For the last 3 years now I've been trying to convince myself that I don't think that Deandre Ayton is better than Devin Booker. Mostly I believe myself when I say that. It's rather easy to do so, Devin is clearly the more skilled player, even taking position into account, he's the far more productive player, he's more efficient, he's been an elite player for 3, maybe 4 years now. I absolutely love Devin Booker. That's why I talk myself out of being all in on DA, because it feels slightly unfaithful to my Suns' fandom if I jump ship from wanting Book to be the player that leads us to the promised land and change my allegiance to someone new. Afterall, Devin Booker has been here for all the mismanagement. All the bad parts of being a Suns fan since 2010, Devin Booker has been here for basically all of it with us. And so I don't, I'm still firmly in the Devin Booker is the best Sun camp, because he is, reality is reality, that is the current state of the Phoenix Suns.
The only issue is that I want Ayton to be the best player on the Suns. Since the moment he stepped on the court for us, the trajectory of the Suns has changed. The game looks different while he's on the court, at least to me it does. Deandre requires attention when he's on the court, he demands coverage, he has gravity the same way that Steph Curry has gravity. What are you going to do, let him roll to the basket? You have to cover him. DA is a walking mismatch creator, he's too big, too fast, too strong for the majority of the league, maybe he isn't superior to every player in all these categories, but almost1 no one beats him in all 3. He takes advantage of smaller players on offense and nullifies other big men on defense. In the playoffs he was our most consistent performer, and probably the most integral piece of our run to the finals. Admittedly, he didn't have the most standout performances on the team, but the other Suns don't find themselves in position to have those performances without Ayton. He was our big ticket, we rode his performance to the final. If I can boil it down to one thing, it's that if Deandre Ayton reaches his max potential the Suns, or whichever team he finds himself on, will be reaching the finals very often. In my eyes, he's much closer to reaching his overall apex than Booker is to being at the offensive level of the Kobe, Harden or Jordan levels.2
I imagine that I sound like I'm fanboying so hard for Ayton, at the very least, as if I'm highly over estimating his potential, but my estimation of Ayton isn't entirely based on how great I think he can be, but rather on what I think he can be. Historically, nothing guarantees more finals appearances than a dominant big man even more so in the modern era.
Let's exclude Bill Russell and his 13 finals appearances and 11 rings. He played in a different era, with less competition, not necessarily lower competition, Wilt Chamberlain exists after all. Not that his career doesn't support the idea, but there are definitely caveats that follow his career. Kareem's 10 finals trips will also temporarily be excluded, most of which were alongside Magic, which doesn't necessarily invalidate them for my purposes but for now let's put a pin in them, they'll come back around. If I also exclude George Mikan and his 5 titles, that basically covers everything from the 50's to the beginning of the 80's, where it was more of a given that a center would dominate. Most of the titles not won by one of these 3 men from the 50's through the 70's were also spearheaded by dominant big men,3 hence we can just ignore this era, not that it hurts my argument, but it was a different era of basketball, a different game.
I'm also going to ignore Magic and LeBron, with 9 and 10 finals trips respectively. Unfortunately for me, they don't fit into the big man mold, which doesn't help me much. The two of them are just too agile and too skilled to be considered in the same category as the other bigs that I have in mind. Though, we should keep in mind that they're both 6'9". Not to mention all the outlier finalists that don't fit in my neat little box.
I really wish there was a perfect date I could start from and say, "since the 1981-82 season 69% of all NBA finalists fit in my criteria," but the NBA goes through ebbs and flows, it goes through dips in dominance, through variances in style and pace, through rule changes, the advent of advanced statistics. Honestly, what really throws a wrench in my theory is Michael Jordan and LeBron James, these two players are true anomalies in the history of the NBA. They really don't fit into any precedent set before them. For the most part though, the most consistent factor in championship contention throughout all NBA history is definitively a dominant Center. When an all time center peaks there is very little that can deter them from getting to the finals, when the biggest player on the court is also the most dominant, it breaks the game.
