Through four games, the Suns’ biggest problem on offense has been turning the ball over, giving opponents easy opportunities in transition and limiting their own margin for error as a result. The problem is not only that this young team is struggling to adjust to a new system and a faster tempo, but that their best player, Devin Booker, is as big a culprit as anyone.
Booker’s workload has been heavier than ever to start the season. His 34.8 percent usage rate would rank by far the highest of his career, and though his scoring and playmaking numbers have been in line with career norms, he has struggled with ball control. Turnovers have been Booker’s kryptonite throughout his four years in the league, but he has coughed the ball up more often than normal through four contests this season.
So far this year, Booker has turned the ball over on 19.2 percent of possessions, in the bottom percentile for guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. That has contributed to 28th-ranked overall turnover rate for the Suns as a team, as they as a team are throwing away 16.8 percent of possessions.
The most curious part of all with these mistakes is that they are not coming as a result of Booker seeing increased defensive attention compared with prior seasons. We’ve seen Booker for years elude double and triple teams to find openings in the defense to score. He’s been incredibly efficient this year, as has the whole offense, shooting 72.7 percent of their shots from either 3-point range or at the rim and putting out an unrecognizable 55.4 effective field goal percentage, unheard of for this squad since the 2013-14 season that brought them 48 wins and T.J. Warren.
Booker himself is shooting 71 percent at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, and has put up a 4.7 Offensive Box Plus-Minus, which attempts to gauge his impact on the offense per 100 possessions using box score statistics. Each would be the highest of his career over a full year.
No, the problem is not Booker suddenly failing to make shots or the Suns not putting enough talent around him. It has simply been the array of defensive strategies deployed against Phoenix that has gotten into their head and forced them to overthink the offensive system they deployed to great success in the preseason and on opening night against Dallas.
After Wednesday’s home tilt against the Lakers, in which the Suns turned the ball over 19 times (17 percent of their total possessions), coach Igor Kokoskov said many of the mistakes came down to the Suns’ mettle being tested.
“One thing we can’t afford is when a thing doesn’t go the right way, we just are kind of closing out the world and in on our own shell and trying to figure it out individually,” he said.
Looking at Booker specifically, it’s hard to point out that he has necessarily fallen into that trap simply by choosing scoring over passing, but he’s obviously still finding the balance with this roster between giving the ball up and continuing to probe for space.
Here you can see Jordan Bell and Andre Iguodala sink in to contest Booker at the rim and he ignores both Mikal Bridges and Trevor Ariza, two effective spot-up shooters, in favor of an attempt at the rim.
Now, Booker has been tremendous at the rim over four games, and the deficit by then was 24 points in Oracle Arena. But this is an example of a situation where slow, steady fighting could have built into a comeback if the Suns stuck to their gameplan and made more of the right plays.
In addition, the Warriors are able to throw tons of like-sized bodies around to make those types of instantaneous decisions difficult. Booker struggled against that scheme, with everyone on the Warriors’ roster mostly healthy. He also struggled against Denver, who have come out of the gates with a defensive style few teams play anymore, sending Nikola Jokic toward the ball-handler to hedge against pick-and-rolls.
A few of Booker’s turnovers last Friday came when he took a split second too long to find the next opening a pass away (here Jokic has completely left Ayton, who has already shown he can get the ball out to a shooter if the defense tags like him Denver is about to).
Phoenix is fifth in assists per 100 possessions as a team so far this year, showing that their work finding better shots even when decent ones pop open is worth it. Booker is going to have play differently than he did last year, trusting that the team’s other playmakers can take some of the burden away from him.
That rhythm worked beautifully in the Suns’ lone win, when Booker was patient throughout before setting the fourth quarter ablaze. But in the subsequent three games, secondary playmakers such as Josh Jackson and Isaiah Canaan were less effective, and Booker had to do more.
Perhaps there is some room for optimism with Jamal Crawford finally fully integrated into the rotation. Though he sucked some life out of the offense when it started to sputter, failing to keep the gears moving in the way Kokoskovs prefers, Crawford will obviously provide some stability when it comes to making open shots and making the right plays.
“It was really good having another playmaker out there,” Booker said of Crawford on Wednesday, after Crawford’s season-high 14 minutes. “He can run a lot of the sets. It’s just the comfortability, I think we hit it off right away to the point where he trusts me with the ball and I trust him. Every possession down, either one of us can make the play.”
If that interchangeability can take pressure off Booker going forward, it would be huge not only for Booker to limit his turnovers, but for the Suns’ offense as a whole. The stagnation causing the Suns to turn the ball over rears its head in various ways, but it can be battled by stability, and that’s what Crawford will bring. The offense has been efficient and productive, and it will need to be to compete with the onslaught of Western Conference scorers.
The Suns have been pretty bad on defense as well, but offense was always going to be the calling card for a team led by Booker and Ayton. It’s the only way they will be able to stay in games.
Young teams have a small margin of error, and giving the ball away only tightens it further. If the Suns can cut back on turnovers, they should be more competitive right away.