Suns Offseason Report: We Need To Talk About Devin

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2016/17 Record: 24 – 58 (Last in the Western Conference)

2017/18 Salaries: $84,876,422 (Under The Cap Floor Team) – full PHX salary cap situation – here.

Incoming Draft Picks: MIA ’18 1st (8-30), TOR ’18 2nd, MIA ’21 1st.

Outgoing Draft Picks: Nil.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 6.30.48 pmThe Phoenix Suns have now spent two consecutive offseasons focused on youth and not spending cap space just because it’s there. Concentrated almost solely on the draft once again, the Suns walked away with Josh Jackson, Davon Reed and Alec Peters. Phoenix then followed that haul up with just one major move in Free Agency, bringing back Alan Williams, on a very team friendly three-year deal.

Where to from here?

After lucking into Booker in 2015, it appears as though every move Phoenix has made since is focused firmly on the potential face of the franchise. Why wouldn’t it be? The responses come from either end of the spectrum, depending on who is answering the question. There is perhaps no current NBA player that divides opinions more than Devin Booker.

So, we are going to start a dialogue.

At just 20 years of age, Booker becomes the veteran of the four lottery choices the Suns have made in the last three years. Jackson (20), Marquese Chriss (20), Dragan Bender (19) and a handful of other acquisitions make up the rest of the young talented core collectively known as #TheTimeline. A timeline that is very much focused on competing come 2020, in an era that is likely devoid of the dominant Warriors in the West.

The links to the Warriors don’t stop there. The path current Warriors players have taken may just help explain Booker’s flaws to date, why it’s too early to judge him and also map out what the Suns are looking to achieve by 2020 with a team built around him.

Booker’s records so far have been nothing but stat-padding on a bad NBA team. 

Booker put himself amongst some elite company after dropping 70 points, becoming only the sixth (and youngest) player to hit that mark. The records don’t stop there though.

In addition to the single game records, he also joined many of the elite of from the 2000’s era when it comes to getting buckets across his first two seasons. Company that includes LeBron James, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony – in reaching 1,000 career points, scoring 20+ points in consecutive games, averaging 20/3/3 in his second season and amassing 2,700 points before turning 21.

However, he did it all while shooting 43% from the field and his team going 47-117 in two seasons. Not something the above names were guilty of doing. It’s for this reason that Booker’s potential ceiling sits more comfortably below Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins, who are in the same record books.

Also in the record books is Kevin Durant. An unlikely ally for Booker who scored at will while his team struggled to secure wins and recently announced that Booker is next.

Devin Booker (15/16 – 16/17) – Age: 18-20, Games: 154, Starts: 129, Minutes: 4838, Points: 2774, PPG: 18.0, Record: 47-117.

Kevin Durant (07/08 – 08/09) – Age: 19-20, Games: 154, Starts: 154, Minutes: 5653, Points: 3495, PPG: 22.7, Record: 43-121.

Kevin Durant (09/10 – 16/17) – Age: 21-28, Games: 549, Starts: 549, Minutes: 20625, Points: 15626, PPG: 28.07, Record: 438-202.

Consider the individual improvement Durant made after his second year but also the team, as the Thunder continued to draft talent behind him. The Suns have passed on more pure scoring in recent times, believing they already have their first option. Where Durant was joined by Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden, the Suns have drafted Bender, Chriss and Jackson for Booker to play alongside. Attempting to enhance the team’s overall offense with athleticism, passing and above the rim talent.

Booker is nothing but a shooter and he isn’t even very good at that. 

Booker was drafted as the SEC Sixth Man of the Year and known for his shooting prowess. After averaging 10 points a game on 47% from the field and 41% from deep, Booker’s draft slide was possibly due to seeming one-dimensional.

His professional career has taken somewhat of a reversed trajectory. Thrust into a number one scoring role, Booker has been asked to show more than just shooting and been tested on a nightly basis by the best perimeter defenders in the league. This has led to somewhat disappointing overall percentages from the field.

So while Booker has been developing his game, his percentages have taken a hit. Something he will need to turn around, or face a potential career floor more akin to OJ Mayo and Tyreke Evans, who sit just outside the two year record books.

