With the possible exception of the New York Knicks, is there a bigger Dumpster fire of a franchise in the NBA or indeed all of sports than the Phoenix Suns?
As the Pacific Division is last up on the docket before the season starts, we get the benefit of having watched the preseason come and go as these previews go live, and the Suns in particular have had their disaster-movie status confirmed not by their own play on the court (these games are meaningless and have no predictive value for the regular season) but by three guys who aren’t even on the team anymore.
Devin Booker is a year older, and his unbroken streak of claiming to be a superstar while being able to do absolutely nothing besides score points and take losses (sometimes both at the same time in spectacular fashion like that 70-piece he dropped on Boston in a losing cause a couple of years ago) continues as questions swirl around whether someone who’s not just a Chris Bosh-like “Great Stats, Bad Team” guy but a “Great Stats, G-League Team” guy is actually worth what he’s being paid.
When Devin Booker is your best player, you win 19 games like the Suns did last year.
Vegas has them down for 27, fourth-worst in the entire league and 14th in the West ahead of only the Grizzlies, so is “not finishing last” too high a bar to clear for them?
2018-19 record: 19-63
2019-20 over/under: 27
The Booker Problem
I refuse to believe in a player who is (a) injury-prone (he’s played just 118 games in the last two seasons), (b) an absolutely atrocious defender (his DBPM has consistently been among the worst in the NBA during his career), and (c) a high-volume, low-efficiency shooter (32.6 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game last year.)
The most damning evidence against Booker and his effect on his teammates has been the “wow, they look like real NBA players!” preseason performances of Dragan Bender in Milwaukee and Marquise Chriss in Golden State.
In the latter case, Draymond Green even went so far as to blast the Suns organization for being so bad at developing young talent that anyone they draft turns into a bust.
And that all comes back to Booker. I know he’s only 23 this season (his birthday is October 30.) But he’s a fifth-year veteran on a five-year post-rookie max extension that will pay him over $150 million over the next five years.
All for a guy whose teams haven’t won a thing with him on the floor.
Bender was a mess in Phoenix. Chriss was headed out of the league before the Dubs picked him up off the scrap heap. And while the jury’s out on Josh Jackson—one of the worst players in the entire league last year—I wouldn’t bet against him improving his stats in Memphis unless he really is complete trash, in which case I’m sure it’ll come up during a Breakfast Special or two (stay tuned.)
Booker is the very essence of “does not make his teammates better.” And unless he has a massive Michael Jordan moment where he learns how to be a leader after putting up big counting stats on trash teams while on his rookie deal, Booker is destined to be one of those guys who the casuals love but the analytics guys (like me) assert stinks.
What About Deandre Ayton?
Ayton put up .128 WS/48 and 1.2 VORP as a rookie last season. Which is surprisingly solid—getting 5.8 Win Shares on a 19-win team suggests you’re responsible for 30 percent of the team’s wins all by yourself, a heck of a feat in just 2,183 minutes (roughly 11 percent of the team total.)
But at the same time, Ayton was supposed to be Shaquille O’Neal-like. And it’s more telling that he was never a serious contender for Rookie of the Year, not just because Luka Doncic went out and outdid 2004 LeBron James on the advanced stats but because his softness (a .217 FTR for a center is horrific, and he shot exactly zero free throws during preseason) shows that he doesn’t have the ability to develop and maintain a post presence that will scare any half decent rim protector.
Consider Mitchell Robinson, Ayton’s closest comp in terms of being a big man on a complete trash franchise. Robinson managed 2.7 VORP, a massive 10.0 block percentage, and .217 WS/48 (a superstar’s stat line in 1,360 minutes), accounting for 6.1 raw Win Shares (35.9 percent of New York’s overall win total) in only about 7 percent of the Knicks’ total available minutes.
Is Robinson that much more talented than Ayton? Or are the Suns just that bad at developing talent that Ayton, the first overall pick in 2018 and the most highly-touted center prospect to come out of college in years, had a relatively pedestrian season especially by the standards of big men?
And we’re supposed to believe that Booker will, as Shaq once put it, “feed the dog”? That dog’s going hungry.
The Great Coaching Carousel
Part of the argument in Booker’s defense is that the Suns go through coaches like a baby goes through diapers. It’s hard to develop a player when every year you’re installing a new system.
Monty Williams takes over for Igor Kokoskov, and Williams was a mediocre-at-best coach in New Orleans who went to the playoffs just twice—once with Chris Paul, once when the Oklahoma City Thunder gifted them the 8 seed by suffering major injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the same season—and couldn’t win a playoff series.
The guy’s got a career winning percentage as a coach of just .439. And he’s supposed to turn this trash fire around?
Plus, it’s another year of young players having no continuity, no firm foundation to build skills off of, no chance for veteran leaders to impart a longtime system they know as well as the coach does (see every mid-to-late-first-rounder the San Antonio Spurs have turned into a quality NBA player since Kawhi Leonard), none of the things that real, successful NBA teams do when they want to put in a winning culture.
You add all this up and you see that it doesn’t matter how good Devin Booker could be when there’s nobody to help him improve on what he is, which is a guy who scores points and does nothing else, scores those points inefficiently, and shoots his team out of games while doing nothing to elevate his teammates.
In other words, he’s like Jerry Stackhouse but not as good.
And you see that Deandre Ayton’s talent has already been eclipsed, Mitchell Robinson serving as the example of the right way for a trash team to debut a big man while Phoenix does it the wrong way. As long as Ayton’s afraid of contact and too timid to aggressively attack the rim, what does it matter what his ostensible ceiling might be? It’s not like there’s a system being built around him and Booker to make them the modern Shaq and Kobe.
The Suns are directionless. They traded away a second-round pick as a throw-in along with T.J. Warren, getting absolutely nothing of value back from the Pacers, a trade so absurd that Indiana’s top brass even told the media afterward that they couldn’t believe Phoenix was serious.
I could put this down to statistical analysis, look deeper into the numbers, but what’s the point?
The Suns will underachieve because they have a failure of leadership both on and off the court. The Suns won’t be as good as the most rosy-eyed numbers say they should be.
And they damn sure won’t win 27 games in the Western Conference. They’ll win between 17 and 23.
Under. Busted. The Cleveland Browns of the NBA.
NEXT: Los Angeles LOLakers.