Can you have an MVP performance in late November?
The rational mind says yes, even if the recency-bias tendency is a real phenomenon among voters. But all 82 games should play a part in the evaluation, no matter when they take place on the calendar.
Some are bigger because of the stakes, the opponent, or some other circumstance that might brighten the spotlight (e.g. the sensational Steph v. Luka showdown on Tuesday night on the TNT stage). And some, such as the masterpiece Devin Booker turned in against Sacramento on Monday night at the Golden 1 Center, are just so memorable that the mental highlight reel will still be on a loop when the time comes to make a final pick on this front five months from now.
No Chris Paul (again). No Cam Johnson (again). No Jae Crowder (again) — or a Jae Crowder trade, for that matter. Third game in four nights, with his Phoenix squad looking to maintain its early-season momentum against a Kings team that was trying so desperately to light the beam again after dropping two in a row. And Booker, who faced his typical diet of double-teams all night long, finished with 44 points (while hitting just one 3), eight rebounds, four assists and six steals as the Suns held on for the 122-117 win that was their fifth in a row.
Correction: “…as the Western Conference-leading Suns held on for the 122-117 win that was their fifth in a row.”
But here comes the plot twist: As the three-time All-Star insisted during our postgame conversation, he doesn’t believe he’s in the running for the league’s top individual award.
“I’m not even in that race,” Booker, who finished fourth in NBA MVP voting last season after the Suns had the league’s best record, said with a smile while standing near the loading dock. “I just let these people say what they want. Like bro, I focus on hoops only.”
Narrator’s voice: He’s definitely in that race. And he knows it.
Yet while we wound up analyzing his stellar play near the end of the discussion, the initial objective of this latest Booker interview was more team-centric. How, I had wondered, has this team managed to start nearly as well this season (14-6) as they did last season (17-3) despite all the distractions and disappointments they’ve endured these past six months?
A quick refresher course of the (mostly) unwelcome events…
May 15: The Suns lose 123-90 to Dallas in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. As if the lopsided nature of the closeout game wasn’t embarrassing enough, there’s uncomfortableness for all to see late when coach Monty Williams benched big man Deandre Ayton after playing him just 17 minutes. Ayton, of course, had started his season with a similar sense of dissatisfaction when he didn’t get the max extension he believed he deserved.
June 8: As we reported here, the Suns had been dealing with a substantial COVID-19 outbreak during the Mavericks series that included one player (and six individuals total).
July 1: As free agency begins, we learn that Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant has Phoenix on his short list of teams to which he’d prefer to be traded. In a vacuum, this is a good thing for the franchise. But the notion of trading for a star of Durant’s caliber brings inevitable discussions in the media about what it would take to get him, meaning players such as Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Johnson are instantly included in the widespread speculation.
July 14: The Suns match Indiana’s four-year, $133 million offer sheet on Ayton. The center, who was the No. 1 pick in 2018, was a restricted free agent, meaning Phoenix had the right to match. Per league rules, he can’t be traded until Jan. 15 and has the right to veto any trade for a year.
Sept. 13: The NBA announces its Robert Sarver ruling while also releasing the damning 36-page report of its investigation that confirms the vast majority of the allegations of racism and misogyny lodged against the Suns owner nearly a year earlier. He is suspended for one year and given a $10 million fine. Suns vice chairman and minority owner Sam Garvin is designated as the team’s governor.
Sept. 21: Sarver announces that he plans to sell the team.
Sept. 25: Crowder, a veteran forward who was a pivotal part of the previous two seasons, comes to a mutual agreement with the Suns that they will find him a new basketball home. While he waits for a resolution via trade, Crowder stays away from the team.
Sept. 27: At Suns media day, Ayton tells reporters he hasn’t talked to Williams since their Game 7 dust-up.
Oct. 10: Ayton says he and Williams are fine. There’s nothing to see here (anymore), apparently.
That’s a lot for any team to navigate, let alone a group that dealt with the heartache of losing the NBA Finals the year before to Milwaukee (after having a two-game lead) and whose future Hall of Fame point guard, Paul, turned 37 in May. In the wake of it all, it’s safe to say the Suns were widely expected to be on the decline.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Booker is far and away the biggest reason these Suns remain elite. Not only is he averaging 27.9 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, but he’s doing it while missing Paul (heel injury; missed 10 games so far) and Johnson (meniscus surgery on Nov. 8; expected to miss at least a month).
It should come as no surprise, then, that he’s on pace to set a career high in minutes (36.8 per). Just like his beloved basketball idol and mentor, the late Kobe Bryant, would have liked it.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
So the last time we talked at length, it was last season at Staples (Center) and we were talking about your guy Kobe (for this NBA 75 story on his career). And then tonight, you’re out here with your old-school mentality playing 40 minutes and doing your thing in a three-games-in-four-nights stretch. Did you forget this is the era of load management?
I’m not a part of that, man (laughs). I’m 26 years old, man. I train hard. I spend a lot of time in the summer making sure my body’s right to be able to take that load on, so I want to be out there, and I want to win basketball games and do what I have to do to help the team. That’s just how I’ve always been.
It is late November, though.
Yeah, but I can’t put a time to these seasons, man. Every day I wake up grateful for the opportunity to play, and I’ve never lost sight of that, back from being the little kid who wanted to be in the NBA. And I haven’t lost sight of those kids that are up in the stands that might be seeing me for the first time.
