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The goal of team-building in professional sports is to win a championship. Championships are most often won by teams driven by a superstar. The Suns have a star player in Devin Booker. Can he rise high enough to be the star player of a championship team?
Let’s look at the NBA championship winners (and runners-up) over the last 20 seasons and see who their best players were and who the Finals MVP winner was.
NBA Finals participants and Finals MVPs were compiled from BasketballReference.com. The best player is the player with the most Win Shares (WS) that season according to Basketball-Reference.com. If the best player by WS is within 10% of the next best player(s), all will be listed.
The early 2000’s (yellow) were still firmly in the Era of the Big Man. Finals MVPs and the best player from the Finals Winner was a big man in every year from 2000-2005 except for 2004, when Chauncey Billups and the Pistons won a championship (though Big Man Ben Wallace was the second best player on this team by WS).
2006-20011 (yellow/green) represents a transition from the Era of the Big Man to the Era of the Wing. Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker were guards to win Finals MVP in this transition period, but they were joined by past Finals MVPs Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, respectively. Wade was the best player on his Finals team by a significant margin, but Duncan was the best player by WS on the 2007 Spurs team, even though Parker won the Finals MVP award. From 2008-2010, the Finals MVP award went to a wing (Pierce and Bryant) who was co-best player on his team with a big (Garnett and Gasol). 2011 was one last hurrah for the big man, with future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki beating LeBron James in the Finals.
2012-2020 (green) is now firmly in the Era of the Wing. The Finals MVP in every season was a big playmaking wing. The best player on each Finals team was either a big playmaking wing, MVP Stephen Curry, or Kyrie Irving’s career season. (Alternatively, this could be called the Era of LeBron James).
What do we learn? The last 10 years tell us that you need an MVP-level wing. Only 5 of the 20 best players on Finals teams in the last 8 seasons have been guards (3 of them were Stephen Curry, one was Kyrie Irving’s best season, and one was Tony Parker). Only one was a big (Duncan). The other 14 were wings.
The 2020 season is still ongoing, but among the favorites to win the championship are the Los Angeles Lakers (LeBron James, again), Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi Leonard, again), Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Boston Celtics (Jayson Tatum), and Toronto Raptors (Pascal Siakam). All are teams led by playmaking wings.
Let’s look now just at the Finals MVPs of the Era of the Wing and see what similarities we find and how Booker compares. We’ll also include Pierce and Bryant from the transition years. We’ll start with the easiest and most obvious comparison: size and position. Here’s a look at each player’s information, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
So the first takeaway is that Booker is a little small, but he’s pretty close to Kobe, who we know he idolizes. Players tend to get bulk up as they age, too, so there’s probably room for Booker to get a little bigger. They also tend to move up a position. Durant and LeBron both started playing more PF later in their careers. Given Booker’s strong post game and the NBA’s trending small, there’s probably room for Booker to play PF in the future. The other takeaway is these guys have positional versatility, playing SG-PF. What you name the position is less important than the role the player plays, so what’s more important is that these players are versatile enough to play with a variety of other players. They can play on or off the ball. All of these guys are big perimeter playmakers. Booker is a little smaller, but he definitely fits the perimeter playmaker mold.
Next let’s compare stats. All stats are from Stathead.com. We’ll compare Finals MVP seasons to Bookers most recent (best) season. Notes: Andrew Iguodala is a bit of an outlier because he was mostly a 6th man before moving back into the starting lineup in the NBA Finals. Part of why he won Finals MVP this year is that the move to re-insert him into the starting lineup swung the momentum of the series back to Golden State. Kawhi’s 2013-2014 season is also a bit unique because Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were all still on the team and were the stars of the team. The 2014 Finals was a bit of a coming out party for Kawhi. We’ll leave stats for both Iguodala and Kawhi in the table anyway.