Bill Walton, an all time talent riddled with injuries for his whole career, finally has an injury free year, peaks and wins a title. Moses Malone has a 3 year peak and gets to the finals twice. Hakeem Olajuwan went to 3 finals in his career, including back to back titles at his apex. Then we get to Shaquille O'neal. In the 11 years from 1995-2006 Shaq went to 6 finals, the high water mark of modern big man dominance. Now we get to Tim Duncan who himself also went to 6 finals, but throughout a longer timeframe, which is basically an equal accomplishment to Shaq's. The last guy I want to highlight is Dwight Howard, though he only led his team to 1 finals appearance, he did it over LeBron James. Dwight basically ruined the original Cleveland run, he has his 2-way peak and beats an NBA anomaly. So what is it that all these big men have in common, what traits do they share that allow them to make multiple finals trips in their careers. It is 2-way excellence, all these guys asserted themselves on both sides of the ball at the center position.
In all fairness, being excellent on both sides of the ball is a common throughline in all championship teams, but when it comes from the center position, it elevates a team in a special way that has consistently resulted in teams making it to the finals. Being more specific though, this group of centers have all combined 24+ ppg scoring with All-NBA level defense, not just run of the mill All-star level play, but true all time production. There is an exception in this group of players, Dwight Howard. Dwight is nowhere near the offensive player that the rest of this group is, he is not a 24 ppg player. At first this might seem like a hole in the argument, but I think it only bolsters the theory. He approximated the archetype well enough to make the finals, he might not truly belong to this class of player, but at his peak, it was good enough to carry him to a finals berth. Why is this important? Because Deandre Ayton is a more gifted offensive player than Howard ever was, and a close enough defensive player that he also fits the archetype.
Deandre Ayton has all time center potential. I'm so certain of it. Sure, it's all based on the eye test, but the way the game looks when he's on the court is different. It's unlike anything I've seen from the Phoenix Suns in all of my basketball life. He warps the game around himself, and we finally got to see it to its full extent in the playoffs. Since his contract turmoil has come to light there has been a lot of talk diminishing Deandre's offensive game. Whenever I see justification for the Suns not paying him, it's usually because he doesn't produce on offense. As if he doesn't already have an 18 ppg season under his belt, as if he can't hit a jump shot, or like he can't drive to the basket at all. Ayton has an offensive bag, he has a good feel for scoring and good touch on his jumpers, floaters and hook shots. These are not skills you can teach a player quickly, much less a 7 footer. He has a high basketball I.Q, he has a very good understanding of the fundamental intricacies of the game on offense, and defense. I just don't see where the rhetoric of him being a 1 dimensional player is coming from. I have an idea of why though, I assume people aren't actually watching the Suns play. If they were, they would see how much of the Suns offense is a direct result of Ayton just being on the floor, of the way he drags defenders with him to the rim. The reason Chris Paul got so many open jumpers at the elbow was because teams would rather take their chances on a CP3 jumper than a sure fire basket by Ayton at the rim, the same could be said for Booker, Ayton makes the game easier. His mere presence facilitates highly effective offense. The corner threes off skip passes for Mikal and Cam Johnson are also in part a product of Ayton sucking in the defense. Even if we discount this as a skill we can attribute to Ayton, it cannot be said that he is not a great offensive center, the man can score. Year by year he has outproduced Dwight Howard on offense so far, for what that's worth. Defensively? He doesn't quite match up to Dwight, though he probably is the equal of Moses Malone. He's worked himself to a very high level on that end, he might not be DPOY level, but he is absolutely no slouch on defense. I'd posit that he isn't that far off of being an all defense level player, he's much closer to that level than he is given credit for. He is the type of defender that is a defense unto himself, when he's on the floor opposing teams play a different way than when he's off the floor. He is the physical equal of every center he has had to play against, and when he's out on the perimeter he makes players uncomfortable. Time and time again guys were forced to change their shot to try and shoot over Ayton, he doesn't even need to jump. He plays a solid fundamental style of defense, he might not get blocks, but he does get guys to miss, what more can we ask for? In the playoffs he was our most consistent performer night in and night out. On initial thought, you might assume that I'm only basing this on last year's playoffs, and yes, I am heavily weighing his playoff performance in my assessment, but I've been watching this man show signs of this for years now. Him finally coming out and playing up to his potential on the biggest stage made me the happiest I've been as a Suns fan in years. At the end of the day, if we don't believe that Ayton has the kind of potential that I believe he has, then why did we draft him? If we aren't going to have faith in what he can be based on what he's shown us, then why in the blue fuck did we choose him over Luka or even over Trae Young. Personally, I've had faith in him his whole career, I just don't see why now, after everything he has accomplished, after sacrificing his own game, I don't see why we would have the slightest wavering of faith in Deandre Ayton. He is all time, hopefully he's all time for the Suns.
