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How the Phoenix Suns hurt themselves by extending Devin Booker a year early

The Suns seemingly signed Booker to his new deal a year early for the wrong reasons.

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Devin Booker, as a result of immense improvement and repeated commitment to the Suns’ organization, will make $27.2 million next season in the first year of his maximum contract extension.

When Booker signed that deal last summer in Los Angeles, fans saw the franchise committing to the crown jewel of their long rebuild. So little besides Booker’s development has gone right since the Suns last made the playoffs, so at the time it just ... felt ... like committing to Booker at the highest salary allowed was the right thing to do.

Yet the contract severely hampered the Suns’ ability to upgrade the roster around Booker over the life of the new deal.

Rather than that $27.2 million price tag, Booker would have instead only counted for 300 percent of his 2018-19 salary (or $9.9 million) if he waited until sometime after July 1, 2019 to sign the new deal. That difference would have freed up $17.3 million in extra cap space this summer for the Suns to address other needs such as point guard or power forward.

Two potential explanations for the quick trigger

The first and most logical answer for why the Suns wanted to get the deal done last summer is that it made Booker eligible for more money under the Rose Rule. The circumstances didn’t go Booker’s way, but as Bright Side reported last year, Booker could have earned $173.9 million on his five-year extension if he earned an All-NBA nod this season.

Such provisions can only be included for extensions, not new contracts. It was extremely unlikely that Booker would take a jump all the way to a top-15 NBA player this season, but this is one lever Booker and his agent may have pulled last summer to put pressure on the organization to do the deal early.

Speaking of pressure, the most worrisome case study for any franchise making a decision like this is that of Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs. Instead of extending Leonard after his fourth season (by which point he had already won a Finals MVP trophy), the Spurs waited. This allowed them more flexibility with their veteran core, as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were already thinking about retirement at that point.

San Antonio never got to the point of having to match an offer sheet for Leonard as they got a max deal done the next summer, but that’s always the concern when you let a player enter restricted free agency. The optics of letting Booker visit another city and meet with a different front office as a restricted free agent would have been ugly.

The leverage belonged to the Suns

For a squad that heard a mandate from Robert Sarver on the airwaves last October when he said the reason for Ryan McDonough’s dismissal was that it was time to “flip the switch,” the contract hurts. Making Booker happy and committing to him in the same way he has publicly committed to Phoenix is important, but the reality is the Suns had all the leverage.

If Sarver and the Suns intended all along on signing Booker to a maximum contract, there was no financial reason to jump the gun last summer. Booker would make the same $158 million over the next five seasons in either situation.

From Booker’s perspective, the risk would be suffering an injury and seeing his value drop. But we can take Phoenix’s willingness to sign the deal last summer as evidence they would have done so in the event of all but the most serious injury. Players like Joel Embiid and Paul George have gotten max contracts after major injuries before. It’s hard to imagine the Suns worrying too much about a guy like Booker, who has avoided major injuries so far.

Twenty-seven points and seven assists per night are plenty to convince Phoenix that Booker is deserving of the contract, and lesser NBA players have set the market for Booker to be worthy of a max deal.

The only gain to be made by the Suns inking the deal in 2018 was strengthening the relationship with their franchise cornerstone. That’s certainly reason enough to do so on paper, but not at the expense of building a great roster around Booker.

How it changed the Suns’ options this summer

The extra $17.2 million in cap space would have been huge. Assuming the consequent moves were the same (trading Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson), Phoenix would have had about $23.1 million in cap space this summer with cap holds for Booker and Oubre on the books.

Phoenix then could have spent all the way up to the cap in free agency before re-signing Booker and Oubre to extensions.

All the talk this summer so far has been how the Suns should prioritize their various roster holes. Trade for a point guard and sign a veteran forward? Trade for a big man and dig around in free agency for that playmaker? If the Suns had waited on Booker’s new deal, they would have had enough money to address both needs in free agency while also maintaining their flexibility on the trade market.

The Suns certainly needed any positivity they could find last summer coming off the worst season in franchise history. Yet the unlikelihood of Booker actually taking advantage of the Rose Rule and earning more money on his extension, coupled with the way his new contract limits the franchise’s options this summer, means the extension in 2018 has to be seen as a mistake.

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