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Booker’s extension: Caught between a rock and a Harden place

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History suggests Devin Booker’s extension is a little risky but the show of faith could still pay off big time for the Suns.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Before the ink had even dried on Devin Booker’s max rookie contract extension with the Suns, the questions around his eligibility had begun. After completing his third NBA season, Booker was certainly a candidate for the projected $158 million contract under current CBA rules, however, many wondered if he’d shown enough to deserve it.

With just a measly 68 wins in three seasons, the Suns have pegged Booker as the franchise player to lead them out of the NBA doldrums. However, after locking the shooting guard up through the 2023/24 season, plenty have questioned if Phoenix should have waited.

Waiting another 12 months could have afforded the Suns another season of data to analyze Booker’s game, created extra salary cap room for the 2019 free agency period and perhaps offered the option of pushing Booker into restricted free agency to gauge his true value within the league.

It also would have risked Booker’s commitment to the franchise wavering.

And then, there’s injuries.

The Suns decided they had seen enough, and instead, Booker joined an exclusive group of just 13 other players in the last 10 years to sign that max contract after three years’ service.

Assessing Booker’s viability amongst the game’s top players has proven to be a messy and often heated debate. The added complexity of every player’s situation makes it a discussion with no easy resolution, despite our want for every question to have a simple answer.

However, one thing is clear. Booker has joined a very select group of players around the league and by looking at individual accolades, we can assess his qualifications compared to those who came before him.

2009 - 2018: Max rookie extension recipients & their achievements pre/post signing

Karl-Anthony Towns created a group of 15, signing after Booker. But unlike Booker, Towns was more than qualified based on recent history. Since 2009, the max rookie extension has been reserved for the game’s truly elite. Well, almost. Of the previous recipients, only four of the 13 were not All-Stars at the time of signing and only one extra (Kyrie Irving) had not made an All-NBA team.

In signing his new deal, Booker joins the minority of Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, John Wall and James Harden in not achieving either All-Star or All-NBA status before their big payday.

With that now in the past, it all comes down to whether Booker can bridge the gap just as Embiid, Wall and Harden did or join an even smaller minority with Wiggins of those who could not achieve either accolade by the end of their fourth year.

Booker is currently already in another minority within this group. As a No. 13 draft pick, he joins only Paul George as a double-digit selection, with all others drafted by their teams at sixth or later.

However, the Suns starting shooting guard goes into his fourth year (Year 0 of the extension) well behind most of his peers and the question has therefore got to be asked — did the Suns move too hard and too soon on Booker’s second contract?

2013 - 2016: Examples of max (or close) rookie extension recipients, who signed for less years (top) or a year later (bottom)

In recent years, a number of other players have received similar contracts to Booker’s new deal with the Suns, but with some differences. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Pick 15), Steven Adams (Pick 12), CJ McCollum (Pick 10) and Klay Thompson (Pick 11) are all peers of Booker when it comes to where they were drafted. But as with DeMarcus Cousins (Pick 5), they could also be argued as closer to Booker’s current status when they received their first non-rookie contract.

With zero All-Star or All-NBA nods between them, all five players received max money (or just short of) but for only four years. In the case of Antetokounmpo and Thompson, who went on to receive both honors in Year 0, the risk for their team is that they now hit free agency a year earlier than was originally possible.

For the teams who waited, their decision largely seemed justified too, but the decision carries its own risks if the player turns out to be worthy of max money. For every Bradley Beal or Andre Drummond who is early in their extension after being forced to wait until after Year 0, there is a Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard who approaches free agency with a new team after falling out with the franchise that extended them.

Then there are the likes of Otto Porter Jr., who signed a max offer sheet with Brooklyn in restricted free agency last offseason. It is early days for his situation in Washington but we already saw Gordon Hayward leave Utah after they put him through a similar situation a number of seasons ago. And yes, the offer sheet process was often reported as a reason for his departure.

So when using history to assess the decision on Booker, the answer seems quite clear. His new contract should be seen as a risk for the franchise, but the Suns clearly chose the extra security a maximum deal brings now and are confident he will join those who proved their value in the long run.

Max SG’s since 2009: Per 36 (Top) & Advanced (Bottom) numbers in Years 1 - 3 before signing their extension.

Despite the lack of individual awards, the Suns’ confidence isn’t entirely misguided. After all, such awards are largely dependent on team success and statistically, Booker holds his own against similar players who came before him.

Harden, Wiggins, Brandon Roy and Paul George create a smaller group of shooting guard peers for Booker to be compared with. In the first three years of their careers, all but Harden worked their way into the starting off-guard position with varying degrees of success.