I wouldn't say this is an opinion, it's less than that, it's all emotion. These are just my feelings as a fan, and to keep some semblance of integrity, I must make a disclaimer now. Everything I asserted about Ayton and dominant big men comes with a massive caveat. Not a single one of the big men I highlighted accomplished what they did all on their own. There is basically a second constant that always works in tandem around this level of big man. The second constant comes in two basic forms. The first way is elite team play around the big. Think of the first 2 finals runs for Hakeem, all of Duncan's titles. It's what was around Bill Walton in 77' and Moses' Houston run in 81' and it's what pushed Dwight Howard over the top. Be it in elite team shooting or a second big man to bolster what your lead big does, having an elite supporting cast is often enough to make a finals run. The second way that it manifests is with a dynamic pairing between an elite wing, and your dominant big. Moses and Dr. J and Drexler joining Hakeem for the second title both fit this bill, Shaq and penny, Shaq and Kobe, Shaq and Dwyane Wade. (Shaq makes me laugh.)
Before moving on, I want to talk about a few teams that are sort of an amalgam of any of the three4 aspects of title teams that I've discussed. Larry Bird's Celtics have 2 of the aspects I've talked about. Larry Bird is an all time wing talent, but he also had a hall of fame pairing in the front court, catapulting them to three titles and five finals appearances. The bad boy Pistons and the 2004 Pistons are slight outliers, only because they had elite point guard play to go along with elite team play AND a hall of fame frontcourt. The Kobe Lakers were an elite wing combined with a hall of fame front court, and good team play. Finally, the Showtime Lakers, Magic Johnson was elite team play unto himself, and they had Kareem Abdul-Jabar, the exact type of big I've been harping about, not to mention James freaking Worthy. I excluded Magic and Kareem because it's uncertain how much them playing together affected their success, both had finals appearances without the other, including titles without the other on the floor. I didn't want to parse who was actually responsible for what.
Where does this leave the Suns then? It leaves us in an incredibly fortuitous position. By the glory of the basketball gods we find ourselves with all three of the most recurring aspects of NBA finalists. We have an elite wing talent in Devin Booker, we have 4 to 5 other guys that foster incredible team play alone, much less together, and for my money, the central aspect, an all time dominant big man in Deandre Ayton. As you'll notice 2 of these are singular, I want those parts of the team together forever. Will these guys live up to the potential that I believe they have? Who's to say, really only time will tell, obviously. We just have to keep them together.
- There is one guy that is all three of them, bigger, faster, stronger than Ayton. It’s Giannis, big surprise.
- Not that Devin Booker can’t reach the 35+ ppg mark, he’s just kinda far off as of now.
Guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Dolph Schayes, and Bob Pettit. Normal everyday NBA legends, no biggie.
For the record. 1. A dominant big 2. Elite team play 3. An Elite wing
There is no easy way to add footnotes to these posts