Welcome back to the Business Casual Basketball "Salary Series."
In these assorted posts, we will take a look at a particular player or team with an interesting salary structure.
For example, certain contracts around the league have with interesting incentives, rare escalating, or declining dollar amounts, or vary significantly from typical market value.
When it comes to teams, there will be a deep dive on their spending habits, how they got to their current position, and what they can do to take advantage of their spending power. Conversely, if they are deep into luxury tax territory, we will look at what they can do to mitigate the damage as much as possible, both short-term and long-term.
For the next few weeks, we're going to zoom in on some of the contract extensions that were signed before this season started and how they will influence their teams heading into next season when they will actually take effect.
Devin Booker broke free of the shackles that held him back during his days at Kentucky and his newfound freedom catapulted him to a shiny new rookie scale extension worth $158 million over the next five years. How will this limit and expand Phoenix's options to rise back to relevance during it's term? This post aims to read between the lines and answer that very question.
The environment that a young player is dropped into directly after college plays a big part in their development. If a plodding big man with subpar literal quickness is introduced to a system that emphasizes transition play and spur of the moment decisions, he is much less likely to find a comfort zone and his effectiveness could be hard capped compared to a system that is geared more towards half court offense. Of course, some are just so talented, that it makes no difference where they spend the first few years of their careers. Take LeBron James or Anthony Davis, for example.
LeBron spent the first seven years of his NBA career in Cleveland, which has been a...less than ideal place to play basketball for a majority of the last ten years. However, LeBron's greatness was so profound that it cut right through the cloud of disfunction and brought a refreshing blast of hydration to a roster suffering through a drought of talent. The Cavaliers won an average of 26 games in the five years prior to James' arrival. Their offensive rating was -3.2 points per 100 possessions relative to the rest of the league and their defense was +8 points per 100 possessions. Not great. Subsequently, he was very much pegged as the savior of the franchise upon his introduction.
Davis' situation was comparable, although the Hornets had a much better over the five years before his arrival, due to Hall of Famer named Chris Paul manning the PG position up until 2011. If we narrow the focus to the year between Paul's departure and Anthony Davis being drafted, they were only able to muster up 24 wins.
If we swing back around to evaluate the Suns for a second, they were actually respectable in the years leading up to the drafting of Booker in 2015. From 2010-2015, Phoenix won an average of 37 games. Not great, but certainly not awful. While Booker individually has flourished and grown each year like Bron and Davis, the teams he has been a part of have gone the opposite direction. That is not typically what occurs when you secure a franchise player.
2015-2016: 23-59 (28th offense, 25th defense)
2016-2017: 24-58 (22nd offense, 28th defense)
2017-2018: 21-61 (30th offense, 30th defense)
2018-2019: 19-63 (28th offense, 29th defense)
Booker's usage rate has ranked in the 87th percentile or higher each season of his career, culminating in a sky high 34% usage rate in '18-'19, which put him in 96th percentile of the entire league (per Cleaning the Glass). Based off of these numbers, it would be extremely easy to place the brunt of the blame on him. After all, Booker is far from a perfect player. He may have one of the highest single game scoring totals in league history, but he leaves much to be desired on the other side of the ball. Just look at the result of that legendary game in TD garden in 2017 and you will see why many were understandably skeptical of the max deal that the Suns offered to their young star in the making. Despite the scoring outburst, Phoenix failed to emerge victorious with a final score of 130-120
How much has to go wrong for a team to lose a game where one player scored more than some teams have scored as a unit over an entire game? Not only that, but the Suns never held the lead in that game and trailed by as many as 20 points. Yeesh. Yes, this team within the harsh confines of the Valley of the Suns are absolutely putting their future on the line with this lucrative extension for Booker. He has not yet proven that he can lead a team to even a 35 win season and things only seem to be getting more out of control with each passing year. It also ate up valuable cap space this Summer that could have been used to lure in a big fish in free agency. However, this guy is the only sure thing that the Suns have to bank on right now. It would be foolish to deny him of a payday that he has rightfully earned.
As we're about to find out, it was certainly an uphill battle to reach this point.
Playing With a Bad Hand
Booker has done an excellent job of upping his production while dealing with an increased workload, a suboptimal supporting cast, and even a change in position.
Let's examine that first challenge to kick things off here. He was thrown into the fire during his rookie year, and what his team expects from only increases each passing year. Check out his usage rate during first four years:
Stats provided courtesy of Cleaning the Glass
Usage rate is calculated slightly different across different databases, but we will use Cleaning the Glass in this particular circumstance. That 34.7% usage rate places him firmly in 3rd place among league leaders this past season, just behind all-time ball dominators Russell Westbrook and James Harden. (Anybody think we're underestimating how interesting that dynamic will be now that they both play for the same Texas team.) If we zoom out to previous seasons, he ranked 7th in 2017-2018, 14th in 2016-2017, and 29th in 2015-2016. That is an incredibly heavy load for a player as young and inexperienced as Booker. That has probably helped him learn the intricacies of the game faster than most, but he is also probably wearing down at a faster rate than what you'd like to see from your long-term investment that has just been re-upped for five more years.