They turn out for you, man. I saw that pregame. There was a lady getting squished against the railing and everything. It was wild.
Yeah, I see that man. And that’s inspiring. That’s what keeps me going. So that’s important to not lose sight of that, especially when you speak of load management. I’ve never really been that type.
Does that trend bother you? Not to ask you to speak on other guys, but how do you see it?
I don’t want to speak on other guys. But when I just mentioned my workout plan in the summer, like, a lot of guys’ bodies can’t handle it. It takes more than just what you see on the court. There’s a lot of preparation. There’s diet. It’s a little bit of everything. Guys aren’t wrong for not paying attention to all that. It’s just my decision. I want to be one of them ones.
That’s a nice political answer. That’s good.
Big picture, there’s a bunch of stuff that I think the national media — myself included — got wrong about your squad going into this year. So here’s the assumptions that I and a lot of others made, and I wanted you to help me understand why we read the room wrong. First of all, the Sarver situation was supposed to create a level of chaos and conflict that was going to make it hard to win basketball games. How did you guys get through that, and why did that not happen?
I think that’s just what you said, the media trying to start something. That’s people doing their jobs.
You don’t think it was fair, though, to think that would make things challenging?
I don’t think it’s fair to think that that would come in between what we have going on in this locker room. There’s too many level-headed guys. We have too many conversations that we keep in house between the team. Like, we have a lot of educated people on this team. We’re pretty close, and we talk about everything. Our group chat is going. And we keep everything in (house) and talk about it here. And, you know, a decision was made (regarding Sarver), so there’s really nothing else we can do or say about it. Media day was tough, and that was it.
Did you have days at the office though where you might have been thinking, ‘I just want to work, and I just want an owner who’s gonna pay the bills and have no controversy.’ Were there times when you were frustrated by everything it brought upon the group?
No. Not for me. That’s just (me), but that’s the only place I can speak from.
The DA situation is the other one, where the contract stuff was pretty sticky and then some things were said at media day about his dynamic with Monty. Now you jump ahead a couple months, and he’s averaging (16.3 points and 9.6 rebounds), playing really well lately and even getting Player of the Week. How did he get through that?
I think he grew up a lot. He’ll be the first one to tell you that it was just realizing what the NBA is about. You grow up and you’re like, ‘I want to play in the NBA,’ but you don’t realize it’s a business. There’s things that go on. There’s conversations that had to be had. And being a young top pick and coming in at 18 (years old), and him being all over in his childhood from the Bahamas to San Diego, I don’t think he realized that it’s actually business. And that was good for him. I mean, he got his money. He’s in a great situation now. He’s playing free. He’s happy.
Deandre Ayton postgame lift. #Suns pic.twitter.com/x4O71XvfLX
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) November 29, 2022
Did you use your voice at any point on that front?
Yeah, I mean we’ve always been (close) like that. Me and DA are tied in. That’s my brother. That’s my little brother. I mean, I’d tell him, ‘I can’t get you the money, but it’s a business.’ You have to have those conversations, and it’s easier if you’re just vocal about it and are honest and truthful.
For you, you spent all those years with the constant questions about when you’d get to the playoffs and you go through that kind of basketball pain. But now, I wonder how that compares to…
(People saying) you don’t do nothing in the playoffs? (Laughs)
Well the year before you did a few things. But yeah, how does that compare to these two playoff disappointments?
I just realized the situation. Now, I’m more on the bigger stage, where people know about me, so there’s gonna be more haters. That’s life. There’s people that hate on LeBron James and Steph Curry — still, to this day. So once you embrace that (reality) and just realize that there’s different types of people, you get it. There’s haters, and there’s supporters.
Does it change the hunger though?
Nah, that s— stayed the same all the way through.
I mean, you guys have talked about how bad the finals loss hurt. And then last year was its own thing. We wrote all about it, and I know you don’t want to use excuses, but the COVID thing was real (in the Dallas series).
For sure. And there’s one winner at the end of the day too. And that was Golden State last year.
Yeah, one out of 30 is tough.
One out of 30 is tough. And for everyone saying we don’t do anything in the playoffs, well that’s (better than) ‘This kid can’t make the playoffs.’ I’m on the right track here.
Last one for you: MVP. So you’re fourth in the voting last year — best player on the best team in the West. This time around, you’re in the mix and playing some incredible ball. But is that award something that gets you up in the morning in terms of goals?
How do you see yourself in that race?
I’m not even in that race. I just let these people say what they want. Like bro, I focus on hoops only.
I’m just trying to give you the microphone here though…
I know. I feel you, but I’ve never been that type. And historically speaking, if you look at last year, like somebody (else) might have got MVP (in his situation) if it wasn’t me. Best team in the league with whatever (production). But the criteria changes, the media changes. I think it’s good for the NBA, (but) there’s just certain people that they want to push more than others. And that’s just the nature of life.
Well then, regardless of MVP, it has to feel good to have folks learn your game on this higher-profile sort of stage these past few years. People are going to remember what you did in this league. Does that make you feel good?
That’s what wakes me up in the morning. That’s back to being inspired by the little kid up there. Like, my thing is — and Kob’ said it too — inspiring the youth (is everything). A kid grows up and is like, ‘Man, I want to be Devin. I want to dress like him. I want to play like him.’ I’ve never lost sight of that. That’s what keeps me going. Haters can do what they want and say what they want.
(Top photo of Devin Booker: Sergio Estrada / USA Today)