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More than ever this season, Suns offense lives and dies by Devin Booker

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

An 82-game regular season is a relentless grind. Even for the most consistent of NBA superstars, there will be ups and downs. And without fail, the constant change in narratives will reflect that.

What a change it’s been for Devin Booker, who has put the league on notice these past 7 games.

Just two weeks ago, only 22% of you seemed confident in Booker’s ability to make an All-Star appearance this February. I’ll drop a poll at the bottom of the article to test this hypothesis, but it certainly seems like that number should be trending upwards now.

Booker is averaging close to 35 points and 7 assists on 65% TS over this most recent stretch, and he’s done it all without the presence of a consistent three-point stroke.

He’s already set the franchise record for most consecutive games of 30+ points, and in doing so has also joined an elite club of superstars across the league to post similar streaks over the past 10 years.

But despite any stirring of excitement from Suns fans, the team is still just 3-4 in these games. No positive attention at the national level is going to come without more wins.

So in essence, this article isn’t really about Devin Booker. It’s about everyone else.

Let’s face it, the past couple weeks have been...weird. Between Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes starting together in the frontcourt and Saric losing his spot in the rotation, there are plenty of potential scapegoats for why the season has gone awry.

But above all else, one theme has now become abundantly clear. The Suns just can’t score the basketball without Devin Booker.

To use the current 7-game stretch as an example, the Suns have a total point differential of -21 in those games. And in just 68 total minutes without Booker (less than 10 per game!), the point differential is -19. Virtually the entire deficit is comprised of just the small fraction of each game when Booker goes to the bench.

This was even more distinctly evident in the past two games against Memphis and Sacramento.

Against Memphis, the Suns played just 11 minutes without Booker. They were outscored 30-18 in those minutes, and ended up losing by 7.

Against Sacramento, the Suns played 9 minutes without Booker. They were outscored 24-13, and ended up losing by 11.

Watch the video below to re-live some of the team’s offensive possessions without Booker. Notice how the lead slowly evaporates every time these lineups take the floor.

But beyond that, do you notice a pattern in the offensive scheme? Count the number of mid-range attempts in that video, followed by the amount that actually go in.

Before you summon Eddie Johnson to dunk on me and strip away my Suns fan cred, allow me to explain myself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the mid-range shot, when presented with a roster full of players who can actually hit that shot. It’s useful to force the defense to cover the whole floor, and not just have to worry about the three-point line and the rim.

The problem is that the Suns can’t hit mid-range shots. Not nearly as well as they seem to think they can.

Devin Booker has earned the right to take any mid-range pull up he likes. That’s because he’s shooting just above 45% on those shots, which puts him in an elite tier of NBA players. Those aren’t open shots either, as Booker is frequently pressured the second he steps inside the arc.

But Deandre Ayton shot just 40% on those mid-range looks as a rookie (the equivalent efficiency of a 27% three-point shooter), and is hovering around that mark this season as well. Ricky Rubio shot 39% from mid-range last year as a member of the Jazz. Tyler Johnson is shooting just 36% from mid-range dating back to his Suns debut last season.

It should be obvious that when you settle for those shots, as opposed to getting to the free throw line or taking threes, that you’re fighting a losing numbers game in the long run. It’s been demoralizing to watch the Suns trade long twos for threes when Booker steps off the floor, as if that could realistically keep them in the game except in the luckiest of instances.

But there is hope.

The Suns’ offense with Devin Booker remains an impressively well-oiled machine. The team has a 113.3 offensive rating when Booker plays, giving him one of the best offensive on-off differentials of any player in the NBA (and by far the best differential on the Suns). Just look at where he is on the chart below, situated in the bottom right corner next to a handful of other great offensive talents. Maybe don’t pay as much attention to De’Anthony Melton having the best on-off differential of any player in the NBA.

@dom_tesoriero on Twitter

At least on one side of the court, Booker can handle a pretty hefty load. Now the Suns just need someone who can carry that burden for 10-15 minutes with Booker on the bench to prevent more catastrophic offensive breakdowns. Ideally, that player would complement Booker on the court as well.

Could that magic savior already be on this roster? Hopefully, because it’s much easier that way.

But that player needs to be a textbook triple threat. They need to penetrate, make plays for others, and draw in defenses based on their own scoring merit.

Ricky Rubio doesn’t check all of the boxes because defenses simply don’t respect his shot. In fact, Rubio is shooting 33% from the field and 23% from long range when Booker sits. He’s not the right guy for that role.

Ayton could assume that role and have his minutes staggered with Booker, but he needs to be far more aggressive offensively for that to work. Ayton has played 59 minutes without Booker so far this season, with a -4.8 net rating and an offensive rating under 100 to show for it. Because so much of Ayton’s offense right now is generated through the pick-and-roll, he needs a talented facilitator to really get him going. What we haven’t seen yet is a version of Deandre Ayton that catches from 18 feet out and then attacks the closeout and drives to the basket.

And for as explosive a secondary option as Kelly Oubre has become, he’s still averaging a measly 1.8 assists per 36 minutes. Asking him to assume more of a playmaking role with Booker on the bench is completely uncharted territory.

A strong case could be made that with even an average bench, or perhaps just one additional scoring threat to help fill in the gaps, Phoenix would be near .500. But if they can’t locate that player for the rest of the season, starting two centers will be the least of their worries. They’ll continue to drop close games and frustrate their one star.


Should Devin Booker be an All-Star?

This poll is closed

  • 85%
    (228 votes)
  • 14%
    (40 votes)
268 votes total Vote Now

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