Although a common yet unfair player comparison for Booker, Klay Thompson and his first two seasons highlight that Booker isn’t a bad shooter just yet.

Devin Booker (15/16 – 16/17) – Age: 18-20, FG%: 42.3%, 3P%: 35.4%, 2P%: 45.3%, FT%: 83.5%, TS%: 53.3%.

Klay Thompson (11/12 – 12/13) – Age: 21-22, FG%: 43.0%, 3P%: 40.6%, 2P%: 44.6%, FT%: 85.1%, TS%: 53.8%.

Klay Thompson (13/14 – 16/17) – Age: 23-26, FG%: 46.1%, 3P%: 42.3%, 2P%: 49.2%, FT%: 85.0%, TS%: 58.3%.

One of the NBA’s best shooters started in a very similar fashion to Booker. In fact, Booker out shot Thompson in several areas on the court, most notably from three to ten feet. Expect Booker to make similar improvements, particularly as Bledsoe returns full time and takes some attention away from him. The Suns have also looked to add further shooting where possible with Bender, Chriss and Jackson all shooting projects, while Reed and Peters were reliable from deep in college. After all, Thompson is often rewarded with open looks thanks to his dangerous teammates.

Booker is a terrible defender, it will limit his capability of becoming a true star and keep the Suns from being an elite team. 

Booker has begun his NBA career with extremely poor defensive numbers. His individual defensive ratings, as well as defensive real plus minus metrics (90th out of 96 last season) are up there with the worst in the league.

Whilst the individual numbers are hard to ignore, Booker is not alone when looking at his teammates or around the league. Phoenix has finished 25th and 28th in the last two seasons for overall team defense and many of the NBA’s top Shooting Guard’s featured in the bottom half of rankings last year for DRPM.

The results of how it effects their team on that end of the floor vary wildly. JJ Redick (79th-LAC 12th), CJ McCollum (76th-POR 24th), DeMar DeRozan (74th-TOR 11th) and James Harden (64th-HOU 18th) are just some of Booker’s peers in this area.

Perhaps it’s another truly elite player though, at a different position, who creates a good case study for the Suns and Booker to consider: Stephen Curry.

Devin Booker (15/16 – 16/17) – Age: 18-20, Steals: 0.8, Blocks: 0.30, Def Rating: 114, Def Win Shares: 0.65, DBPM: -2.6, Team Def Rank: 26th.

Stephen Curry (09/10 – 10/11) – Age: 21-22Steals: 1.7, Blocks: 0.25, Def Rating: 111, Def Win Shares: 1.45, DBPM: -1.2, Team Def Rank: 27th.

Stephen Curry (11/12 – 16/17) – Age: 23-28, Steals: 2.01, Blocks: 0.21, Def Rating: 104, Def Win Shares: 3.21, DBPM: 0.7, Team Def Rank: 8th.

Curry and the Warriors improved their defense concurrently. So while Booker will need to make strides individually, a lot will also come down to those built around him. Thompson, Iguodala and Green (plus Durant) give Curry and the Warriors ultimate flexibility. The Suns will hope surrounding Booker with Bledsoe, Jackson and Bender will always allow Booker to take the least dangerous match-up. Even prioritising defense in second round picks, allowing the likes of Ulis and Reed to protect him when running with the second unit.

Booker is an impressive NBA Sophomore who will continue to develop at a fast rate and can be the number one option on a playoff team in two season’s time. 

While Booker has a long way to go as an NBA player and is unlikely to ever be Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry or even Klay Thompson, he is also just 20 years of age. History and time are on his side. Don’t forget, the Suns timeline is set rise three seasons from now.

In Durant, Booker has a case that early team failures do not discredit your individual achievements and future potential. In Thompson, there is an example for early shooting woes not translating to career threatening worries. While in Curry, the Suns and Booker have an example of how the team as a whole can improve on the defensive end.

It’s too late for Booker to match Thompson by making the playoffs in his second year and it’s unlikely he will match Durant by making the All-Star team in his third.