If you glance at the GP (games played) column of the picture above, you can see he has fallen well short of the 82 game full season threshold each of the last two seasons. It is abundantly clear that Booker has become somewhat injury prone after being pretty reliable his rookie and sophomore years. As his minutes and burden on the court have spiked, his availability has dipped. That's not ideal for someone that hasn't come anywhere close to hitting his physical prime yet.
To make matters worse, he has not played alongside an average point guard since his 2nd season. After Bledsoe made it clear he did not want to be there, Phoenix neglected to fill the enormous void left by the dynamic guard either through the draft, or in free agency.
To put this lead guard famine into perspective, Devin Booker produced 2.4 Win Shares (An estimate of the number of wins produced by a player) two seasons ago. You won't find another point guard unless you scroll four spots down from Bookers spot and arrive at a player by the name of Shaquille Harrison. He was decent and produced 0.8 win shares for the Suns that same year. No disrespect to Harrison, but that is pretty pitiful for a player that shared a backcourt spot with Booker for a large number of minutes every night. It didn't get much better last season either. in 2018-2019, Booker upped his production to 3.7 win shares, but the first point guard doesn't show up on the list for many, many spots. De'Anthony Melton finally makes an appearance at the 15th spot, unless you count combo guard Tyler Johnson at the 9th spot. Melton didn't produce any win shares at all, while Tyler Johnson made a minimal impact on that front with 0.5 win shares.
As a result of management's apparent fear of signing players who can hold down the one position, Booker had to undergo a radical change in offensive responsibility during those aforementioned seasons.
According to Basketball Reference, Booker has seen a decent uptick in his minutes spent at Point Guard, jumping from a measly 1% his first two seasons, to 15% during the 2018-2019 campaign. Just about every statistics database has adjusted Booker's role from secondary creator to primary creator to account for this shift in position estimate. Cleaning the Glass recorded him spending up to half of his total minutes at the 1.
It is within this incredible ability to adapt and thrive under ever-changing conditions that we find this young player's immense value to the Suns.
Here's how he went about "securing the bag."
Man of Many Talents
So it turns out Booker's adjustment to handle more on ball responsibilities was actually the second major transition of his basketball career.
He entered the league fresh off of a good, but not great college campaign in 2014-2015 where he shared the court with current NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns, the Harrison twins, Trey Lyes, and Tyler Ulis. His per game averages didn't stand out at 10ppg, 2.0reb, 1.1ast. He got a steady diet of mid range looks off of pin downs, which allowed him to show off his off-ball skills and picture perfect shooting form.
You got the sense he could be an effective scorer at the next level, but we still managed to underrate what he was capable of. Upon his arrival in Phoenix, he was thrust into a slightly larger role, because the team didn't really have much to lose (except more games) and more frequent run would accelerate Bookers development. The biggest factor that really opened up his attack however, was the increased spacing of the NBA game. Also, the freedom to operate freely without fear of being pulled after the slightest error did wonders for him. In his first season at 19 years old, Booker shot just below average, or higher from every area of the floor, according to the Cleaning the Glass shooting accuracy page.
His worst area? Behind the arc, where he still shot a respectable 35%. Pretty close to league average. What dragged down that percentage was his pull up attempts. One explanation is that he wasn't relied on quite as much to create for himself in college, so he struggled when he became one of the primary shot creators for the Suns right off the bat. Also, those shots are just more difficult in general, so it makes sense that those attempts would miss more often. Still, the discrepancy between these shot types is startling.
On the other hand, his best area that season was the short mid, where he converted at a 39% rate on 139 shots. That doesn't seem all that impressive until you factor in where that ranks league-wide for his position. That placed him in the 60th percentile. Not bad for a newbie.
Over the years, his percentages have predictably gone up and down. Growth is very rarely a constant upward trend in the league, However, during the course of his short career, he has proven that he is a spectacular shot maker from every area of the floor. He is a legitimate three-level scorer that can get off for 30+ points on any given night. The best example of his scoring prowess has to be March 24, 2017. On that fateful night, the 20 year old Booker cemented his place in the record books.
Remarkably, he maintained picture perfect efficiency throughout his 45 minutes of playing time. He finished 21-40 from the field, 4-11 from deep, and 24-26 from the free throw line. Not many players of any age can fill up the scoring column like this man right here.
