DAN BICKLEY

It’s on Devin Booker to shift Suns’ course, compete with NBA’s next generation

May 21, 2024, 2:37 PM

Parity has taken root in the land of dynasties. For the sixth consecutive postseason, the NBA will crown a new champion.

That should give hope to all long-suffering Suns fans.

Yes, our basketball team has construction issues and personality issues. But in today’s NBA, the landscape seems to shift dramatically with each passing year. Challengers arise and defending champions struggle to keep their grip.

There is a new audacity and ambition in the NBA. Generation Next understands there are no immovable objects in their path. Iconic greats from an aging generation – LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry – are in their final stretch as torchbearers, a Hall of Fame trio that combined for one measly playoff victory in 2024.

The new generation is led by Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Victor Wembanyama. In between is a generation of established stars entering their prime of their careers, a time when personal ceilings and windows of opportunity must be maximized.

That includes Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, elite players who have never fully committed to elite fitness programs. It includes Nikola Jokic, who has three MVPs, one championship, has been swept out of the playoffs twice and has never beaten a playoff team with 50 or more wins. It applies to Giannis, whose teams keep getting more dysfunctional and less relevant.

The list also includes Devin Booker.

There are many ways the Suns must improve in 2023-24. They must get a serviceable point guard (Cam Payne) that will blend nicely in the background. They must get lucky in whatever desirable assets they still have left to peddle. They lack size and depth and three-point shooters — and must get better around the edges.

They are also exposed by the newest leaguewide trend, one that emerged shortly after the worst All-Star Game in the history of layup lines. There are far fewer fouls in today’s NBA, and the game has suddenly become a full-contact sport. The working theory is that commissioner Adam Silver wants to liberate and empower defensive players and rid the television product of all that endless downtime spent at the free throw line. Just like Major League Baseball finally understood the perils of inactivity in its sport.

Either way, the Suns are not built for that. Their most recent team didn’t absorb physicality well. They didn’t like playing rough in return. They were too often and too easily distracted when referees swallowed their whistles. They need to get significantly tougher.

Ultimately, Booker is the key because he is the player who yearns to be legendary. His numbers sparkled in 2023-24, but his impact waned. He seemed strangely detached, maybe even unhappy.

Booker needs to change course and focus. He needs to play at an MVP level on both ends of the court. He needs to take the reins. He needs to shift from beta to alpha and become the upfront, vocal leader. He needs to impart his will on everyone in his locker room because there is no one else. This is his city, his basketball team.

The Suns have the longest championship drought among teams that have never won a title. They are also the Valley’s first love. Which means our long-awaited championship will produce a celebration and sense of renewal unlike this state has ever seen. And starting with Booker, our next basketball team must be willing to walk backward and barefoot over the fiery coals of purgatory to make that happen.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on Arizona Sports.

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