"The fact of the matter is, is that, Devin Booker has not showed us that he's capable of winning games without Chris Paul yet, and this is his time to show us that he's capable of being not only a superstar in getting buckets , but being the leader of this team and keeping the boat afloat and going out there and leading his team to victories."
Kendrick Perkins - First Take
Among NBA media, Kendrick Perkins has been as staunch of a Suns supporter as anyone, but even that didn't prevent him from discounting Devin Booker's greatness in the aftermath of the Suns discovering Chris Paul will miss 6-8 weeks (hopefully less) with an avulsion fracture in his shooting thumb.
If one watches Devin Booker night to night and follows the team on a day to day basis, it is easy to see what he brings to a winning culture. Mature and poised beyond his years, upper echelon work ethic, a do anything-to-win mentality, and loyalty. He doesn't complain, and he never did, even when the Suns were a perennial 60+/- loss team and he had a new coach every season for the first 5 years of his career.
Throw in an owner who is usually discussed for the wrong reasons and weak crowds at home, how can one not admire Booker's commitment to the franchise?
Kobe Bryant: "Winning" Case Study
This isn't a Kobe Bryant article, and many make the comparison between Bryant and Booker, but that's not what I am trying to do here.
Kobe Bryant, rest in peace, is one of the best players to ever play in the NBA. The Black Mamba, and absolute killer. A five time champion. A legend.
Devin Booker is not Kobe Bryant , but let's use Kobe for some context.
Despite winning 5 NBA titles, and obviously cementing himself as a top NBA player of all-time, did Kobe ever win without Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol?
When Kobe did not have a premier sidekick (or when he was the premier sidekick) did anybody question if he was capable of being a superstar in getting buckets, but also being a leader of his team and leading his team to victories?
Not to say, there were not Kobe haters and plenty of slander, but history doesn't remember it that way.
Would Kobe have ever won a title without an elite teammate? The answer is likely no, because how many examples exist in NBA history where a solo superstar climbed the mountain top "alone"?
In fact, Kobe Bryant never proved he could be a superstar scorer and "win games", or at least meaningful games, by himself.
- (Age 26 season) 2004-2005, the first year without Shaq, a prime Kobe and the Lakers were 34-48. Kobe played 66 games, going 28-38.
- (Age 27 season) 2005-2006, the Lakers finished 45-37, snagging the 7th seed. The Lakers were 45-35 in Kobe's 80 games. He averaged a remarkable 35.4 points per game.The Lakers faced the 2nd seed Suns, and blew a 3-1 series lead, eventually falling in 7 games to Phoenix.The last three games/losses, Kobe scored 29, 50, and 24 with plus-minus totals of -19, -6, and -28.
- (Age 28 season) 2006-2007, the Lakers finished 42-40, 39-38 in Kobe's 77 games. He averaged an again remarkable 31.6 points per game. Los Angeles again nabbed the 7 seed and again lost the Suns, this time in 5 games where Kobe was a collective -44 in the four losses.
- In 2007-2008, Paul Gasol joined the Lakers where they eventually went 57-25, losing to the Boston Celtics in 6 games. Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers went on to win back-to-back titles against the Magic and Celtics in 08-09 and 09-10, and the rest is history.
So again, the question is: Did Kobe prove he could be a superstar scorer while leading his team to victories?
I would say no, but does anyone today think he wasn't capable of doing so despite zero evidence to support that it's true.
It's fair to question if Devin Booker can win without Chris Paul. I would argue any star losing a running mate of Paul's caliber would struggle to maintain a similar winning pace.
Devin Booker only has one season to point to as potential evidence of "winning" without Chris Paul, and it is admittedly weak evidence.
The COVID shortened 2019-2020 season, AKA "Bubble Season" saw the Suns finish 34-39 in 73 games. In Booker's 70 games, the suns were a respectable 34-36.
We are all familiar with how the Suns performed in the bubble, with a memorable 8-0 run, falling just short of earning a playoff birth.The Suns had to win out to even have a chance, and they did just that.
In those 8 bubble games, with each one mounting in importance and pressure, Devin Booker demonstrated he was a force to be reckoned with when it mattered.
(Age 23 Season - "Bubble")
Plus-Minus +86 in the 8-0 stretch
Averaged 30.5 points per game on a scorching 50.3% from field in 33.8 minutes per game.
- Scored 35 points 4 times (3 times in a row and 4 times in 5 games during games 3 through 7)
- 6 assists per game against only 2.5 turnovers per game
Again, not comparing directly to Kobe, but those are some Kobe-esque numbers from Booker. Factor in it was only Book's age 23 season and it makes his performance that much more impressive.
Note, when Kobe was 26-28 years old and in the dead middle of his hall of fame prime, he couldn't "win" meaningful games.
We all know how the playoffs ended for Devin Booker and the Suns, but let's examine how Booker performed overall.
