With about a week to go before the Phoenix Suns’ first game of the N.B.A. restart in July, Devin Booker was bubbling with confidence. Unruffled by a four-month interruption of his best season as a pro, Booker brushed off a reminder that the Suns held the second-worst record of the 22 teams invited to Walt Disney World.
“I’m ready right now,” Booker said that day. “I’m right there.”
Booker quickly proved it. He had spent the two prior months training with his father, the former N.B.A. guard Melvin Booker, at a private gym in Phoenix. He then averaged 30.5 points, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds to lead the Bubble Suns to an 8-0 record in seeding games, leaving them just a half-game shy of bumping the Memphis Grizzlies out of a play-in series with the Portland Trail Blazers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix was six games out of the No. 8 slot in the West going into the restart. No one expected the Suns to get as close to the playoffs as they did.
The problem: Phoenix’s two-week surge in the bubble was the most sustained team success for Booker since he jumped to the N.B.A. as the 13th pick in the 2015 draft after one season at Kentucky, where his 38-1 Wildcats were so deep that Booker didn’t start. In the N.B.A., he has known mostly despair in the desert beyond his individual statistics, a struggle Booker hasn’t denied.
“I always say it’s my toughest adjustment to the N.B.A. — how to deal with the losing and still remaining a leader,” Booker said before his bubble run.
Whether or not Booker and the Suns can finally leave losing behind remains one of the loudest questions in the N.B.A., but the early signs are promising — especially now that they have Chris Paul. The Suns responded to their bubble breakthrough by trading for the 35-year-old Paul, absorbing the two seasons and nearly $86 million left on his contract. The idea was that Paul’s veteran know-how, combined with Booker’s scoring prowess and Deandre Ayton’s potential as an interior anchor, would give Phoenix the three-star backbone needed to secure a playoff spot in the hypercompetitive West.
While precious little has played out as predicted in the embryonic days of the league’s 75th season — just take a quick scan through the Eastern Conference standings — Phoenix is an exception. The Suns are off to a notable 5-2 start as they try to live up to the billing of a team widely expected to bust out of a 10-year playoff drought.
Booker has had a bumpy start to the season, stumbling to a league-high total of 37 turnovers to sully his robust per-game averages (21.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists). The Suns nonetheless won five of their first six games, earned a top-five defensive rating and responded to their poorest showing with some grit after falling behind the Los Angeles Clippers by 31 points at home Sunday night.
Blowouts have become commonplace across the league during the season’s uneven start, an early oddity widely attributed to most teams’ playing without fans in the arenas to motivate them and an abbreviated training camp and preseason. Headed for another one of those routs after a shoddy first half, Phoenix instead rallied to within one point in the fourth quarter before the Clippers pulled out a 112-107 victory.
Paul has also had some spotty moments offensively as he and Booker work to establish the backcourt chemistry that Booker had with Paul’s predecessor, Ricky Rubio, but the Suns already have the look of a more well-rounded team. The arrival of the rugged forward Jae Crowder in free agency, on top of Paul’s leadership, has quickly convinced one veteran scout whose view I trust that these Suns are “the real deal defensively.” Phoenix also has benefited from the continued improvement of the defensive specialist Mikal Bridges and the sharpshooting Cam Johnson, whose selection at No. 11 over all in the 2019 draft by Minnesota on the Suns’ behalf earned Phoenix serious scorn.
It’s the sort of response Suns Coach Monty Williams was hoping for even before he knew that Phoenix would be able to trade for Paul. Williams told me it was his “messed-up coaching mind-set” that made him find more good than heartbreak in the Suns’ coming so close to a playoff berth in August before falling short.
“I was glad our players got a chance to experience that kind of success,” Williams said. “But to miss the playoffs by half a game, I was thankful for that, too, because I hope our players understand now that every single game counts.”
Williams’s authoritative presence on the bench, after he coached Paul in New Orleans, was one of the primary lures in persuading Paul to push for the trade that sent him to Phoenix from Oklahoma City in November. Yet Paul insisted recently that the lure of playing beside Booker was just as strong; he scoffed at suggestions that he was brought in to provide all of the guidance.
“I’m not James Naismith, by no means,” Paul said at his introductory Suns news conference, referring to the sport’s inventor.
The reality is that Paul’s outsize personality tends to soak up much of the oxygen in any room or gym he occupies, but Booker’s talent is such that the Suns don’t want him deferring. Surrounded by more help than he has ever had, Booker will face higher-than-ever expectations. He earned his first All-Star selection last season as an injury replacement chosen by the league after Portland’s Damian Lillard went down.
“I think it’s going to fuel him,” Williams said of Booker’s taste of bubble success. “I hate talking for players, but just knowing him and his competitiveness, I think it’s going to spur him on.
“Book’s a winner,” Williams continued. “He plays winning basketball. He’s got a high I.Q. We’ll talk about stuff, and he’s completing my sentences because he knows where I’m going.”
Both coach and player know, though, that Williams’s proclamations can only be validated by the standings. The Suns have the league’s second-longest active playoff drought at 10 seasons and counting, behind only Sacramento’s 14 years in a row, and would be wise not to overreact to two prosperous weeks after the highs and lows of summer camp.
