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The blame game: How good is Devin Booker ... and how bad are the Phoenix Suns?

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The Suns’ precocious franchise player continues to rack up accolades ... and losses.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Booker is a good basketball player. But just how good is he?

How does this sound for an elite club?

Booker finished the 2018-19 season averaging 26.6 points and 6.8 assists per game. In doing so, he joins LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the only players age 22 or younger to accomplish that feat. To expand upon that, Booker had a higher true shooting percentage (58.4) than either of them in that year.

That 26.6 points per game was also good for second in Suns’ franchise history behind only Tom Chambers, who scored 27.2 a night in 1989-90. More than Charles Barkley. More than Amar’e Stoudemire. Booker’s career average of 21.4 points per game is already good for fourth best in franchise history.

Booker also holds the franchise record for most points in a game, with a total of 70 that is admittedly emblazoned on a shirt that I own.

For all of his offensive output, the story on Booker is incomplete without discussing his defensive deficiencies. While exact defensive aptitude is difficult to gauge, most people will agree that Booker is bad at it. I think most reasonable people will also agree that Booker gets more on the offensive end than he gives away on the other side.

And for all the pyrotechnics that define Booker’s game on offense, the scoring and distributing have not led to wins.

Since Booker arrived in Phoenix four years ago the Suns have easily been the worst team in the league. Their 87 combined wins over four seasons is 22 less than the next worse team, the New York Knicks with 109.

Which poses an interesting dilemma...

If Devin Booker is such a good basketball player... how are the Suns a historically bad basketball team?

So how good is Devin Booker, and how good can he be?

Next year he starts a five year, $158 million rookie max extension deal. The Suns are paying him like a star player, like a franchise player.

Booker is 22 years old.

When James Harden was 22, he averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists per game. In Harden’s fourth year, at age 23, he averaged 25.9 points and 5.8 assists per game. That’s pretty similar to what Booker accomplished this season.

Harden isn’t exactly a world-destroyer on defense either.

I don’t think it’s insane to suggest that in his prime Booker could be a 30-plus point per game scorer, while ranking among the league leaders in assists (Booker was 14th this season).

Could Booker approach Harden-like offensive production?

I would say while definitely not guaranteed... it’s possible.

But in Harden’s fourth season he was making his fourth playoff appearance after leading his new team, the Houston Rockets after bring traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder, to a 45-37 record.

Which begs the question... if Booker is such a good player, shouldn’t he single-handedly be able to carry his team to more than the measly 19 wins they managed this season?

Now it’s time for charts and graphs!

*Wins are adjusted to account for seasons where team played less or more than 82 games (lockouts, shorter seasons, etc.)

Trying to come up with a way to pinpoint the top 50 players in NBA history is a difficult task, one which I don’t think people can agree on, so I chose criteria that I felt is imperfect, but provides a decent general guideline.

I used the top 50 leaders in career NBA MVP Award Shares as calculated on Basketball-Reference.com to designate the players for the examination.

I used that list to calculate the total wins for those 50 players in their first four seasons and compare/contrast that to the first four seasons of Booker’s career.

The results were not flattering.

Down at the very bottom left is Devin Booker. His win total is a stark contrast to any other player on the list.

The average number of wins was 185... nearly 100 more (25 per season) than Booker’s 87.

The next lowest total was 130 by Allen Iverson.

I actually labeled the names of the other four players who amassed fewer than 140 wins in their first four seasons.

So how much of this is Booker’s fault, and how much is the Suns?

Let’s look at the situations of those four players under 140 wins.

Kevin Garnett

Kevin Garnett joined a Minnesota Timberwolves team that had just finished 21-61 and had won only 75 games the previous four seasons. 75 games. That 21-win squad was led by Isaiah Rider, Christian Laettner and Tom Gugliotta. All three were between 23-25 years old.

The next year Laettner left and a 19-year-old rookie KG struggled to 26 wins. The following year they added a 19-year-old Stephon Marbury and ascended to 40 wins.

By the following year they were up to 45 wins, augmented by the likes of Chris Carr, Cherokee Parks, Sam Mitchell, Anthony Peeler and Stanley Roberts. A veritable murderer’s row.

Basically, it was Gugliotta (who made his lone All-Star appearance before eventually becoming a very mediocre player on the Suns), 21-year-old KG and 20-year-old Marbury that propelled that team to 45 wins and the playoffs.

Coaches: Bill Blair, Flip Saunders

Stephen Curry

The original Splash Brother, who nearly became a Phoenix Sun on draft night, came aboard the Golden St. Warriors after a 29-53 campaign. That squad was populated by the likes of Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and current Suns flamethrower Jamal Crawford.