- Suns were 14-8, Booker played in all 22 games
- 27.3 points per game, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists
Impressive, but to Kendrick Perkins point, he won those games with Chris Paul. Well, most of them.
In game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul was out of the lineup due to "testing positive" for COVID (I'll leave that alone). How did Booker do when it was time to prove he's a superstar scorer and can lead his team to victories?
- 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists on just 2 turnovers - oh, and the Suns won 120-114
Despite the Suns winning game 2, Booker wasn't nearly as impressive. He scored 20 points with 8 turnovers, but he still managed to be +4 in a 104-103 victory.
Let's not forget Devin broke his nose in three places in the third quarter off of Patrick Beverley's head, but he still gutted out the fourth quarter and helped the Suns win a game in which he largely struggled.
(Note: As far as evidence goes, Booker is 10-0 without Paul in "games that matter" - depending how you view the Bubble)
Let's not forget the opening series against the Lakers, in which the Suns took the series in 6 games .Chris Paul hurt his shooting shoulder, in the first half. He gutted it out for 36 minutes, but was a shell of himself and Monty Williams eventually pulled him entirely in the 4th quarter.
Though Booker wasn't "alone", Chris Paul didn't have a positive effect on over half the game, Booker still managed to score 34 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds en route to a 99-90 Suns victory.
In a close out game 6, after Chris Paul re-aggravated his shoulder injury in game 5, Booker came out and put on a memorable performance with Paul only playing 28 minutes and clearly hampered.
Booker played 46 minutes, willing the Suns to a 113-100 victory on the road to close out LeBron James and the Lakers with a remarkable 47 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists on 8 of 10 three point shooting.
Chris Paul played, but don't get it confused, Booker was the stick that stirred the drink.
Career Year for Booker
Booker isn't averaging a career high in points. He isn't averaging a career high in assists, three point percentage, or even PER Player Efficiency Rating.
There is a reason we watch the games. If you dive under the hood, Booker is doing winning things that don't show up in the common box score.
Here are some key Booker stats to note in a season in which the Suns are winning 80%+ of there games:
- Career high in rebounds at 5.3 - backed by a career high per 100 possessions at 7.3 and career high rebounding percentage of 8.1%
- Career Best 3.4 turnovers per 100 possessions despite a usage rate at 32% and career low 3.5 fouls per 100
- Career Best Defensive Rating of 108 (estimate of points allowed per 100)
- Shooting 36.9% on threes on a career high 10.1 threes attempted per 100 - and these are not easy or wide open threes typically, he takes a ton of late shot clock threes
- Career Highs in Steals and Blocks per 100 possessions at 1.5 and 0.5, respectively. This is also supported by a career high 2.4 Defensive Win Shares and counting - to the eye, it's obvious Booker has made massive improvements defensively and he is always locked in when it's winning time
- Clutch Stats: In games that are within 5 points under 5 minutes to play, Booker is shooting a surreal 63% from the field and 44% from range.
"Built by Book"
The Phoenix Suns have a plethora of culture setters on their team, in large part the reason for their successes the last two seasons.
From the top down, James Jones, Monty Williams, Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Javale McGee; the list goes down to the bottom of the roster. Selfless guys who work hard and play the right way with a competitive mentality not many organizations can claim.
Booker was here before all of it. As I mentioned, Booker went through 5 head coaches, 58-63 losses a year for four consecutive years, sparse home crowds, failed lottery pick after lottery pick, and an unfavorable league perception. There wasn't much to appeal to Booker staying in Phoenix.
Money talks, as a 5 year/ deal gave Booker 158 million reasons to bunker down in Phoenix. To be fair, perception skewed towards that deal being undeserving. "can't win", "doesn't play defense", "empty calorie stats", etc.
Now that the Suns are winning, and legitimate title contenders for the second year in a row, now the goal posts have been moved. Now, Booker is only winning because of Chris Paul. The three time all-star, perennial 25 point per game scorer is once again doubted.
Make no mistake, Chris Paul's impact is undeniable, but CP3 came to Phoenix BECAUSE of Devin Booker. One of the greatest point guards and basketball minds this league has seen bet on Devin Booker for the final chapters of his career, think about that.
The Suns have the 6th easiest schedule in basketball remaining based on opponent winning percentage - .486 (Tankathon). This bodes well for the Suns to maintain their 6.5 game lead in the Western Conference. By contrast, the Warriors have the 7th most difficult schedule remaining - .513.
With the Suns depth, the timely addition of Aaron Holiday, and the soon returns of both Landry Shamet and Cam Payne, the Suns are primed to "keep the boat afloat" during Chris Paul's thumb injury.
That boat will be captained by Devin Armani Booker, all the way to an All-NBA team and the ultimate goal of playing for another chance to win the NBA title.