Column: Devin Booker and resurgent Suns trying to build off hot start
Phoenix Suns employees are leaving work with smiles, no longer leaving the arena upset by another loss in an unending string of them.
Fans are filing into whiskey bars, throwing back drinks and making tentative plans for postseason games. One of the oldest buildings in the NBA is about to get a face-lift. A desperately needed practice facility is under construction.
There’s hope in the desert. The Suns have wins over the favorites in the East (Philadelphia) and the West (the Clippers).
Whether it’s a mirage or not, it doesn’t matter.
The Phoenix Suns are winning — off to their best start in a decade — and no one needed this more than Devin Booker.
Suffocated by four consecutive seasons of losing, disorientated by the seemingly endless string of owner Robert Sarver’s firings and hirings, Booker knows who the Suns are today. Most importantly, he’s confident about who they’re going to be tomorrow.
“Man, it feels so good. It feels so good,” Booker, 23, told the Los Angeles Times this week. “These first four years were a part of my career that’s going to keep me going for the rest of my career. Right now, I think I’m in that position where it’s really transformation time where you can really turn things around and make Phoenix what it used to be.”
The Suns have seen glimpses of their past in the first month of this season, their first under coach Monty Williams.
The crowd rocked on Tuesday when the Lakers were in town, “Beat L.A.” chants echoing through the outdated Talking Stick Arena while the two teams traded leads more than 30 times in a game the Lakers eventually won.
Two nights later against the Atlanta Hawks, the atmosphere was more muted with entire rows in the stands empty. But over the course of the night, the Suns won over the people who did show up, the energy building until the postgame buzzer when DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” played over the stadium speakers.
“They played it last year whenever we won, too,” one Suns employee said with a smirk.
It was their seventh victory — hardly cause for celebration — but 7-4 is a big deal considering where Phoenix has been. Last season, it took the Suns 31 games to win seven. The season before? Eighteen games. And the one before that? Twenty-three games.
It’s easy to point to Williams as one of the big reasons. He’s respected across the NBA with his experience as a player, coach and as a front-office executive. He’s rebounded from tragedy — the death of his wife Ingrid during a car accident in 2016 — to inspire others who have suffered losses.
For a team in search of a new culture, there was no better choice.
Williams gave his players buckets with the message “Everything Counts” written on the outside.
“He gave us hammers, too,” Booker said with a laugh.
In the middle of the locker room, the pillars of who Williams wants the Suns to be — “Culture,” Show Up On Time,” “Defend,” “Compete,” “Share the Ball” and “Gratitude” — are branded along the top of a giant wood entertainment center where the players watch pregame film.
It’s all part of Williams’ mission to aid the Suns’ young players — Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton — in their development by making Phoenix an exciting place to come to work.
“They still had a chance to grow their game,” Williams said. “If you could provide them with an atmosphere where they felt like they could get better every day, they were going to get better.”
A lot of the Suns’ improvement is simpler than coaching. They have better players.
Only Booker joined the team before the 2018 NBA draft. One of the Suns’ starting guards from a year ago, Elie Okobo, now sits on the bench. A handful of other Suns’ players are either out of the league or fighting for jobs in greatly reduced roles.
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Had the previous coaching staff of Igor Kokoskov been given a veteran point guard like Ricky Rubio, a bulldozer big man like Aron Baynes and capable veterans like Dario Saric, would the Suns have even needed to make a coaching change?
Ayton’s place in all of this is hard to figure. The 2018 draft’s top pick played only one game this season before being assessed a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a diuretic, a common masking agent. Baynes has flourished as the team’s starting center — a hard-nosed vet who plays with toughness inside and surprising three-point touch. Will the Suns still be following the core value “Share the Ball” when Ayton returns and undoubtedly becomes one of the focal points of what the team is trying to do on offense? Some NBA scouts familiar with the Suns are skeptical.
What matters most in all of this is that Booker, by far the Suns’ best player, is playing winning basketball on a winning team for the first time in his professional career, and it’s come with a feeling of stability the Suns haven’t had.
Since being picked No. 13 overall in 2015, Booker’s Suns never won more than 24 games in a season. He’s played for five coaches. He’s seen teammates come and go, draft picks that were supposed to be a part of the future crash and burn. Ownership reacted by continuously making changes.
And it stunted Booker.
“I think when you’re talking about competing and trying to win and do it every night, stability is key. He’s always been putting up numbers,” Suns guard Tyler Johnson said of Booker.
Now he’s doing more.
Booker’s scoring is a tick down, but his efficiency is way up. He’s competing better on defense. An All-Star spot is very much within reach.
“It’s buying in, people wanting to get better, people being coachable,” Baynes said. “That’s where it starts.”
Before he took the Suns job this offseason, Williams asked around about Booker, a player who has been saddled with scouting reports like “doesn’t make anyone better” and “doesn’t help you win.”
“Even before I got the job, when I was in the process of coming here, I heard how much he wanted to win,” Williams said. “To me, that was all I needed to hear.”
The Suns might not keep winning. The schedule is about to get tougher with a stretch of nine homes games in their first 12 wrapping up Monday. But long term, that won’t matter much. What will matter is that Booker isn’t stuck losing, that the Suns finally appear to be exiting a rebuild.
Conventional wisdom in the NBA says you want to be either a 50-win team or a 20-win team.
Can the Suns be a 50-win team? Who knows? Can they be a 35-win team? Why not? While that doesn’t appeal to most organizations, a trip to purgatory would be a welcome change from where Phoenix has been and an important step toward where they want to go.
“I’m so thankful we’ve got some wins, but our process is still in the infant stages,” Williams said. “I’ve got to keep my eyes on that because we’re still building.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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