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Suns will need more from Devin Booker, but his supermax is an easy decision

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 19, 2022

The Phoenix Suns have quite a few important decisions to make this offseason, but even after their second-round collapse in the most disheartening Game 7 the franchise has ever seen, Devin Booker’s potential supermax extension should be the easiest of the bunch.

This offseason could be a pricy one for Phoenix. The Suns and their fanbase remain shellshocked by the final result, but this was the best team in basketball until they completely stopped playing like it. They won a league-best 64 games, owned the NBA’s best point differential and crunch-time record, and boasted a top-five offensive and defensive rating. By every measure, they were title favorites, which makes their inexplicable deterioration in the playoffs that much harder to comprehend.

For his part, general manager James Jones didsn’t sound willing to overreact to one calamitous playoff series during his end-of-season media session.

“Let’s be real: We had a tremendous season,” he said. “I said this yesterday, the season, the way it ended was disappointing, but the season was not a disappointment. Our team was a really good team. We just didn’t have that same level of success in the playoffs. And so I’m not going to change what we do. I’m not gonna change my approach to team-building, which is to create and construct a team that has a ton of depth, a ton of skill and great chemistry. We just need to be better, and I think after a summer where our guys improve, we will be.”

There’s certainly a case to be made for keeping the young core intact and retooling around them. We’ve already covered Deandre Ayton’s murky future in Phoenix, but his impending restricted free agency gives the Suns the power to match any outside offer. Jones made it clear on Wednesday that he values continuity and internal growth above all else, which could bode well for not only Ayton, but also Booker’s supermax and Cam Johnson’s potential rookie-scale extension.

Jones echoed what owner Robert Sarver told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo show last July: The luxury tax would not impede their pursuit of a title.

“That’s a part of the business: As your team improves, typically your payroll increases,” Jones answered when asked about possible extensions for Booker and Johnson. “We’re focused on improving the team, and those guys deserve the credit, they deserve the accolades and the financial rewards that come with being good players and productive players. So it doesn’t preclude us from doing anything. We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things.”

Bearing all this in mind, let’s dig into Booker’s qualifications for the supermax, what that contract would look like and what would come next.

The supermax

After the five-year, $158 million max extension he signed in 2018, Devin Booker is still under contract for two more seasons. He’s owed $33.8 million next season, followed by $36 million in 2023-24.

To qualify for a supermax, which allows for a maximum salary starting at 35 percent of the cap, a player must have seven or eight years of experience, with only one or two years remaining on their contract (all with the same team, or after being traded during their first four seasons). They must also meet one of the following qualifications in their most recent season, or in both of the two seasons prior to the most recent season:

  • All-NBA First, Second or Third Team selection
  • Defensive Player of the Year
  • MVP (in any of the three prior seasons)

Booker didn’t win MVP or DPOY, but after finishing fourth in MVP voting, he’s a virtual lock for either Second or First Team All-NBA. That will make him eligible for a four-year, $211 million supermax extension, which would kick in during the 2024-25 season:

  • 2024-25: $47.1 million (age 28)
  • 2025-26: $50.8 million (age 29)
  • 2026-27: $54.6 million (age 30)
  • 2027-28: $58.4 million (age 31)

The question is, does he deserve it? Is Booker truly in that superstar class of elite players that should be paid supermax money?

Devin Booker’s qualifications

To spare our readers the suspense, yes. Without question. Did you gloss over the part where he finished fourth in MVP voting and is a virtual lock for an All-NBA spot, confirming his status as a top-10 player this past year?

It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment right now. Against the Dallas Mavericks, Book didn’t look like the guy who’s always ready for the spotlight. In the Suns’ Games 6 and 7 losses, he tallied 30 points on 31 shots, shooting 29 percent overall and finishing with 5 assists to 12 turnovers. While superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum elevated to another level and took over playoff games, it was striking to see Booker fall so flat.

But coach Monty Williams believes that failure is an opportunity for Book and the rest of his team to get stronger.

“I talked to them about, all year long, we’ve been hearing all the praises, winning all the games and setting records and all that stuff, and we’ve been taking it,” Williams said after Game 7. “Well, tonight, you gotta take it. That’s a part of manhood. There are days where it doesn’t go your way, and you gotta stand right there and show character and integrity and take it.”

Booker, who noted this year’s second-round exit felt a lot like last year’s Finals defeat, agreed it was something they had to own and use as motivation.

“We know we have something to build on, we have more fuel added to the fire, and this is all stuff that you just have to stand up and be a man about,” Booker said. “Say we lost, and move forward with it.”

Despite his horrendous final two games, Booker still averaged 23.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for the series, which is more than anyone else gave Phoenix at the time. And even if that wasn’t the case, one or two awful playoff performances at age 25, in his second-ever postseason, shouldn’t define what he’s accomplished up to this point.

For starters, Booker averaged a career-high 26.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game this season, shooting 46.6 percent from the field and a career-high 38.3 percent from 3-point range.

As ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out, he was one of three players to average 30 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from downtown after the All-Star break, along with Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum. He’s also one of only three players to average at least 25 points per game in each of the last four seasons, joining LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s pretty good company!

