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:
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.