Offensively speaking, Booker compares well with this group. He’s the best free throw shooter of the bunch and rates highly as a playmaker (6.5 assists per game rates as second best of the listed seasons, 30% AST% also among the highest). He also compares well in terms of 2-point percentage, eFG% (effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for the fact that a 3-point shot is worth more than a 2-point shot), TS% (True Shooting Percentage, which is like eFG% but also accounts for Free Throws), and FTr (Free Throw Rate, a measure of how often a player shoots free throws relative to field goal attempts). He also has the high usage you would expect from a superstar wing.
However, Booker falls short in a few categories. First, he could increase his offensive efficiency even more. It would be nice to see his overall FG% reach 50%. His 3FG% also is below average, even though he has the reputation of being a knockdown shooter (he has won the 3 point contest, after all). He is also the weakest rebounder of the group, which is not surprising considering he is the smallest. These feel like nitpicking, though. What he really needs to improve if he is to be a legitimate best player on a championship team is defense. He falls well behind in this category. All of these players made significant positive contributions to their teams on defense and several of them made All-Defense teams. By the numbers, the other players average a combined 2.2 steals plus blocks per game. Devin averages 1.0. By the advanced metrics, these Finals MVPs average a BPM (box plus-minus, an estimate of defensive impact) of 1.6 compared with Devin’s -1.3 BPM. Negative is bad, by the way.
The best player on a championship team is also the kind of player that you can rely on to make plays in the biggest moments and the kind of player that you can give the ball to and say “go get me a bucket.”
Many game winners are contested mid-range or long two-point jump shots. Often, at the end of a close game, that’s the best you can get. Star players need to be able to hit that shot in clutch situations. Can Booker?
The table below tracks game-winning buzzer-beaters for our players, per Basketball-Reference’s tracker.
Booker already has an impressive total of 3 game-winning buzzer-beaters in his 5 seasons in the league (the tracker includes only shots that go through with 0.0 left on the clock, so clip #3 of Devin Booker above does not qualify).
Let’s see what the stats say for Finals MVPs and Booker in clutch situations, isolations, and mid-range shooting. Clutch stats were compiled from NBA.com and is defined as the last 5 minutes of a game with a score differential of 5 or less. Isolation stats were collected from NBA.com, and is only available starting with the 2015-2016 season. Mid-range stats were collected from Basketball-Reference. Here I combine mid-range and long-two shots into one category. Mid-Range shots are shots 10 ft to < 16 ft. Long two-point shots are 16 ft to < 3-point line.
So Booker needs to improve his overall clutch efficiency. Also notice that, compared to the full season shooting percentages, Finals MVPs shot approximately 6 percentage points worse overall and 5 percentage points worse on clutch three-pointers. Booker shot approximately 7 percentage points worse overall and 15 percentage points worse on clutch threes. So he needs to improve overall, but the three-point shooting in the clutch is more alarming than overall shooting. But given his early success with game-winning shots and his strong assist/turnover numbers in the clutch, I think it is safe to say that Booker is a good clutch performer.
Note: Play Frequency = percentage of player’s possessions that were isolations. Percentile is as an isolation scorer.
Durant and Kawhi are both excellent isolation scorers. Interestingly, 2015-2016 was LeBron’s worst isolation season on record (he was never as good as Durant or Kawhi in the seasons with available data, though). But the takeaway is that Booker is a little behind as an isolation scorer.
In the mid-range, Kevin Durant is as good as it gets. He shoots an incredible 50% combined on mid-range and long two-point jump shots. As for Booker, he doesn’t shoot the long two as well (8th out of 12), but he is VERY good from the mid-range (nearly 49%, 2nd only to Durant’s 2017-2018 season and better than Durant’s 2016-2017 season). Combined, he ranks 4th (a strong 46.5%, behind Durant’s two amazing seasons and Kawhi’s 2013-2014 season). His rate tends toward the low end, but that is more representative of era: in Kobe and Pierce's time, mid-range shots were much more common and threes were not. Today it is the opposite.
So, can Devin Booker be the best player on a championship level team? Maybe. He is already close offensively. He must improve his defense. The good news is that he is only 23, still years away from his prime. The average age of these Finals MVP wings is 29. Given his improvements over the last few seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that he can continue to improve on defense, too.
