Devin Booker is signed to an NBA maximum contract worth $158 million that should keep him a Sun through 2024. Anthony Davis had one that should’ve kept him a Pelican. Paul George had one that should’ve kept him in Oklahoma City. Kawhi Leonard had one of those too – he was supposed to be a Spur for life. Before that, Kyrie and LeBron were supposed to run the league from Cleveland for the next half-decade. No matter the personality type, no matter the loyalty, championship or no championship, it is not just a trend for players to force their way out. It’s become a status symbol. The ultimate mark of prestige in the NBA is having the power to hold an entire organization hostage. You better keep your guy happy, because most are itching to flex their command.
That’s why last night’s season opener was so important for the Phoenix Suns. They soundly defeated a young, talented Sacramento Kings squad. More importantly, it looked like there was room to get better. That’s what this season, and the foreseeable future should be all about in Phoenix. Creating legitimacy, building infrastructure and hitting the knees every night to pray that Devin Booker hasn’t already lost interest.
Oh, you think he’d never leave? He’s just too good of a guy, right? He’s shown nothing but loyalty to Phoenix, huh? All true, but consider this. LeBron James saved Kyrie Irving from the depths of the Eastern conference when he rejoined the Cavaliers in 2014. They won a ring together, and Kyrie had his best years. LeBron was “ready to give the keys” to Kyrie. Still, Kyrie forced himself away from an all-time legend. Kawhi Leonard played under the greatest coach of the modern NBA era, for the league’s most steady franchise in San Antonio. They, too, won a championship. Didn’t matter. Paul George asked out just a year into his max contract with OKC, even after an extensive recruiting campaign by his buddy Russell Westbrook. Organizational stability, great coaching, legendary side-kicks. It doesn’t matter. The Suns, by the way, haven’t given Devin Booker any of those things.
It should be noted, premature player movement almost never has negative financial or career-arc repercussions. Kawhi won championship immediately after being traded. Now, he and Paul George are title favorites for the Clippers. Kyrie just teamed up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. Anthony Davis is hanging with LeBron in LA. They haven’t lost a dime along the way.
All the while, a young crop of NBA superstars are watching, waiting. Three prominent ones, including Booker, just appeared on the cover of Slam Magazine. D’Angelo Russell said in their interview, “Y’all got it on footage. When we’re all on the same team—I ain’t gonna tell you which team because I don’t know—we’re gonna do this again.” Foreshadowing?
The Suns, to their credit, are finally beginning to make their case. Monty Williams is the most legitimate coach Booker’s played under. An NBA GM survey predicted Williams would have the biggest impact of all new coaches. Booker’s relationship with DeAndre Ayton hasn’t exactly been warm, but Ayton has real superstar potential after averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds his rookie year. The free agent additions of Dario Saric and especially Ricky Rubio have been welcomed additions through the preseason. All of it came together last night.
The Suns struggled in the first half, but never stopped moving the ball or playing defense. A mark of a well-coached team. Role players contributed, with four players not named Booker or Ayton scoring 10 points or more. A sign of successful player acquisition. Devin Booker struggled in the first half, but his teammates kept the game in reach so that he could close it out in the second half. A sign that he finally has the support that he needs.
The Suns aren’t a great team. But right now, they look like a hungry, well-coached bunch with a Batman & Robin backcourt/frontcourt combination. The type of team that may look very appealing in a year or two for the next big name NBA player on the move. Or maybe, a big name NBA player that wants to stay in Phoenix.