Fans and observers alike are up in arms over how much better Devin Booker should be at making the Phoenix Suns a better basketball product.
If the 26-point, six-assist Booker truly is a superstar, then how can the Suns be so so bad at basketball?
Booker is currently one of only 11 players in NBA history to post 26/6 stat line with a true shooting percentage of 58% or higher (TS% shows is a measure scoring efficiency, adding in the value of three-point shots and free throws). Outside of Gilbert Arenas (in 2004-05), the list is loaded with current and future Hall of Fame players.
But on that entire list, Booker has BY FAR the fewest “win shares,” an advanced stat that attempts to measure a player’s “share” of his teams wins that season using various counting stats in algorithmic ways.
Rather than using his superstar powers to make the Suns competitive in the win-loss column, Booker is instead presiding over a second-consecutive 60-loss season. Dead last in the Western Conference.
Sounds like Booker could be the good-stats-bad-team guy that ends up spending the second half of his career coming off the bench and/or getting traded multiple times once the “star” mantle fades on a better basketball team. The list of those guys is a long one, and a lot less impressive than the earlier list. This list includes Monta Ellis, Antawn Jamison, Rashard Lewis, Glenn Robinson, Antoine Walker, to name just a few. There’s a couple dozen players in NBA history with more than 60 games played, 25-plus percent usage rate, 20-point scoring clip with fewer than four “win shares” on the season. Only Glenn Robinson (4) has more of these seasons than Booker (3).
Booker has improved every year in the league. He’s a feared shooter, playmaker and scorer at all three levels — at the rim, mid-range and long-range. And now he’s a passer, too, nearing seven assists per game on a team that makes way too few of the shots he sets them up for. Booker tallies almost six could-have-been assists (they missed the shot) for every six he records, ranking 14th in the entire league with 12.6 potential assists each night per NBA stats. And he’s not even a point guard.
Booker has clear and present flaws. Any analysis of his defense, via either eye test or analytics, leaves you wondering how a player could be so so bad at it, especially if he wants his team to win a game. It doesn’t matter how many points you create if you give up more than that on the other end.
The alternate theory is that the team around Booker is so bad, and has been so bad his whole career, he’s had zero incentive to work on the least interesting part of his game. If 26 and 6 isn’t enough to get a win, what good would a 20 and 4 stat line with a harder close out or two do?
Meanwhile, these last three games have been a microcosm of his last two years, sparking an internet firestorm.
Booker has tallied stat lines of 59/4, 50/4 and 48/11 but all have come in defeat. He narrowly escaped becoming the first player in NBA history with three consecutive 50-point games without tallying a single win.
Was Booker the problem? No.
Evan Sidery posted a stat after Sunday night’s game, which I followed up to provide even more support.
Booker’s henchmen these three games has been: five rookies (three of them second-rounders), Richaun Holmes (2 games), Troy Daniels, Josh Jackson (1 game), Dragan Bender and Jamal Crawford. The last three are statistically three of the worst players in the 450-player league this year.
Sure, it’s all about environment. You could argue that Josh Jackson could be thriving right now in San Antonio or Boston or Denver, to name a few, where his strengths could be maximized and weaknesses minimized. Same for Bender, I suppose. And Crawford just last year was a better player in Minnesota, even at 38 years old.
But that’s the problem. The Suns have so few playable players that they can’t “hide” anyone. The only guys who know their role so well they stick to it every time are Troy Daniels and Richaun Holmes. Everyone else is either too helpful (Crawford) or too young to limit themselves to only their strengths. And the team has so few strengths, the coaches simply can’t make it work.
“The water is coming from all sides,” rookie coach Igor Kokoskov quipped earlier this year, describing how every time he plugs one hole another one or three spring a leak.
Today’s exercise is to look around NBA history to compare Booker’s early career with that of players who eventually experienced years and years of winning.
I asked my followers to help, and the suggestions came fast and furious. No fewer than 30 names were tossed to me as players who single-handedly carried their teams to competitive records.
I discounted the ones who were mid-career when they did their solo act, including but not limited to Kobe Bryant (mid-2000s), James Harden a couple years ago, Goran Dragic. I also discounted the ones who weren’t even the primary scorer on their teams in their earliest years, like Monta Ellis and Glenn Robinson. Others like Dominique Wilkins, Chris Bosh and “Stevie Franchise” Steve Francis had a lot more depth of veteran talent around them in their early years and/or great coaches. Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker had each other, as well as a functional supporting cast of career rotation players and legit coaches.
Let’s get to my research. The following are many of the true SOLO ACTS who carried the scoring load for their teams from day one in the NBA, trying to lead their team to victory before reaching their NBA primes.