They proceeded to get worse in Curry’s rookie season, managing just 26 wins. Curry was a late bloomer of sorts, as he still only averaged 14.7 points and 5.3 assists per game in his third year.

It wasn’t until Curry’s fourth season, buoyed by Klay Thompson and David Lee, that Steph made his first playoff appearance with 47 wins. Curry didn’t make his first All-Star appearance until the year after that.

Coaches: Don Nelson, Keith Smart, Mark Jackson

Allen Iverson

The Answer was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers after a pitiful 18-64 season. They did have a glimmer of hope with rookie Jerry Stackhouse, though, who averaged 19.2 points per game in his first year.

Within four seasons the Sixers won 49 games and a first round playoff series, while Iverson was already an NBA scoring champ.

The other starters on the team Iverson led to 49 wins were Eric Snow, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill and Theo Ratliff. Yikes.

Coaches: John Davis, Larry Brown

Patrick Ewing

Ewing was drafted by the Knicks after a 24 win season and a frozen envelope. Bernard King averaged 32.9 points per game for that team, but he was gone in Ewing’s rookie season. Instead the primary help for Ewing was Gerald Wilkins.

Ewing struggled through just 47 wins in his first two seasons, but by his fourth year he won 52 games with Mark Jackson and Charles Oakley on board.

Coaches: Hubie Brown, Bob Hill, Rick Pitino

Devin Booker

The Suns won 39 games the year before Booker arrived. By far the most of any of these five players, but there was quite a bit of change during that year. Two thirds of the Hydra - Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas were shipped out at the trade deadline.

The Suns plummeted to 23 wins in Booker’s rookie season. Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker were the biggest contributors after Eric Bledsoe missed over half the season with knee surgery.

The band came back again with similar results (24 wins) the following year. This time Bledsoe (averaging 21.1 points and 6.3 assists per game) was shut down late in the season by way of the team’s strategic resting policy.

The following year, 21 wins, Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender were starters the second half of the season.

Leading to 2018-19 and a new low with just 19 wins. The second best player on the team (behind arguably mid-season acquisition Kelly Oubre) was rookie center DeAndre Ayton (16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game). Injuries and insurgency led to an exodus of players and the team limped to the finish line missing six of their top eight rotation players.

Coaches: Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano, Igor Kokoskov

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NBA_franchise_post-season_droughts

Interestingly enough, four of the five players referenced above played on teams that populate this list of futility.

Only five times in NBA history has a team missed the playoffs more consecutive seasons than the current Suns have.

Among those five are the Timberwolves, who couldn’t manage to put enough talent around KG to make the playoffs in his final three seasons there before shipping him off to the Boston Celtics (where he finally became an NBA champion).

Also among them are the Warriors, who finally ended their 12 year drought in Curry’s fourth season.

Right below the Suns, you’ll even see the 76ers team that broke out of their slump on the back of Iverson.

So exactly how inept and incompetent is this current era of Suns basketball?

For those of you who think it really isn’t all that bad... yes, it is. You’re not paying enough attention if you think it isn’t.

This article isn’t going to turn into a novel in order to detail the embarrassing actions of those other teams, but the level of dysfunction within the Suns organization is historic.

However, some of these other franchises were also tire fires and these players were still able to lift them up.

So is Booker just in an even worse situation than those players, or is he just not even close to the level of those players?

We’re not talking about a few wins. We’re talking about the difference of 130-138 wins vs. 87. Booker has won 87 games.

Another wrinkle... how does intentional losing play into this? The Suns lost games on purpose. They sat players and made other moves to artificially inflate the loss totals. Did they do that “better” than some of these other teams?

Of course, there’s nothing saying Booker will approach being a top 50 player of all-time... or a top 100 player...

But for a 22-year-old to put up the offensive numbers Booker has is basically unprecedented. Regardless of his defensive deficiencies, if the Suns could manage to cobble together a winning record Booker would be an All-Star putting up 26.6 points and 6.8 assists per game.

The only players in the NBA who averaged more points and assists than Booker did this year are James Harden and LeBron James. Booker is 22 years old.

So how good is Devin Booker... and how bad are the Phoenix Suns?

Booker is going to continue to get better... unless he is an outlier. Most players hit their groove around 24 years old. That’s still two years away.

Is it still possible that Booker could be an all-time great and the Suns are just the heaviest anchor in league history?

I wouldn’t rule it out.

Booker might not play much defense, but he’s a pretty good player...

And there’s just no defending the gross incompetence that has defined the Suns as an organization for the entire time Booker has played in Phoenix.