Nylon Calculus, Phoenix Suns

Nylon Calculus: What’s the historical precedent for Devin Booker?

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Devin Booker’s incandescent scoring pops, but his historic production still isn’t leading to wins. What’s the precedent for this level of individual brilliance coupled with team futility?

Devin Booker’s scored 109 points in the last two NBA basketball games he’s played. You know this because it’s insane. You also probably know his team is 0-2 in those games because it’s insane. Booker’s been historically productive, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

And that’s the story of Booker’s career so far. He’s one of 11 players to average 21+ points and 4+ assists per game through age 22. It’s essentially a list of Booker, a handful of inner circle Hall-of-Famers, and Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks. Nonetheless, Booker’s Phoenix Suns have never topped 24 wins in his four seasons.

Booker’s now scored 50+ points three times in his career; the Suns have lost each game. Over the last 30 years, only Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, James Harden, and Allen Iverson have lost more games in which they’ve scored 50+ points than Booker, and that’s because they’ve dropped 50+ 25, 19, 17, and 11 times respectively.

No matter how individually amazing Booker is, it never seems to matter, and this is where the debate starts. Yes, Booker’s individual box score numbers are nothing short of intimidating, but his team doesn’t win. What’s really troubling to the analytically-inclined, though, is that impact stats, which attempt to isolate and apportion credit for winning, don’t indicate that Booker is particularly helpful either.

When it comes to Booker, there’s a lot of hyperbole. Enthusiastic Suns fans endeavor to exonerate Booker entirely, blaming the front office, surrounding talent, and efficacy of the metrics that call into question Booker’s value. Analytically-obsessed contrarians insist Booker is worthless, a mirage on a historically ineffective team. As tends to happen with these things, when you really interrogate the evidence, you’ll find the truth hiding somewhere in the murk of the middle.

There have been teams with young “stars” as bad as Booker’s Suns

So, I began this project of situating Booker historically by looking at seasons since 2000-01, because that’s as far back as Player Impact Plus-Minus team reports go. Since 2000-01, I examined all 56 seasons in which a player age-22 or younger averaged 20+ points per game. It’s not perfect, but it’s a list of most of the high-usage, good production seasons by young players in the last nearly 20 years.

Sorting the seasons by the PIPM Wins Added contributed by the non-“star” player lent legitimacy to the idea that Booker’s Suns are historically untalented. Just four of the 56 seasons featured combined teammate PIPM Wins Added under 14 (all four of them were under 11, so they were by far the worst supporting casts of all the seasons). Those seasons were Elton Brand’s 2000-01 Chicago Bulls, Kevin Love’s 2010-11 Minnesota Timberwolves, Booker’s 2017-18 Suns, and Booker’s 2018-19 Suns.

Unsurprisingly, all four of those teams were terrible. Brand’s Bulls snagged 15 wins, Love’s Wolves 17, and Booker’s Suns 21 and 17 (so far). Of those four seasons, Booker posted the two worst individual PIPM marks at -1.4 last year and -1 this year. Brand checked in at a roughly neutral -0.4, and Love registered a highly impressive +2.3 despite his teammates.

We see further divergence from Booker when we look at what happened the following seasons. Love continued with a similarly untalented group in Minnesota, but upped his individual PIPM to +3.7 and the team’s win total to 26 in a lockout-shortened, 66-game season. Brand, meanwhile, was traded to a slightly better (still bad) situation with the Los Angeles Clippers that offseason. He, too, saw his individual PIPM jump to +2.36 and his team’s win total spike to 39.

It’s not the Suns’ win total this year with a “star” like Booker or his lackluster individual impact stats that are concerning, it’s the development of a pattern.

It’s the lack of change that’s unusual

Here are the players who qualified more than once for the list of 56: Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Karl Anthony-Towns, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Tracy McGrady.

Here are the players who qualified more than once and didn’t experience marked improvement in individual PIPM across those seasons: Andrew Wiggins, Carmelo Anthony, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Tracy McGrady.

For the players who experienced meaningful growth, it came in all sorts of contexts. Stoudemire saw his individual and team fortunes shift when his Suns signed a floppy-haired Canadian dude who messed around and won a couple MVPs. Davis started out solid with a mediocre team, became a superstar and lifted an equally-mediocre team to the playoffs. Durant evolved from arguably the worst player in the league to arguably the best between his first and third seasons, elevating his team to contention from the dregs despite limited teammate improvement. James did the same, though it only took him until his second year. Without fail, though, they all improved massively.

Now, Mitchell and McGrady entered the list as very good players by PIPM and stayed good, so they’re not really comparable to Booker. Anthony and Wiggins are more so. Anthony appeared on the list each of the first four years of his career, posting PIPM marks of +0.3, +0.3, +0.3, and +0.2 on four solid, mid-40s-win teams with very good surrounding talent. Wiggins contributed a +0.4 in his age-20 season, dropped to -0.5 in his age-21 season, then failed to qualify in his age-22 season because his team realized he was bad and demoted him from the role necessary to score enough.

And that’s the really concerning part. Anthony held on in this role for his entire career, but he was also in a perfect situation and is still one of the most egregiously overrated players in NBA history. That’s the good outcome.

Wiggins, meanwhile, speaks to the stories of the one-hit wonders of the list. Jabari Parker, Monta Ellis, Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans: these guys didn’t qualify more than once and went on to have lackluster careers because teams stopped enabling them. They were putting up counting stats, and teams saw through it.

What does this mean for Booker?

It means we haven’t really seen Booker’s career arc before. There have been guys this young and productive before. There have been guys this young and productive on teams this bad before. But we’ve never seen someone remain this productive on a team this bad before. In the past, something has always changed.

I think there’s legitimacy to the idea Booker’s negative impact is overstated by impact stats like PIPM. Say Booker’s running a pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton and the lob isn’t there because the weakside corner is occupied by Dragan Bender, whose man is waiting in the paint. Booker can choose between a crappy shot for himself, a risky lob to Ayton, or an open pass to Bender, who’s going to miss. It’s in no way his fault, but Booker has no choice but to make a sub-optimal decision. This is the reality he confronts on every offensive possession, and it’s because his teammates aren’t good. To that end, it should come as no surprise that Booker’s PIPM  peak (-0.9) came in 2016-17, when he had the best surrounding talent of his career.

Yet, it seems unlikely he’s as good as his most ardent supporters think. Truly great players with bad teammates have always risen in the past. They’ve consistently improved, and their teams’ fortunes have turned with them. It’s certainly possible that this iteration of the Suns is quite simply the most incompetent exercise in team-building we’ve ever seen, yet even then, history indicates a great player should make them better than this.

Next: Can a defense influence ball movement?

So, what is Booker? If I had to guess, he’s more of a second option. He’s grown into a very impressive all-around scorer between his shooting, touch, and foul-drawing, yet his true initiator equity remains in flux. He’s grown meaningfully in that respect, but he still turns the ball over a ton and is all too prone to decision-making that forces the viewer’s forehead to become acquainted with his palm.

But I don’t know. I think there’s a very real chance Booker works out as a primary ball-handler. I wouldn’t call it likely or bet on it myself, but it’s well within his range of outcomes. And that’s ultimately what we’re talking about with Booker still: a range of outcomes. The history of players comparable to Booker doesn’t indicate he’s destined for stardom, but it doesn’t disqualify him either. It’s something to note, and it’s definitely not encouraging, but realistically, we’re still waiting to learn what Devin Booker is capable of.

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