I may have missed some excellent comps, I know. But here’s my research on other young scorers and what they did with their ragtag talent and coaches around them.
Michael Jordan and LeBron James
First, let’s get two of the greatest players in the history of basketball out of the way.
Neither Jordan nor LBJ needed anyone around them to make a team competitive. They didn’t need great coaches or great teammates to win games. They were just THAT GOOD.
I concede this point.
Another great young scorer who had more success than Booker at an early age is AI. But when you look at his team, after a rocky rookie season he was blessed with a Hall of Fame coach and a veteran roster loaded with defensive talent to make Iverson’s scoring count. They were a winning team by year three (the strike year) and then a perennial playoff contender from that point on.
Iverson started winning at age 23 and older. Booker won’t be 23 until after next season starts.
Here’s another example of the coach and team getting better around him, suddenly. Walker posted 17 points per game each of his first two years, then exploded for 20-plus there on out when his team got better.
Booker has never had a prime Al Jefferson to take a bigger scoring load than his own, nor has he had a veteran team around him like Walker did from year three on.
The same can be said of AD. I will be the first to say that Booker is NOT as good as Anthony Davis, who has the skills to be a scoring leader and defensive player of the year at the same time.
But even AD has had trouble winning games consistently in New Orleans with a talented but often-injured team.
Davis wins when the players around him are healthy and loses when they are not. He’s never been saddled with a handful of 22-and-unders as well as a rookie coach every year.
Now we get to some guys with sustained failure to win in the NBA despite their potential superstar status individually.
You’ll see that the Warriors annually cycled through different super-young and limited scorers around Jamison, floundering through constant roster turnover and untapped potential. Their 38-win year was an anomaly with a surprise emergence of second round pick Gilbert Arenas, who bolted GS the second he could.
Jamison might be the worst case outcome for Booker.
He was the best player on a really bad and dysfunctional franchise for years, succumbed to the dysfunction, and eventually spent the second half of his career being traded from one team to another. Jamison went from young franchise star to sixth man to rotational player in the blink of an eye.
Whereas Kevin Love might be the best possible outcome for Booker — a real star, no matter what team he’s on, but probably only the second or third best player on a Finals team.
Look at Love’s pre-Cleveland career that led to him wanting to be traded after signing his first extension. It should be noted that part of Love’s frustration was being hard-balled on his extension. The Wolves held out on him, eventually making him accept a four-year extension rather than five-year, which left a bad taste in his mouth.
Love had young Big Al and young “bust” picks like Randy Foye and Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson. He couldn’t win anything until added fundamentally sound euro imports like Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Ricky Rubio running the show.
Sure, Love’s career took some weird turns, but he’s true star on a Finals-contending team that isn’t quite good enough to shoulder-load a bad team to 30 wins, let alone the playoffs.
Here’s the unfinished story of Devin Booker.
Will his next five years be more like Antawn Jamison or Kevin Love?
How much of the Suns’ futility is Booker’s fault?
It’s not all his fault, but doesn’t at least some of it have to be his fault. Simply by definition? You can look at Kevin Love and see the same signature — great enough to help win a championship in a starring role but bad enough in some areas to fail to carry a bad team out of the depths of hell.
Those who know me know that I hate finger-pointing. I have a reputation of accepting as much blame as I give, no matter the circumstance, and I hold others to that same standard. When an employee comes to me to complain about a coworker, I won’t let them leave the conversation without accepting some of the blame themselves for whatever went wrong between them.
So Booker is SOME of the problem. But how much? That’s the question.
When it’s all said and done, will Booker prove all the skeptics right, and end up being a good but not great scoring option off the bench the second half of his career?
I firmly believe that 90% or more of the problem is the organization around Booker. My experience is watching 30+ years of watching basketball, both good and bad.
From a Suns perspective, I view prime Nash and Amare in the same prism as Booker — their atrocious defense sometimes hurt the Suns in the playoffs, even in their best years, but their offense and impact contributed mightily to several 55-win seasons and a trio of Conference Finals appearances. That’s where I put Booker. He’s not the reason the Suns lost 120+ games these past two years, but he might be the reason they lose a tight second-round matchup in the playoffs some day.
Young Amare lost a lot of games, even with Shawn Marion next to him, until he was gifted Steve Nash and SSOL in year three.
Young Nash lost a lot of games in Dallas early in his career, was even booed by Mavs fans, until he was gifted Dirk Nowitzki and then later Mike D’Antoni and stable of athletes ready to run in Phoenix.
Nash. Amare. Love.
That’s the tier in which Devin Booker’s career will ultimately reside, I believe.
The Suns just need to get him a better team to prove it.