However, it’s Curry who Booker’s timeline matches up with more appropriately. Much like Phoenix with Booker, Curry fell into Golden State’s lap. In fact, yet another tie this Suns franchise has with the current Warriors, due to the rumoured trade backflip. The Warriors then rebuilt their team around the guy they saw as the future, making the playoffs in his fourth year and sending him to the All-Star game in his fifth.

While there was a lot of criticism as it formed, that all seems a distant memory now.

So, despite what the opinions of the wider NBA community might be, there is zero doubt what the Suns believe they have. Phoenix has spent just about every moment since drafting Booker carefully building a young team on his timeline that balances out his skill set. If the current NBA Champions path is anything to go by, then the Suns and their potential franchise face deserve more time before the sun sets. 

Projected Starting Five:

Projected Depth Chart:Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 6.31.59 pm.png

Overall Offseason Grade: B+

2017/18 Prediction: 30-52

Phoenix did a great job this offseason at doing very little. Meanwhile, the Suns are an extremely tough team to predict a record on but Vegas has it at 28.5 and are generally on the money. Not to suggest there is any chance they could be playoff bound but with a solid mix of veterans and young talent, there is varying degrees of just how bad they might be. Eventually, management decisions might take over in order to nab another top pick.


Player To Watch: TJ Warren

If not offered a reasonable extension prior to October 31st, then Warren will be entering Restricted Free Agency after the upcoming season. TJ will be very keen to continue on from his successful end to the 16/17 season but a move to the bench could derail his plans. However, becoming this team’s sixth man might be a blessing in disguise for the old school wing. While he may not like the optics of coming off the pine, a role in the second unit will possibly give him a chance to further showcase his game whilst helping the starters overall balance. Despite a poor outside shot (career 31% from three), Warren is an extremely efficient scorer (14.4 pts on 12.3 shots last season) who can have a greater impact within the second unit.

Four Key Questions:

1. Can Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss co-exist longterm?
From the moment the Phoenix Suns drafted Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss in the same draft, this question has been asked. While Bender can certainly play on the perimeter, it severely limits his upside on both ends and the experiment at the three might be over after drafting Josh Jackson. Despite the current logjam at the five and Earl Watson not seeming totally enamoured with him, the Suns need to find more minutes at Center for Bender. Chriss and Bender co-existing is dependant on it and a frontcourt trio with Jackson might still give the Suns the positionless versatility they had in mind to begin with.

2. Will Alex Len be back with the Suns for season 17/18 and beyond?
At the time of publishing, Alex Len is still yet to sign an offer sheet elsewhere or take his Qualifying Offer from the Suns. It’s perhaps simply the logjam at Center in Phoenix that has Len keen to end up elsewhere. Despite that apprehension, it may just be a matter of time before the Ukrainian 7-footer returns to the desert for a possible final year. For the Suns, it’s unlikely there is a future passed then but they may as well take one last look. As for Len, he will need to show more than his career averages of six points and six rebounds if he wants more suitors next offseason.

3. What are the Suns going to do about depth at Shooting Guard?
Although Phoenix is very much locked into Devin Booker at SG short and long-term, there is a serious lack of healthy bodies in the depth chart behind him. Since last season ended, Brandon Knight and Davon Reed have both succumbed to knee injuries that place them on the sidelines. Internally the fix could come from Josh Jackson playing more minutes at the two, plus whoever wins the battle for the final roster spot out of Peter Jok, Elijah Millsap or one of many training camp invitees. Either way, the Suns look certain to go for the upside of youth over available veteran SG options such as Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush or Anthony Morrow.

4. Are the Suns truly committed to #TheTimeline?
After losing the Western Conference Finals in 2010, the Suns have technically been in rebuild mode. Until recently though, it hasn’t always been by design. Suns fans are split into two camps. #TheTimeline, is a fan-started catch cry one camp has attached itself to.  The Suns avoided making any short-term moves this offseason despite being linked to names like Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Kyrie Irving. Strengthening the confidence in owner, Robert Sarver, to stick it out. However given his transactional history in finance based decisions, Suns fans will continue to be nervous when their team is mentioned in certain rumours. Well at least half the fanbase. For the current unhappy bunch who want to win at any cost, it would be a welcome change.

Info courtesy of:
Basketball Reference
Basketball Insiders
Real GM
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