Team context is important, too. And getting him a former Finals MVP winner or future Hall-of-Famer for a teammate also couldn’t hurt.
Who are some other young players that could become the best player on a championship team? A few young players that fit the mold of big perimeter playmakers or grow into it are shown below.
And here’s how they compare statistically.
And a few comments about each player.
Giannis is obviously really good right now on both ends (league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, after all). But he is not without weaknesses. The most obvious are three-point shooting and free-throw shooting. However, he is also one of the weaker isolation scorers in this group (scores only 40.7% of the time, lowest, and is in only the 58th percentile league-wide of isolation scorers). Part of this is related to his jump shooting, since defenders and opposing teams know that he wants to drive. He should improve his mid-range, long two, and three-point shooting. Also, he has been a strong clutch scorer, but he has also been turnover-prone in the clutch (10 turnovers versus only 2 assists - you’d expect better). As league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, he is probably good enough anyways, but his limitations are more easily exploited in the playoffs, as he has only advanced past the second round once.
Jayson Tatum is a strong two-way player already. He's pretty good at everything and not bad at anything. He’s been very good in the clutch and is a solid isolation player. The next step for Tatum is to improve as a playmaker (only 3.0 assists per game and 14.5 AST%). He was inefficient from the mid-range this year, which is surprising given his reputation coming into the league as a mid-range scorer. This probably isn’t a problem, though, given his solid clutch and isolation play and three-point and free throw shooting.
Luka is pretty similar to Booker. He’s a really good offensive player that could improve on defense (though he rates better than Booker on defense). He is really good in isolation, but needs to improve in the clutch (even considering his recent game winner in the first round of the playoffs). His mid-range game also needs work, though he avoids the mid-range for threes mostly (which can be both good and bad. The step-back three, a Luka favorite, was discussed in a recent ESPN article). He also needs to improve his three-point shooting overall. Teams will start to dare him to shoot threes in the playoffs.
Zion’s comparison is a little unfair, since he didn’t play much in his lone season. However, we can see that he needs to improve on defense, which is surprising, since he was a huge positive for Duke during his one season there. Perhaps better health will allow him to return to form. He also could improve as an isolation scorer (though it’s a small sample). He should also improve as a playmaker. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy. Looking forward to watching more of him in the future.
Like Tatum, Siakam should improve his free throw rate and playmaking. He also could improve his shooting, both from three and the mid-range, where he was particularly poor. He needs to improve in isolation, as well. He was one of the best players in our comparison in the clutch, if not the best, though.
Simmons is excellent on defense and is a strong playmaker. Like Giannis, though, he is held back by his inability to shoot jump shots. The difference is that we see Giannis improving. Simmons won’t even shoot, even in the mid-range. He has the fewest attempts (excluding Zion) and is by far the worst shooter. He does play well in the clutch, though. He is also a pretty good isolation scorer but he hardly does it at all. His usage and isolation percentage just do not point to a go-to scorer. He looks like a really solid complementary player but is unlikely to be the best player without significant improvement to his offensive.
Similar to Simmons, Isaac is a terrific defender but his offense is lacking. He shoots better (and more often) than Simmons, but he isn’t a strong playmaker. He has been good in isolation, but he does it even less than Simmons. His usage is the lowest of the group. Like Simmons, his profile just does not look like that of a number one option. He probably tops out as a really good role player.
It’s important to remember, too, that winning a championship is a team accomplishment and can’t be achieved by just one player. As good as Jordan was, he had Hall of Fame teammates like Scottie Pippen and Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman. Kobe had Shaq or Gasol. Pierce had Garnett and Ray Allen. LeBron had Wade with the Heat and Kyrie with the Cavs. Durant had Steph Curry. Kawhi had Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker with the Spurs and Siakam, Lowry, Van Vleet and Gasol with the Raptors. So, given the right team environment, I believe many of these players could be the best player on a championship team. All of them are young and have lots of time to grow. But the more the star player can do, the easier it is to build the team around him.
If I have to pick one, I choose Tatum.back to blog