wing, but he’s too inconsistent yet to be counted on for 30 minutes a night against a top offensive player.
Devin Booker’s numbers are certainly All-Star caliber.
Besides Booker, Michael Jordan is the only other player in league history to post 25+ points, 4.5+ assists, 4.5+ rebounds per game on 57+ True Shooting Percentage (factors in threes and free throws) at age 21 or younger.
If you raise the age minimum to 23, the list grows to include David Thompson, Giannis Antetokuompo and James Harden, who each reached those milestones in their age-23 year.
Every one of them made the All-Star game in that year they posted 25/4.5/4.5/57. Jordan (14 ASGs), Thompson (5 ASGs), Giannis (2 ASGs and counting), Harden (5 ASGs and counting) did not stop there.
But Devin Booker almost certainly won't be named by the coaches this week to his first All-Star game.
His team does not win enough games. His defense is lately a storyline, as is his ‘chucker’ label.
Players know what’s what. Players gave Booker the 4th most votes among Western guards to make the All-Star game. Five or six will make it. Maybe even more will be named, if there are any injuries. But media only gave Booker the 7th-most votes among West guards and fans had him all the way down at 10th.
Here’s how Booker stacks up against those other West guards, weighted among the three voting methods to determine starters.
These results only determine the starters, though.
This week, the league’s assistant coaches will round out the teams with their own picks.
Here’s some statistical data they can use to compare remaining eligible players. Let’s say that they will name 2-3 more guards, not including starters Stephen Curry and James Harden.
Booker leads in points per game, and is mid-pack on many others (3P%, FGA, eFG%) but near the bottom in rebounds, assists and turnovers.
And, he is on the worst team. Portland, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Golden State and Houston are all in the playoff hunt.
And finally, he’s the youngest. For the same reason Damian Lillard has been left off the last two All-Star teams, Devin will be too. Not winning enough games to beat out the like competition.
So now the question is at what point will Booker become an All-Star? Westbrook, Curry, Thompson, Harden, Lillard and Butler aren’t going anywhere for half a decade to come.
And what of the other young pups on the rise among West guards?
Let’s look at this year’s leading scorers among the 23-and-under guards in the West
Booker leads in nearly every category on a per-game basis, across the board. Rookies Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith have similar offensive loads/expectations to Booker on their teams, which shows in their usage and turnovers as well as total stats.
If you look at the advanced stats for these pups, you can see the effect of the team around them.
Booker’s low numbers on steals and blocks don’t help him on the defensive end. Neither does his team’s overall 30th rank in points per possession allowed.
But it’s really the box score numbers on defense that hold Booker back. Consider that the Suns best DBPM players this year are (1) Derrick Jones Jr., (2) Marquese Chriss, (3) Alex Len and (4) Greg Monroe? They are all a “net positive” on the defensive end, according to how DBPM is calculated using box score stats. Would you consider any of those guys a net positive on defense? Maybe DJJ. Maybe Alex, when he’s engaged. But Chriss and Monroe are nowhere near being defensive pluses. So that’s the flaw in ‘defensive metrics’.
The whole DRtg is an individual defensive rating while a player is on the court. If he’s surrounded by Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio, his defensive rating is bound to be better than one who is flanked by Greg Monroe and Tyler Ulis.
This is not to claim the SODDI defense (some other guy did it). I am not pointing fingers. I’m simply saying that Booker needs defensive help around him. And when that comes, he will look better defensively and people will be able to focus on his prodigious offensive skills.
When that happens, Booker will be an All-Star. For many, many years to come.