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THE MVP CASE
Marching up the charts: Devin Booker’s big month shifts MVP rankings

By: Jay Dieffenbach

The Devin Booker MVP discussion is gathering momentum, and, as the reigning NBA Western Conference Player of the Week, Booker’s rise is certainly no secret.

National opinion is trending upward for the Suns star, with no less an authority than the league’s website pushing Booker’s candidacy up the charts.

The subjective nature of the regular-season MVP award, voted by 100 sportswriters and a Twitter fan vote, serves to inspire spirited discussions -- and the fiery Phoenix Suns guard is taking on a good deal of oxygen.

No one outside of the Order of Planet Orange Truthers believes Booker is the outright leader in the MVP race, but Booker is opening more eyes as the season nears its conclusion.

NBA.com has an ongoing MVP “ladder,” published weekly, that helps to stir the conversation.

(The site realizes the incendiary nature of these lists and states: “The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.”)

Last week’s iteration had Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid first, followed by last season’s regular-season MVP Nikola Jokic and 2021 NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Booker, it can be argued, belongs on the periphery of that conversation, and right now he’s in a tussle with Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Memphis’ Ja Morant.

Booker moved from ninth to seventh last week, and by Friday, found himself leaping into the top five, just behind Tatum.

From NBA.com: “Over 11 games in March, Booker averaged 30.1 points per game on 52.5% from the field and 41.3% from deep with 6.1 assists and 1.3 steals as Phoenix won its ninth straight Wednesday at Golden State. Booker struggled somewhat, shooting 5 of 21 from the floor, but he drilled a couple of crucial free throws down the stretch with the game on the line.”

ESPN’s straw poll of 100 media members this week had Jokic on top with 860 points, followed by Embiid (719) and Antetokounmpo (593).

No other candidate received a first-place vote.

Morant was fourth at 103 points, Tatum placed fifth with 93, Doncic was sixth with 87 and Booker seventh with 82.

Booker backers and their allies continue to sell out the Footprint Center – 24 consecutive games and counting – but can see a strong consensus for the “big three” in these and similar polls.

This season, the ring is the thing and every bit of Booker will be needed to make it happen.

TEAM+PLAYER SUCCESS: A HISTORY LESSON

A player’s relative worth should be strongly tied to his team’s success, and no team is more successful than Booker’s Suns – by a full 8.5 games over the next-best best team – Friday's opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Suns themselves sent out a strong piece of evidence via Twitter recently.

As of Friday, Booker was putting up 26.4 points, five rebounds and 4.9 assists while playing for the team with the best record. A 25/5/5 stat line from a player on the league’s best team has happened only 12 times in NBA history, with that particular player winning NBA MVP all 12 times.

Booker could become the first such qualifier to be denied the award.

PLAYERS TO AVERAGE AT LEAST 25/5/5 ON TEAM WITH NBA'S BEST RECORD, NBA HISTORY

PLAYER TEAM SEASON PPG RPG APG MVP FINISH
Devin Booker Suns 2021-22 26.4 5.0 *4.9* TBD
Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 2019-20 29.5 13.6 5.6 Won MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 2018-19 27.7 12.5 5.9 Won MVP
James Harden Rockets 2017-18 30.4 5.4 8.8 Won MVP
Stephen Curry Warriors 2015-16 30.1 5.4 6.7 Won MVP
LeBron James Heat 2012-13 26.8 8.0 7.3 Won MVP
LeBron James Cavaliers 2009-10 29.7 7.3 8.6 Won MVP
LeBron James Cavaliers 2008-09 28.4 7.6 7.2 Won MVP
Charles Barkley Suns 1992-93 25.6 12.2 5.1 Won MVP
Michael Jordan Bulls 1991-92 30.1 6.4 6.1 Won MVP
Larry Bird Celtics 1985-86 25.8 9.8 6.8 Won MVP
Larry Bird Celtics 1984-85 28.7 10.5 6.6 Won MVP
Wilt Chamberlain 76ers 1965-66 33.5 24.6 5.2 Won MVP

The 25/5/5 stat aside, the leading scorer for the team with the league's best record has won NBA MVP five times over the past seven seasons and nine of the past 13.

The Suns are virtually assured to secure the best record this season, and the MVP has come from the team with the league's best record in 42 out of the 66 seasons it's been awarded.

The Suns also appear headed for a winning percentage exceeding .775. They were 62-14 (.795) heading into Friday’s matchup at Memphis).

