Devin Booker—Devin Booker—is set to become one of the highest-paid players in the NBA, after agreeing to a max contract extension with the Phoenix Suns. In a move that makes Sacramento’s $78 million offer sheet to Zach LaVine look downright frugal by comparison, the Suns will pay Booker a whopping $158 million over five seasons, starting with the 2019-2020 season.
Listen. If you’re a Devin Booker believer, you are definitionally so walled-off to the persuasive powers of, you know, facts that none of this is likely to get through, but here it is: the Suns have never won more than 24 games in any season of Booker’s career; last season, his third in the NBA, they won 21 games and were the worst team in the NBA; the Suns have finished in the bottom 10 in the NBA in offensive efficiency in every season of Booker’s career; they’ve also finished in the bottom five in defensive efficiency in every season of Booker’s career. It’s amazing to think that the Suns organization feels like anyone on its roster these last few seasons deserves to be paid literally as much as they are allowed to pay a player.
But it gets worse! Last season the Suns had the worst net rating in the NBA, at minus-9.7. Hilariously, their net rating was actually worse with their supposed max player on the floor, and the Suns were about 0.7 points per hundred possessions better with Booker off the floor. Yes, there’s a lot of hidden context there, but remember this wasn’t a choice between keeping Devin Booker and, I dunno, chasing him off into the desert with pitchforks. It was the choice between extending him now, without sharing any of the risk that’s supposed to serve as incentive for an early extension, versus waiting just one more season to see if Booker can, you know, play anything like winning basketball, before offering him the moon and stars. If they were going to pay him like the centerpiece of a good team, it would’ve been sensible to wait until the most recent example didn’t show him making his already putrid team marginally worse.
A significant part of that effect came down to Booker being an excruciatingly bad defensive player—the Suns were two full points per hundred possessions better defensively when Booker was on the bench last season. For the third year running, Booker ranked in the bottom five percent of all NBA players in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus. According to Basketball Reference, Booker’s three-year minus-2.5 defensive box plus-minus is worse than all but 25 players who’ve played at least 600 total minutes since 2015 (just so you know, fringe and/or former NBA players like Kobi Simmons and [gulp] Andrea Bargnani are on this list). Booker isn’t just a bad defender; he’s one of the very worst defensive players in the sport.
Still, Booker is a remarkably prolific scorer for such a young player, and, anyway, someone was going to throw a max offer sheet at him next summer, and almost nothing that could conceivably happen next season would’ve changed that. And there’s no rule that says Booker can’t someday become the devastating engine of an actually good offense, while being successfully hidden defensively. Kyrie Irving was also once a putrid defensive player with a track record of putting up the emptiest of scoring numbers on completely busted and hopeless lottery teams, before LeBron James came along and transformed the entire Cavaliers organization.
But that’s the template—an ultra-efficient scorer playing sidekick to the best basketball player in history. If the Suns are expecting to find their own LeBron-esque superstar, they’ve got that in common with 27 other current NBA teams and like 97 percent of all teams in NBA history. And if they’re expecting Booker to someday develop into the anchor and not the sidekick, they’re forming that expectation in the face of a mighty wall of evidence that says they’ve picked the wrong guy. Either way, they’ve certainly paid a fortune to find out what comes next, and based almost entirely on an idea of how Booker could work on a competitive NBA team. But elite scoring is the hardest trait to find in basketball, and also the sexiest. Marcus Smart, by way of comparison, has only ever played winning basketball in the NBA, and he’s taken on huge defensive assignments in crucial playoff games, and swung entire series with his defensive play, and he can’t get a damn contract at all.
This has been a fascinating offseason. LeBron James joined the Lakers. Paul George turned down a chance to play in his hometown, with LeBron James, in order to stay in Oklahoma City. DeMarcus Cousins joined the Golden State Warriors on a one-year deal worth peanuts. And Devin Booker signed a contract worth as much in annual salary as Kevin Actual Durant will make on his new deal with the Warriors. What a crazy time.