Ever since his college days, he has been a natural born scorer with beautiful instincts on ball and off ball. His 6'6 frame allows him to get his shot off cleanly against most defender at his position, and even some bigger wings by pulling out his shot creation toolbox. If you thought he could only fill it up from the perimeter, you might want to check out his highlights again. Over on the Bball Index grading page, they have given Booker an 'A" grade for post play for 2018-2019 and he has maintained an 'A' average for his career to this point. Even in the land of the trees, he can't be shaken. He will get his buckets by any means necessary.
Well scoring is all well and good, but he must be able to create for his teammates when manning the PG position from time to time.
Luckily for Phoenix, he has learned to do that at a high level too. The Bball Index grades each NBA player in a variety of categories depending on how efficient they are at that particular skill. In Booker's case, he has established and maintained a 'A' grade in the playmaking department all four years to this point. He started off with a 90.7% in year one, but has managed to top himself each year, to the point where he now stands among the elite with a 98.1% in that department for 2018-2019. Pretty incredible.
As memorizing as he is when he is looking for his own shot, he
has never been against giving up the rock when it's the right play.
Sure it's a simple read, but this pass is a perfect example of how good Booker is at avoiding tunnel vision. As prolific as he is as a scorer, it'd be easy for him to forget about one of his primary duties as a guard and look for his shot every time.
He has also grown more comfortable operating in the pick & roll over the past couple seasons. In the clip below, Deandre Ayton sets a solid screen and rolls hard, while Bookers gravity draws two defenders: George and Adams. Booker does a great job of keeping his head up under pressure from the double team and hitting the big man with a on time, on target lob.
If there is a situation on offense that needs to be sorted out, Booker has what it takes to come up with a solution, 9 times out of 10. His offensive versatility is off the charts.
Well, here are the facts. Devin Booker was signed to a rookie scale extension on July 8, 2018 worth $158.2 million over five years. That is the maximum amount of years and dollars the Suns were able to offer him based on the number of years he has played so far. Since he did not reach any of the All-NBA teams, win Defensive Player of the Year, or win MVP, his deal is subject to the standard 25% of the total salary cap (estimated at $109 million for 2019). It is a huge deal to offer out without question, but considering the fact that Booker is already arguably an elite offensive talent and one of the very best at his position, the pay raise was justified. (If Wiggins can grab a max deal, why not Book?) Devin Booker now holds the number one spot on the Phoenix Suns roster in terms of total salary for next season at $27.2 million. He is also the fourth highest paid shooting guard in the NBA and 30th in the association overall.
The Suns payroll is loaded, but not unreasonable. They have to deal with one more year of the unpalatable Tyler Johnson 'poison pill' contract that was offer by the Brooklyn Nets way back in 2016. They also brought in Ricky Rubio in free agency for 3 years, $51 million and re-signed restricted free agent Kelly Oubre for two years, $30 million. They will make $16.2 million and $15.6 million next season, respectively. Those fresh deals paired with the Booker extension shot the Suns up over the salary cap by about $11 million, but they still operate as a team below the luxury tax. That threshold is still around $11 million higher than where the team is currently.
These recent moves are indicative of a team that is looking to make a splash in the standings very soon. They want to take advantage of Booker's presence and strive to impress enough to stick around for the long haul. In year's past, players under a five year contract would assuredly be around for at least four of the five, but things are a little different now. If the Suns don't make a legitimate run at a playoff spot and escape their abysmal string of losing seasons, he could become uneasy very quickly.
So that brings us back to the new deal. The best way to convince a player coming off of three excellent years that you care about them and you want them to be the face of the franchise for years to come is to hand them the green they deserve. Money is a big deciding factor for players coming off of their rookie deals as far as where they want to spend their future, but loses significant importance for the ones looking for their second big deal (see Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker). That's a discussion for another day.
Looking forward, this deal does carry a bit of risk for Phoenix. Booker has been one of the worst defenders at his position and approaching one of the biggest liabilities on that end across the NBA. Check out the numbers Bleacher Report dug up for Booker in their appropriately named article "Exposing the NBA's Worst Defender at Every Position':
Here are his career Bball Index grades:
Perimeter Defense: D+
Interior Defense: C
Obviously, the stats are not on Booker side here. There is a chance he continues to be a ball watcher and lose track of his man far too often.
But this is a risk worth taking for a franchise going through one of it's worst extended stretches in history. Tyler Johnson's atrocious contract comes off the book next Summer and Ayton is not eligible for his extension until the following year. The team could open up as much as $24 million in cap space next Summer, if they so choose. That is enough cash to legitimately chase a tier two player on the 2020 open market, which to be fair, is shaping up to be incredibly dry. Now that the short term core (Rubio, Booker, Oubre, Bridges, Ayton) is locked up, they can focus solely on building some semblance of stability and attempt to get the losing habits out of these young players minds. Whatever they decide to do with their financial freedom, Booker will not be source of concern from a value standpoint. Most sane GM's would gladly pony up an average of $31 million per year for a star in the making.
That potential star and the only team he's ever known need things to turn around soon...for both of their sakes.