In NBA history, every player who has averaged 26+ points on a team with at least a .775 win percentage (64-18 or better in an 82-game season) has either won NBA MVP in that season, or finished as runner-up to another player on the list:

PLAYERS TO AVERAGE 26+ POINTS ON .775+ TEAM, NBA HISTORY

PLAYER TEAM SEASON PPG TEAM WIN % MVP FINISH
Devin Booker Suns 2021-22 26.4 .795 TBD
James Harden Rockets 2017-18 30.4 .793 Won MVP
Stephen Curry Warriors 2015-16 30.1 .890 Won MVP
LeBron James Heat 2012-13 26.8 .805 Won MVP
LeBron James Cavaliers 2008-09 28.4 .805 Won MVP
Kobe Bryant Lakers 2008-09 26.8 .793 2nd to James
Shaquille O'Neal Lakers 1999-00 29.7 .817 Won MVP
Karl Malone Jazz 1996-97 27.4 .780 Won MVP
Michael Jordan Bulls 1996-97 29.6 .841 2nd to Malone
Michael Jordan Bulls 1995-96 30.4 .878 Won MVP
Michael Jordan Bulls 1991-92 30.1 .817 Won MVP
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks 1970-71 31.7 .805 Won MVP

THE CLUTCH GENE, DEFENSE AND A COACH’S ENDORSEMENT

Entering Wednesday, Booker was hitting 57.4% of his field-goal attempts (27-47) in clutch moments this season (defined as games within five points in the final five minutes). Among 57 players with 40+ FGA in the clutch this season, Booker ranks first – No. 1.

In the clutch, Booker has buried 40.9% of his 3-point tries. He ranks third in the NBA in total plus/minus during the clutch at +84.

On defense, Booker has shown big-time improvement and it’s quantifiable here: On the 13.3 field goal attempts he defends per game, Booker is limiting opponents to -1.7% below their usual field goal percentage.

That’s top 10 among 82 guards throughout the NBA to defend at least 10 field-goal attempts per game.

No doubt, Suns coach Monty Williams knows a valued commodity when he has one.

“I’ve said it since I’ve been here: he’s more than a scorer. He’s more than an offensive savant – whatever people call him,” Williams said earlier this month.

“The young man plays defense. He guards his position every night. He’s one of the best two-way players in the game. I know that sounds weird, talking about Devin as a two-way player, but that’s what he is. He doesn’t back down from a matchup. He should get All-Defensive (Team) mention just because of where we are defensively and what he means to our team defensively.

“He, and Mikal (Bridges), and Jae [Crowder], those guys guarding the wings, it helps a ton. I don’t think he gets enough credit for playing that kind of defense. So for him, he understands the historical numbers. If you can be a top-five offensive and defense efficiency team, you got a chance to win big. That’s what we’re shooting for. We want to be the best in both categories.”

As of Wednesday, the Suns led the league by a wide margin in Net Rating (8.5, well clear of Boston’s 6.8) while running second in both Offensive and Defensive Rating.

As of Wednesday, the Suns led the league by a wide margin in Net Rating (8.5, well clear of Boston’s 6.8) while running second in both Offensive and Defensive Rating.

THE CHRIS PAUL FACTOR

The addition of Chris Paul coincided with the Suns’ stunning rise to the top of the Western Conference, but those who use Paul to mitigate Booker’s MVP candidacy are not grabbing the full picture.

Remember the Bubble Suns? Their point guard was Ricky Rubio, who shared leadership duties – but often deferred to Booker in crunch time. Those Bubble Suns went 8-0.

In Orlando for those eight games, Booker played almost 34 minutes per game, scored 30.5 points per game on 50% shooting, pulled down 4.9 rebounds per game and dished out six assists per contest. And the team responded to his leadership night after night.

Booker was going to be keep spearheading the Suns’ momentum whether Paul joined Phoenix or not.

While Paul was perhaps general manager James Jones’ most prominent stroke of genius – and the Suns would not be nearly so successful without him -- it is Booker whom the Suns simply can’t live without. He’s the best player on the league’s best team.

THE DEFINITION OF VALUABLE

Among the leading MVP contenders, Jokic boasts the best numbers (26.5/13.6/8.0 and a 32.8 player efficiency rating) despite a regular-season mark inferior to that of Phoenix.

Embiid (30.0/11.5/4.2) has a 31.0 player efficiency rating.

Antetokounmpo already has won the MVP twice, the two seasons prior to Jokic winning last season. He has a ring and carries significant recency bias – deservedly so.

His 32.5 player efficiency rating this season tops both of his MVP seasons. He’s good.

You want to vote against Booker? You’ll likely cite his 21.1 player efficiency rating (a metric based on per-minute production) as a drawback. That’s what happens when the offense is most often triggered by Chris Paul.

But it’s becoming more difficult to exclude the Suns star from the MVP discussion. At worst, most Suns fans would likely agree, Booker is a co-fourth with Boston’s Tatum.

And those Suns fans are well educated in how to deal with apathy –throughout the early stages of his career, Booker was put in a box labeled “stats compiler, non-winner,” or something similar. Slowly, though, these takes have been exposed.And those Suns fans are well educated in how to deal with apathy –throughout the early stages of his career, Booker was put in a box labeled “stats compiler, non-winner,” or something similar. Slowly, though, these takes have been exposed.

Embiid is 28 years old. Giannis and Jokic are 27 and Booker is just 25. If Booker should fall short this season, there’s still a clear path to the MVP award – and a Suns NBA title wouldn’t hurt his chances.

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