Team Name: Phoenix Suns
Last Year’s Record: 23-59
Key Losses: Mirza Teletovic, Ronnie Price, Jon Luer, Chase Budinger
Key Additions: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Jared Dudley, Leandro Babosa
What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Suns had one of their better summers in recent memory following the 2015-2016 season. Armed with the 4th pick in the NBA Draft, Phoenix swung for the fences (which is EXACTLY what you should do at the top of the draft) and drafted European phenom Dragan Bender. Although some of the intrigue surrounding Bender could just be a bout of wishful thinking from this year’s Porzingis hangover, Bender has showcased the skill and athleticism to excel in the “new” NBA’s small ball revolution (which, of course, was brought to the forefront by the very franchise that drafted him). The Suns have had a particularly strong draft history when they actually own their picks, and although no sure-thing, Bender was a good gamble at #4 in a two-player draft.
What separated Phoenix’ draft from every other team this year, was the fact they held two Lottery picks (#4 and #13). Ryan McDonough was able to coerce the Sacramento into trading their #8 selection to Phoenix for #13, #28, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and a 2020 second-round pick. The Suns used that selection on the draft’s fastest riser, athletic wunderkind Marquese Chriss, another high-risk, high-reward prospect. Although the argument could be made that there’s a bit of a skill set overlap with Chris and Bender, drafting best-available is always preferred to best-fit, especially when your franchise hasn’t made the Playoffs in 6 seasons and only won 23 games.
The Suns reach backed into their Wayback Machine and re-signed franchise-favorites Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. Both players will bring a much-needed veteran presence in the locker room, as well positive production in limited minutes on the floor. Both have been known as World-Class teammates at every stop during their careers, and bring a plethora of both regular-season and Playoff experience, which should mesh nicely with Tyson Chandler (for however long he stays there).
What are the team’s biggest strengths?
The Suns biggest strength, without a doubt, is absence of expectations. The fanbase might yearn for the glory days of deep playoff runs and title contention with the Steve Nash/Amare Stoudemire/Shawn Marion led teams, but they would just as quickly marry themselves to the franchise again if there were a glimmer of a future.
Last year, that glimmer became a shining beacon of hope when the youngest player in the league, 2015 #13 draft pick Devin Booker, began getting increased playing time.
Devin Booker blew past all expectations, and became the Suns first rookie since Amare Stoudemire in 2003 to make an All-Rookie Team (1st or 2nd). He is a sweet-shooting two-guard in the mold of a Klay Thompson/Bradley Beal. As long as he continues to develop incrementally, the Suns have found their starting two-guard for the future (heck, even presently he’s better than half the starting shooting guards in the league).
Devin Booker’s season really took off once he was inserted into the starting lineup following an injury to Eric Bledsoe. In fact, the Suns’ backcourt is potentially the deepest in the league, with borderline All-Stars Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and Brandan Knight. The advantage of such depth, is that the team can withstand an injury to any one of those players without missing a beat. Brandon Knight can excel playing either guard position, while Bledsoe is big enough to guard bigger two-guards while the other Suns guard sticks with the small point. The interchangeability of those three is fascinating, if somewhat frustrating, knowing someone isn’t going to be getting the optimal amount of minutes.
Because the Phoenix Suns aren’t expected to make the Playoffs, this means that all of the young prospects the team currently has should be given the chance to play and develop in a real NBA environment. Besides their two lottery picks, the Suns still employ Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin, and the jury is still out on whether any of them has a future on the team, and what better way to find out than playing each one a minimum of 20-25 minutes a night?
What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
In contrast with the team’s strength being their absence of expectations and in turn giving opportunity to let the unproven prospects develop, the franchise’s biggest weakness is the organization’s constant self-sabotaging actions.
The front office in Phoenix has been taking a public relations beating the last handful of years. From Robert Sarver’s tight wallet (selling picks, like Rajon Rondo), to questionable basketball moves (signing Michael Beasley, trading the valuable Lakers’ pick from the Steve Nash trade, dumping Isaiah Thomas and his cap friendly contract for pennies on the dollar, holding onto Markieff Morris and his cancerous locker-room presence far too long while surrounded by impressionable young players, not allowing Amare to sign a contract to allow him to retire as a Suns player, etc), the Suns organization is never far from making a disastrous decision.
Sarver insists the team is goal is winning and it’s not difficult to see a scenario where he recognizes the team’s plethora of capable veterans (Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, P.J. Tucker) and determines (inaccurately) they are one or two moves from the Playoffs, and mandates going all-in.
The most disastrous outcome for the Suns this season would be another short-sighted move at the expense of the development of the potential star-talent youth, either by restricting their minutes, or moving them for more veteran help.
The decision to cut ties with Jeff Hornecek and handover the reigns of the team to Earl Watson is puzzling. Following the premature dismissal of Hornecek after a 14-35 start last season, Watson’s 9-24 record should have been enough for the Suns to move onto a coach search at the end of the season.
Instead they removed Watson’s interim tag, signing him to a 3 year contract, citing the positive effect his stint had on the locker room.
Hornecek was quickly scooped up by Phil Jackson and the Knicks and is entering a season in which he will be coaching Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingus, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah. Although the Knicks haven’t had the best track record when it comes to hiring coaches, Hornecek was universally seen as an up-and-coming coach and was pursued by multiple teams looking to add the former Jazz standout to their coaching staff.
What are the goals for this team?
The goals for 2016-2017 Phoenix Suns aren’t quite as cut-and-dry as most teams, due to their unpredictable front office, and evenly split roster consisting of experienced veterans and under-developed, high-upside talent.
A lyric keeps coming to mind that seems to summarize the Phoenix Suns’ current state:
“There’s something happening here. What it is, ain’t exactly clear”
There’s a start of something on the Suns roster, something almost Thunder-ian or Jazz-ian. If the organization could just let go of the self-imposed expectation stemming from their recent past, and embrace the growing pains of developing youth and talent within the franchise, the team could set itself on a trajectory to true title contention within a few years.
The long-term, sustained success of the team would best benefit from maximizing the rosters’ veteran talent as trade assets. One of either Bledsoe or Knight should be moved, opening up consistent, starter-level minutes for Devin Booker. Since both point guards were signed under the old salary cap, before the new T.V. money kicked in, they are on extremely cap-friendly deals, which maximize their attractiveness to other teams.
Unfortunately, the point guard position is the deepest it has ever been in NBA history, so finding a team in need of point guard help, that also has attractive trade assets, might be more difficult than it seems.
What is the prediction for the Suns 2016-2017 season?
Ultimately, the Suns will be better than most projections, and they will return to respectability (they won’t sniff the playoffs, though). Now that Markieff Morris is gone, the team will begin to gel, and Devin Booker will continue his ascension to stardom.
As Devin Booker solidifies his spot at the two-guard position, Phoenix will find a taker for Brandon Knight’s cap-friendly contract. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker will become one of the more exciting backcourts in the league.
Alex Len will show just enough promise for the Suns to sign him to a rookie extension, leaving them with a young, athletic center for the foreseeable future.
Dragan Bender will struggle making the adjustment to the NBA, while Marquese Chriss plays well from the jump, albeit in limited minutes.
The Suns and Tyson Chandler will either agree to buyout or move him via trade, finishing his career competing for another championship.
2016-2017 Projected Record: 33-49
-Tom Kaczor (@fishkzor on Twitter)
All the SBNation NBA Previews for 2016-2017:
Golden State Warriors
New Orleans Pelicans
New York Knicks
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trail Blazers
San Antonio Spurs