I’m done with not making the playoffs. I’m serious. I watch the highlights of Barkley and Nash and how alive the arena was. One of my goals is to get it back that way.
Devin Booker made that statement at the end of last season where the Suns finished 21-61, dead last in the NBA standings. So far this year, the team’s record is 11-41, on course to win fewer than 20 games on current trajectory.
Last summer saw the franchise tie Booker down to a five-year $158 million extension and install him as the leader of the team, challenging him to be the next star to take Phoenix to the next chapter of success. In line with Phoenix legends like Barkley and Nash, MVPs during their successful time with the Suns, team owner Robert Sarver placed the franchise’s future in the hands of the 22-year-old guard.
It’s fair to say this season has been a huge disappointment, and Booker’s proclamation of wanting to make the playoffs seems grossly outlandish. There are several reasons why:
1) Too many rookies
DeAndre Ayton gets a pass for the most part. He has proven to be a double-double machine for the Suns, and if it were not for a certain Slovenian drafted a few spots behind him, the big man would likely be the Rookie of the Year. His defensive game requires more focus and effort, but he has the raw physical tools to improve by learning the center position in the NBA just on a positional sense alone. The lack of rim protection he has offered baffles at times, however, this can be partly attributed to playing power forward in college. Opposing centers in the league go right at Ayton, leaving him overwhelmed for an easy basket in the paint.
Mikal Bridges has shown his smarts on the defensive end, leading all rookies in steals and knowing where to be on the floor. His awareness and intelligence is what gets him a starting spot ahead of Josh Jackson. His dead-eye spot-up shooting from his four years at Villanova has yet to be replicated in the NBA but flashes now and again remind you that there is hope to become a reliable shooter in his career.
De’Anthony Melton has been the preferred option at point guard, but this has been the weakest spot on the roster by some distance, with Elie Okobo sharing his minutes off the bench too. Both players have struggled as playmakers, leaving the ball in Booker’s hands.
The inexperience is not limited to the hardwood. James Jones has the GM role, likely till the end of the season on an interim basis. Lebron James’ best mate on title winning teams is no rookie the game and has the rings to prove it, but his first year in a difficult role is a huge learning curve for him.
Igor Kokoskov is on the sidelines in his first NBA head coaching role. Having been in the league for well over a decade as a respected assistant, most notably in Utah, he has the task of instilling his ideas and principles of coaching to a young roster that struggles with adversity and setbacks. At times this season it has looked like some players have not responded to him and communication appears lost. At key moments in games he has not used his rotations well enough to stop a lead from escalating away from them and pull games back. In filling the GM and coach roles with rookies this can appear to be the the cheap option that has typified Sarver’s ownership.
2) Lack of a floor general
Remember when Phoenix had Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe on the same roster and line-up on some nights? Any one of them would be a massive upgrade on what the Suns have rolled out this season. The lack of a player who is a starting calibre point guard that can control the flow of the game and handle primary playmaking duties is the glaring flaw in what Phoenix did in the off season.
Ryan McDonough, former GM, did nothing to address this. Rumors of deals for Terry Rozier and Pat Beverley swirled but never came to fruition. He traded away Brandon Knight (no bad thing) and got Melton in return. This is a player that he could have drafted instead of Okobo who they selected in the second round.
Interim GM James Jones traded the disengaged Trevor Ariza and got Kelly Oubre Jr in return, along with guard Austin Rivers that the team waived. Even Rivers would have been an experienced upgrade on the roster, but concerns over chemistry led to him never suiting up for Phoenix and he is now playing well for the Rockets.
This summer will see Rozier, Kemba Walker and Beverley become available via restricted and unrestricted free agency. If James Jones becomes the permanent GM, he has to learn from the mistakes of last summer.
3) Being all in on Devin Booker￼
This not a hot take, or a cheap (shout out to Bob Sarver) shot at one of the best young guards in the league. He looks phenomenal at times, but, could Phoenix be in a better place to move forward if Booker was traded?
You would think that if teams in the league are informed that a 22-year-old player with four seasons of NBA experience, averaging 25 points per game and nearly 7 assists is available on the trade block they would be on the phone to James Jones, right? Plus, you have him under contract for another four seasons, meaning control going forward. Realistically, Phoenix could solve their point guard problem with a quality starter and explore other options at shooting guard, even moving Bridges back to that spot if his shooting develops.
So far this season, Booker has missed 14 games due to various injuries, disrupting the flow of a team that is heavily reliant in his offensive output. Last week, his growing frustration spilled out with a silly altercation involving Gorgui Dieng, leading to being ejected from the game when his team needed him. He cares about the franchise and has given back to the local Phoenix community in monetary value as well as his visible profile. Despite his local popularity though, Booker may feel that the franchise cannot progress as he would like. He could be stuck on a basement team for the majority his career given the current ownership’s track record.
It should serve as a warning to the front office that they have to hit on every move in the next six months or face a possible disgruntled star making noises of unhappiness that can disrail an entire locker room.
Having said all of the above, Booker is the main reason fans are still watching Suns games, even though attendance has fallen again this season. By all accounts he is a great teammate, has their full support and is respected by his NBA peers, finishing sixth in player votes for guards in a stacked Western Conference. The rookies being allowed to develop this season, but whether that is enough to give more sizeable progress next season remains to be seen.￼￼￼
4) Robert Sarver
Phoenix rarely features on national TV, which is a far cry from the Seven Seconds Or Less era that had NBA fans tuned in to watch regularly. The recent sideshow of Sarver allegedly commenting that he would move the Suns if recent proposals to rejuvenate Talking Stick Resort Arena did not help anyone, but added another chapter of an owner that likes to run his mouth.
In any sports organisation, there has to be a solid, experienced backbone running through it. When you have a man at the very top who meddles, a GM with not the experience yet to run a difficult position, down to a first time NBA head coach with a starting five that is 60% first-year players, it shows that they are not readily equipped to survive in the Western Conference bloodbath that we see this season.
They must cast envious glances at Sacramento and the progression they have made. For the best part of over a decade the Kings were the annual laughing stock. It’s creeping closer and closer that Phoenix may be the ones to have that unwanted tag.
Featured photo – via Michael Chow / Azcentral Sports / Tom Tingle / The Republic / Double Clutch illustration