It’s already been openly admitted by previous management, but the Phoenix Suns tanked the first three years of Devin Booker’s career. Starting in the 2015-16 season, the goal was pairing LSU phenom Ben Simmons with Booker. Then, it was playmaking savant Lonzo Ball out of UCLA. Finally, the third year of packing in losses paid off, as it led to University of Arizona big man Deandre Ayton, who was a consensus No. 1 pick in the Suns’ front office.
The West Coast’s version of Philadelphia’s infamous process resulted in teammates filing through turnstiles around Booker. It’s a testament to how talented Booker truly is to develop at this rate amidst chaos, which is backed up by the former Kentucky Wildcat joining only Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving over the past five years to have career averages of at least 20 points and 4 assists in their first four seasons.
The Suns have had four head coaches (including 79-game interim stint from Jay Triano) in the past three and a half seasons. With the trade deadline addition of Tyler Johnson, now 55 different players have played with Booker in his short career, with T.J. Warren being the last one standing.
Fifty-five is a notable number number for this main reason: Booker’s big figure has passed Anthony Davis (53) in his first four seasons, the NBA’s latest superstar to ask out using “pre-agency” to their advantage in this new era of player empowerment. The main reason Davis eventually asked out was because New Orleans failed time after time to build a sustainable winner around him. Another example is Kevin Love (42 teammates in four seasons), who requested out after six seasons in Minnesota where no progress was ever really made.
I’m not suggesting Booker is next up to enact this motion, but it should ring some alarm bells with how today’s league is heading. The Suns have to get it right in the next three years with Booker, because they sure did waste his entire rookie contract, which was rewarded with a well-deserved max extension that will go into effect this summer.
What New Orleans and Minnesota had in common with Phoenix was the buzzword of dysfunction. After awhile, the constant losing takes a toll.
If Booker maintains his current pace, he will join LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Lillard as the only modern-era players to average at least 24 points and 6 assists within their first four seasons. That’s elite company, but it will get swept under the rug as this franchise continues to be stuck in neutral with a plan that ended up not working.
For Booker, he’s venturing through another year without even reaching 25 wins. Before the All-Star break, the Suns have always had zero chance of sniffing the playoffs. Last year when Eric Bledsoe pretty much asked out via Twitter, the Suns tried to fix their hole at the point guard position by rotating in G League players and then trading for Elfrid Payton, who was eventually benched for Shaquille Harrison.
With no real effort shown to drastically improve that position to make it easier on Booker, it’s confusing when you see how proficient he continues to be on catch-and-shoot opportunities. This season, Booker is shooting 38.1 percent on 2.6 catch-and-shoot 3s while his pull-up proficiency is way below average, converting 29 percent on 3.7 attempts. For a perimeter sniper like Booker, who is a career 39.1 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, that’s a perfect blueprint for handcuffing your best player’s strongest skills.
If anything, that the switch that was supposed to be flipped this season appears broken, because the Suns are sitting in an even worse position than last year.
At this rate, the Suns won’t even win eclipse 20 which is something nobody thought was happening with all the young talent assembled together.
Now with nine straight years without playoff appearances for Phoenix, it’s time to accelerate this prolonged rebuild attempt around Booker with Ayton, Mikal Bridges and their 2019 pick (Zion Williamson or traded for All-Star) as main secondary pieces.
How did Booker and the Suns end up in this position?
Well, the biggest blunder I immediately point to is the 2016 draft class. Even though it was a weak one, missing on two picks, both in the top 10, on Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss hurts in hindsight. Selecting Jamal Murray at No. 4 overall and then moving back up to No. 8 for Domantas Sabonis could have netted two core pieces and pushed them forward quicker.
Alas, Phoenix then also backed out of a three-team trade with Cleveland and Indiana the next offseason that would’ve netted Booker Kyrie Irving as his new backcourt partner for Bledsoe and Josh Jackson.
Those missed opportunities have planted Phoenix at the bottom of the standings once more. Again, this once-proud franchise is relying on lottery balls to change their fortunes. If Ayton wasn’t enough, it might have to take Williamson for that switch to flip from bottom feeder to instant contender.
Earlier this month on 98.7 FM, Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones indicated their plans had changed. More veterans will be brought aboard, specifically 3-5 between the 25-30 age range. After slogging through another year of meaningless basketball, #TheTimeline rebuild of waiting out the Western Conference’s top tier is on the way out. The previous plan didn’t work, and Jones better be right on how to steer the team in the right direction quickly led by Booker.
The Johnson trade could indicate what Jones and Co. have in mind. If you zoom out and examine the league, Philadelphia is a good example of how having max cap space doesn’t matter. Even with Simmons and Joel Embiid leading the 76ers to 50-plus wins last season, they couldn’t land a third star alongside them. In the end, it took new general manager Elton Brand trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris with the hefty price being Dario Saric, Robert Covington, 2019 1st (Landry Shamet), 2020 1st and 2021 1st (via Miami from Phoenix).
Whatever route the Suns end up deciding to go towards this summer, which will first be decided by how the lottery balls once again fall, they have the chance to course-correct, leading this new era into the direction of consistent playoff contention.
At the moment, though, the lack of winning ingredients around Booker has the Suns pointing the direction that ultimately ended up changing franchises like Orlando (Dwight Howard), Minnesota (Kevin Love and Jimmy Butler), Indiana (Paul George), Cleveland (Kyrie Irving) and New Orleans (Anthony Davis).
Either there has to be rapid internal development or there have to be wholesale changes once more around their star combo guard, a feeling he’s already far too familiar with.