Through the first three years of their careers, Booker at least appears to be deserving of the company, on the surface. Per-36 and advanced numbers show that Booker is the most prolific scorer of the bunch and the best shooter. Despite being the least efficient from the field, proficiency from deep and from the free-throw line helps him get in the conversation from an overall true shooting percentage standpoint too.

In fact, there isn’t much that Booker isn’t at least in the conversation for statistically. Noise around his defense and contribution to winning will continue until Phoenix has a better on-court product.

Then there is of course the argument that Booker’s numbers are empty on a bad team and the team success (and individual awards) should have come on the back of Booker’s numbers. Roy, Harden and George all made the playoffs during years 1-3, but they also had a lot of help doing so.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, David West, George Hill, Roy Hibbert, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Zach Randolph were all teammates of the likes of Roy, Harden and George their first three seasons.

Has Booker had a single teammate through his first three years better or more impactful than anyone from this group? Eric Bledsoe? Maybe?

He may fall short in awards, but from a statistical standpoint, Booker deserves to be in the conversation with his rich off-guard peers. From the point of the contract signing, it all comes down to how franchises then harness the talent to turn it into team success.

Max SG’s since 2009: Per 36 (Top) & Advanced (Bottom) numbers in Year 0 after signing their extension.

Year 0 has been referenced many times already and for good reason.

Booker is heading into his Year 0 season, or the last of his rookie contract and first after signing his extension. After signing their guys to extensions, Portland, Indiana and Houston all began to build around what they already had. Minnesota did not.

In Wiggins and Harden, two franchises have given the Suns the blueprint on what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.

In a playoff drought similar to the Suns’, the Timberwolves decided to bring in Jimmy Butler to propel the team forward, a move that worked in sneaking the Wolves into the playoffs last season, but at what cost?

While plenty of Wiggins’ stagnated development is on him, bringing a veteran in at the same position has stunted his growth as a player and further torn the franchise in two, the results of which are still playing out on the eve of the upcoming season.

One step forward and two steps back.

Conversely in Houston, the Rockets found Harden via trade and built around him at every opportunity. There is a clear talent discrepancy there also, but it cannot be ignored just how much Harden (and the Rockets) have improved since his arrival.

Is it a coincidence that Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza arrived in the Valley this offseason? Highly unlikely.

Before Rockets general manager Daryl Morey could get his hands on a talent like Chris Paul, he slowly built a team of defense and shooting around Harden. This culminated in a starting unit of Clint Capela, Anderson, Ariza, Harden and Patrick Beverley for the 2016-17 season and 55 wins.

By adding Anderson and Ariza, the Suns aren’t quite getting the same players from two seasons ago but they are getting guys who understand the philosophy. Deandre Ayton might already be more impactful than the current version of Capela, let alone the 16-17 version. But even then, the Suns have still fallen short.

While chasing the individual goals of Harden might be too lofty for Booker, there is still some key progression needed on both sides for it to even be a possibility. Harden’s career arc in Houston is a fascinating one, as is that of the team he has led. However, none of it would have been possible without his franchise tagging him as their leader and building the roster around his strengths.

Just as the Suns appear to be attempting to do with Booker. Although proclaiming the rebuild to be over, the building should never end.

Only time will tell if Phoenix have made the right decision by extending Booker this soon but James Jones and Co. can help the cause by continuing to build. With the job far from finished, McDonough may have lost his own job for failing to complete phase one of the task.

May I suggest point guard is the next key block, James?

James Harden career numbers 2009 - 2018

The Suns confidence in Booker may be rewarded with avoiding a number of risks going forward or it could be punished by paralyzing the roster for future seasons. Health permitting, Booker needs to start earning All-Star and All-NBA nods soon and in turn, the Suns should start making the playoffs. Or is it vice-versa?

A stacked Western Conference may mean Booker remains a year or two behind in the history books compared with his peers. However, the extension is locked in now and Booker’s success is predicated on how the Suns as a franchise can build around their star shooting guard and remain on a path that maximizes his talents.

To date, Booker has shown he can produce despite the on- and off-court hindrances around him. For the 2018-19 season, Booker has a promising young core lead by a potential franchise big and a solid group of contributing veterans around him.

They’ve only just dipped their toes in the water, though. In order for him to truly make the next leap, the Suns need to jump all the way in and get wet like they’re Book.

Poll

When will Devin Booker earn his first All Star selection?

This poll is closed

  • 59%
    18/19 Season
    (264 votes)
  • 33%
    19/20 Season
    (146 votes)
  • 4%
    20/21 Season
    (19 votes)
  • 2%
    Never
    (12 votes)
441 votes total Vote Now