“It’s not an easy league,” Booker said.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Q: In the next collective bargaining agreement, trade kickers should be a two-way street. If a superstar requests a trade prior to the completion of his contract, there should be a trade kicker that the player is required to pay. — @MrBrianBlair from Twitter
Stein: James Harden’s desire to be traded away from the Houston Rockets, and the Harden-centric chaos initiated by his refusal to report to training camp on time, has clearly made this a touchy topic. And I get it: Harden’s determination to leave quickly became a full-on sideshow.
What you’re suggesting, though creative, is far too punitive for most players.
Trade kickers are negotiated bonuses that players get if they are traded, meaning not all players have them in their contracts. I can’t co-sign making players pay a fee when they demand a trade — not when you account for how many more advantages teams hold over them in controlling contracts.
Players are routinely traded without having any say, while first-round draft picks are subject to a rookie pay scale that often doesn’t reflect their value. And players generally have to clear restricted free agency — which affords contract-matching rights to the incumbent team — before making it to unrestricted free agency.
There is no one-size-fits-all rule to apply here, because every situation is different. If a player asks to be traded according to league guidelines (in other words, without making it public) and performs professionally afterward, it’s not some heinous basketball crime.
The Los Angeles Clippers infamously traded Blake Griffin to Detroit in 2018 just six months after persuading him to sign a five-year, $171 million contract with promises of making him “a Clipper for life.” I’m not trying to suggest that we will throw newsletter support behind every trade demand, but the Griffin situation was a handy reminder that only certain stars wield ultimate power, even in the player empowerment era.
It’s rare that trade demands are lodged before the later stages of a contract, closer to the player’s free agency. Don’t forget, furthermore, that no-trade clauses in the N.B.A. are difficult for players to obtain, requiring a minimum of eight years of service time and four with the same team.
As for Harden, well, this is as messy as a trade request gets, so dismay with the brazen manner in which he appeared to be trying to force a trade last month is understandable. Harden’s status with the Rockets will be a distraction until he gets moved. But let’s not go overboard.
Q: I was wondering if the N.B.A. or anyone associated with the league records the outcomes on jump balls. I know there aren’t that many jump balls in each individual game, but there are surely players who must have participated in numerous jump balls over time. Is there any way to figure out who ranks as the game’s Jump Ball King? — Richard Perry (New York)
Stein: In this statistical age, given how much N.B.A. data is tracked on so many different sites, it’s a disheartening surprise to see that fresh jump ball data is not easy to find. It appears that this FanSided page, which has amassed individual data on jump ball winners from the 1996-97 season to 2016-17, is as thorough as it gets.
This is not a difficult stat to track, so it’s unclear why more current results don’t appear on multiple sites. The reality, though, is that a jump ball king would be nearly impossible to identify, because 1996-97 was the first season that the N.B.A. began officially recording and archiving play-by-play data.
So I’m afraid we’ll have to add this to the N.B.A.’s long list of statistical mysteries, which most prominently features the sad inability to know just how ferocious Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain truly were as shot-blockers. Blocks and steals did not become official box score stats until the 1973-74 season — and the limited game film from the league’s early years means that even enterprising researchers with time on their hands can’t just go back and do the math manually by studying old tapes.
Q: How is Orlando allowing fans but not Miami? — @numberthirty6 from Twitter
Stein: In the few states where reduced crowds are allowed in N.B.A. arenas, it’s still a franchise-by-franchise choice on whether to let fans inside.
In Florida, Orlando and Toronto (which has adopted Tampa, Fla., as its temporary home) have decided to admit fans. The Heat decided to wait.
We’re seeing the same thing in Texas. Houston is letting a league-high 4,500 fans per game enter Toyota Center. Dallas and San Antonio have elected to keep their arenas closed to the public, with the Spurs announcing recently that they have pushed back plans to reopen their doors on Jan. 1 “because the Covid-19 numbers and data in our community continue to trend in the wrong direction.”
After 11 women were on N.B.A. coaching staffs last season, that number is down to six this season. They are: Cleveland’s Lindsay Gottlieb, Dallas’s Jenny Boucek, Memphis’ Sonia Raman, New Orleans’s Teresa Weatherspoon, Sacramento’s Lindsey Harding and San Antonio’s Becky Hammon. When she took over for the ejected Gregg Popovich last week, Hammon became the first woman to serve as a head coach in an N.B.A. regular-season game.
Of the six other women who coached in the N.B.A. last season, two relinquished their posts to become head coaches at the college level. Kara Lawson left the Boston Celtics’ staff to take over as the women’s head coach at Duke, and Niele Ivey left the Grizzlies’ bench for the same role at Notre Dame. Two others — Toronto’s Brittni Donaldson and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Natalie Nakase — joined their franchise’s G League coaching staffs for this season.
Something to track: After shooting at least 72.4 percent from the free-throw line for five seasons in a row from 2014-15 to 2018-19, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the 60s for the second consecutive season. He shot 63.3 percent from the line last season and is off to a worrisome 62.2 percent start in the early stages of the new campaign.
The Cavaliers received permission last week from the Ohio Department of Health to expand their home crowds to nearly 2,000 fans — 1,944 to be exact — after crowds were limited to 300 for Cleveland’s first three home games.
Mark June 6 on your 2021 calendars: It’s the N.B.A.’s 75th birthday. The league was founded as the Basketball Association of America on June 6, 1946.