Empire of the Suns: NBA award cases for Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and more
Mar 29, 2022, 12:35 PM
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Phoenix Suns separated themselves as the best team in the NBA a while ago.
That means postseason expectations are high. It also means regular season recognition should be coming, in some way.
While Devin Booker’s name has been attached the MVP award lately, he remains a long-shot to actually get votes. But his first career All-NBA nod should be on the way.
That’s not all the Suns could — and should — be awarded when the votes for such awards are counted after the regular season. Here are legitimate cases for individual awards that Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman have strong takes about.
Devin Booker for First Team All-NBA
Kellan Olson: I think Devin Booker has been the best guard in the NBA this season. His 26.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game on a field goal percentage of 47%, a 38% from 3-point range and 87% conversion rate at the foul line is worthy of entering the conversation. His case is strengthened by being the best player on far and away the NBA’s best team that is on pace for 65+ wins.
There’s still a chance he doesn’t make First Team All-NBA, and maybe even second.
It’s a brutal field. LeBron James and Stephen Curry have been mainstays while Luka Doncic and Ja Morant are about to take their place.
But Booker should be too, and I’m not seeing where the argument is for anyone to make it over him when taking in statistical comparisons and team success.
James has been unbelievable offensively, averaging 30/8/6 while shooting 52% from the field. His defense also tailed off dramatically once things looked bad for the Lakers — that melancholy that he has played with is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the Lakers are 31-43.
Doncic’s case is good. The 28/9/9 line is a monster, even though the 45/34/73 shooting percentages are the least efficient of the candidates. He, unlike James, has carried a meh roster to a playoff spot and an impressive 46-29 mark.
Curry is just not putting up the astronomical numbers we are used to seeing from him, and the Suns’ team success far outweighs the Warriors’ in the regular season. His 25.5 points a night are the lowest out of this group and the 6.3 assists aren’t an overwhelming playmaking source, as that’s Draymond Green’s job.
Morant’s my other pick alongside Booker. He’s at 28/6/7 on 49/33/76 shooting percentages. On a night-to-night basis, he has been the best offensive guard in the NBA and the Grizzlies are nearly 30 freaking games above .500.
But notice how I said offensive? Booker has been the best defender in this field. It is not a discussion. With the workload those four carry on offense, their teams wisely hide them away from the ball as much as possible. But if that spot is taken by anyone on the Suns, it’s Chris Paul.
Booker has improved considerably as a defender the past few years, to the point that he is above average at his position. Mikal Bridges can’t take on two high-caliber perimeter options at once and Booker does a great job on whichever one Bridges doesn’t take, especially given what Booker has to do offensively each night.
Speaking of contributing to winning basketball, Booker’s turnover percentage of 9.6% is a career-best and nearly 3% better than the next player of those four, a legitimate gap with a statistic that small.
Everyone rightfully talks about Deandre Ayton taking on a lesser role with the Suns in order to win more basketball games, but so does Booker. He could easily be around 30 points per game right now but he just wants to win. When Chris Paul was out, Booker was actually taking fewer shots per game than he was when Paul was in because it was better for his teammates. He should not be punished for that when the Suns are winning the way they are.
Mikal Bridges for Defensive Player of the Year
Kevin Zimmerman: The numbers do not mean much to build a case for Bridges here.
Bridges will not look good in on-court/off-court statistics because his minutes shadow the best opposing player, presuming that best opposing player is a point guard, shooting guard, small forward or under-sized power forward — pretty much anything other than a center or a bruising power forward.
Here is a long, very analytical thread if you don’t believe me, that the numbers don’t mean much.
Moving on to the argument: Without missing a game, Bridges travels 2.67 miles per outing, per Second Spectrum data. That’s a top-10 number for the NBA leader in minutes played (2,662 as of Tuesday) who is the primary guy in charge of covering Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Ja Morant, LeBron James, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, DeMar DeRozan, Jayton Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, etc.
At 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks per game, Bridges doesn’t pop in the most archaic stats.
But in my plea for the criteria regarding this award to at least give consideration to the perimeter-oriented players rather than going with the LOTS-OF-BLOCKS-AND-STEALS-AND-REBOUNDS-WINS-IT laziness of voters, here is my quick argument.
Knowing what I just laid about about Bridges’ role and endurance, watch the tape of him guarding point guards to jumbo wings.
I've been studying the Suns defense in-depth and Mikal Bridges is neck and neck with Draymond for me in DPOY race. His defensive effort, IQ, and length are unreal. pic.twitter.com/Cfyc8EkpfR
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) January 30, 2022
Bridges is in the top-50 in deflections this season, top-20 in loose balls recovered and top-20 in contested 3-point shots.
Draymond Green will have a say in this award considering the Warriors’ defensive renaissance. The bigs like Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid will be there, too.
Marcus Smart is being carried by the Boston Celtics’ top defense and strong second half, but the loss of center Robert Williams to a knee injury and Smart’s matchup limitations — he can only guard up to undersized wings — should put him behind Bridges.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has been solid for the Grizzlies, Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves a mention always, and Miami’s Bam Adebayo gets credit like Green.
But nobody carries the workload that Bridges does against the best scorers in the league on a game-to-game basis.
Monty Williams for Coach of the Year
Kellan Olson: No spiel really necessary here. Williams should have won this award last year but lost out to Tom Thibodeau, who is currently leading a New York Knicks team that is about to be eliminated from playoff contention any day now. That has not aged well.
Luckily for the sake of Williams getting an award he deserves, the Suns are on pace to be the 20th team in NBA history with a winning percentage above .800 and lead the NBA standings by over eight games.
Phoenix has been the best team in the NBA this year by miles, and if we want to dip our toes into narrative-based discourse, this season continues the ascension of the program since Williams arrived three seasons ago.
Look at the growth of the young players under Williams, from Deandre Ayton to Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Devin Booker.
And Williams has improved as a coach this year too. It’s easy to think about the players getting something out of last year’s playoff run, but that was Williams’ first go as a head coach beyond the first round.
Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins is a more than fine winner most years given the year the Grizzlies have had. He’s just coming up against one of the best coaching jobs the league has seen in quite a while.
Cam Johnson as Sixth Man of the Year runner-up
Kevin Zimmerman: I am not here for crazy talk. The Miami Heat’s Tyler Herro is averaging 20.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He’s started 10 of 61 games for the team that’s been pacing the Eastern Conference most of the season.
There’s not much of an argument for anyone to contest him.
But who would be second? Former Sun Kelly Oubre Jr. is doing damage for a fun Charlotte team off the bench, Kevin Love is quietly doing solid work for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Jordan Clarkson is still a microwave scorer man for the Jazz.
I don’t have a strong take here, but Cam Johnson is not far off! He is tied for sixth in odds with Clarkson, and should be mentioned.
Johnson is enjoying a big efficiency bump this year, averaging 12.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 48% shooting and a ridiculous 45% from 3-point land.
The Suns forward is doing that in just 26.3 minutes over 60 games (13 starts).
Johnson doesn’t get enough credit for defending bigger wings and even true power forwards like Julius Randle — and we’re not talking about defense by way of evoking an ejection.
Maybe Johnson would get more love for this award if he upped his minutes and upped his aggressiveness hunting his own shots, which most people wouldn’t mind seeing.