Those who have followed his seven-year career in the Valley already know that Booker putting himself in elite company is nothing new. He became the seventh-youngest player in NBA history to reach 10,000 career points last December, and per NBA.com, he led the league in points per touch among all players with at least 1,100 touches this year. Among all high- and medium-usage players with at least 3,000 touches, he’s now led the NBA in points per touch for three straight seasons.

Oh, and all that is without mentioning that during his first playoff run, only a year ago, he dropped 47 points to close out the Los Angeles Lakers, put up a 40-point triple-double in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals without Chris Paul, and notched back-to-back 40-point games in the NBA Finals. In a league that increasingly skews toward “what have you done for me lately?” it’s important not to lose sight of the larger body of work.

“His presence and what he brings to a team and what he brings to the basketball court are just amazing,” Jae Crowder said. “Obviously, we feed off him. We feed off one another, but that’s one of our go-to players, one of our guys who can get it going on both ends of the court.”

Neither of Booker’s playoff runs came without cause for criticism, but at only 25 years old, he’s on pace to wind up as one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. Throw in his playmaking and vastly improved defense, and he’s one of the best players to ever put on a Suns jersey.

“I’ve said it for three years now, you find me another elite scorer that plays defense like Book,” coach Monty Williams said. “The young man does not back down from a matchup, he stays in front of the ball, he tracks down transition plays to block shots. He just doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the best two-way players in the league. And again, there may be one or two out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody that scores like Book that also defends like him.”

Where Booker needs to ascend

None of this is to let Booker completely off the hook, of course. He was the lead figurehead for a Suns team that talked s**t all season and got its teeth kicked in when it mattered most. Book was chirping long before Phoenix became a Western Conference powerhouse, but moments like the “Luka Special” are harder to swallow when the on-court play doesn’t back up the smack talk.

He and the Suns got a full helping of humble pie in the playoffs, and now — as has been the case so many times before in Booker’s career — it’s all about how he grows his game to respond to the critics and skeptics.

Booker has improved some facet of his game every season. When he was called a spot-up shooter, he became a complete scorer. When he was “inefficient,” he upped his shooting numbers. When “all he could do was score,” he operated as an effective primary playmaker for point guard-less Suns teams. And when he was labeled as an “empty-calories scorer,” a “looter in a riot,” a poor defender, and a “good player but not a winner,” he proved that with actual help, he could be the best player on a championship contender.

But now comes the hard part: Actually winning that championship. Not being shown up on the Finals stage by a living legend like Giannis. Not being bounced from the second round by Doncic. After that Game 7 performance, he and the Suns won’t be trusted (or safe from slander) until they get over the title hump that’s obstructed this franchise for 54 years.

Luckily, Booker seems up to the task, and perhaps more importantly, he actually wants to do it here. Only three years ago, Phoenix was still a league laughingstock, coming off a decade without playoff basketball. To have experienced the 8-0 NBA bubble run, come within two wins of a ring and then own the league’s best record over that span is the type of rapid growth other franchises only dream of.

Just three years after losing 63 games, the Suns were winning a franchise-record 64.

“Sometimes, Book would be laughing, like, ‘Bro, y’all came here when it just started turning, when the tables started turning,'” Deandre Ayton laughed. “But yeah, Book went through a lot, and just seeing how his whole career and legacy turning into his own hands performing in one place is amazing.”

As a student of the NBA and its history, Booker knows the value of being the Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan for a franchise. He’s repeatedly talked about wanting to bring a championship to Phoenix. The 2021-22 campaign represents a massive missed opportunity in that regard, but his loyalty to what was a failing organization and his individual diligence to improve his game is the one constant that’s allowed for the Suns to reach their current position.

“I had a few years before that also where I was at the bottom, so a lot has shifted since then, and we’ve watched it grow, we’ve watched it develop,” Booker said. “I obviously don’t forget those days. All those times make now even better, makes now even more important.”

Booker needs to learn to maintain his productivity when he’s aggressively trapped in the postseason, and in terms of guys who can simply take over a playoff game at any given time, he’s not on the level of Giannis, Doncic, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Stephen Curry…yet. The Suns’ latest playoff heartbreak proved that not every postseason will be as fun or straightforward as that first Finals run.

But even if he’s not “that guy,” the Suns are not the type of major-market, free-agency destination that can afford to take that chance. They can’t offer “slightly less” than a supermax; the financial drop-off there is steep, and it’d send the wrong message that’d risk disenfranchising the franchise face. Teams like the Suns have to pay top-10 talents in order to keep them. If you fall short with Booker as your top-bill star, you live with it. But that’s far better than alienating him and never finding out.

Considering Book tangibly improves some area of his game every season, this year’s painful but valuable teaching moment could serve as a launch pad for the NBA’s most-tortured franchise and its superstar. As the bane of the Suns’ decade-long playoff drought, the cornerstone of their current success and the key to getting over that championship hump, Devin Booker’s supermax deal that would pay him through his prime is a no-brainer.

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