Expected to contend for the NBA's worst record, the Phoenix Suns instead turned in a remarkable 2013-14 campaign, with first-year general manager Ryan McDonough nailing two big moves — hiring Jeff Hornacek and trading for Eric Bledsoe — that overhauled the franchise. Behind the backcourt of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, the activated Wonder Twin powers of Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, and the sweet-shooting return of Channing Frye, the Suns soared to 48 wins. Unfortunately, in the West, that guarantees nothing; Phoenix's postseason hopes were dashed in the season's final week.
McDonough aimed last summer to build on the guard-driven success, swinging a sign-and-trade for scorer Isaiah Thomas and, after a protracted negotiation, re-upping restricted free agent Bledsoe to a five-year deal that ensured Hornacek could keep two playmakers on the court at all times. But he also decided to let Frye walk while locking up the Morii; suddenly, the roster seemed imbalanced. Phoenix had too many ball-dominant guards, too few bigs who could give them space, and not enough defensive iron to hold up against Western opponents.
Phoenix won 12 of its first 20 games before alternating six-game losing and winning streaks in December. The Suns stayed in the playoff hunt, but never got in rhythm, suffering brutal loss after brutal loss. Shifted off the ball to accommodate Bledsoe and Thomas, Dragic eventually lost trust in Phoenix's front office and requested a trade.
McDonough obliged, shipping Dragic out (and giving him a bit of a kick on the way out the door, to boot). Stunningly, he then also traded Thomas in a three-team deal that brought back Brandon Knight at the cost of the first-round pick the Los Angeles Lakers sent to Phoenix in exchange for Steve Nash — a pick protected for only the top five slots in 2015 and the top three in 2016 and '17 before becoming unprotected in 2018.
The Lakers' struggles made that pick one of the league's most valuable trade chips, and McDonough spent it to clear up his backcourt logjam ... with another guard. It seemed confusing, and it didn't help. Phoenix kept losing, the Morris twins chastised fans and got brought up on assault charges, and the Suns stumbled to a 39-43 finish that left them, again, out of the playoffs.
After alternating exhilaration and exhaustion, where do the Suns go next? Will a reshuffled deck be enough to live up to the promise of two summers ago, or will another down year prove that the worst thing for a rebuild might be getting too good too fast?
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
We have so many PGs who can score! This'll be great! Wait, *one* ball? ... Crap. Let's start over ... yes, of course with another PG. Duh.
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Did the summer help at all?
Maybe. A surprise bid for star LaMarcus Aldridge came up short, but Phoenix did add veteran center Tyson Chandler to help fortify their frontline. Re-upping Knight made sense in the context of needing to avoid coming away from 2015's reset with nothing, even if $14 million a year feels steep.
After failing to replace Frye and watching their offense sometimes sputter, Phoenix took flyers on Mirza Teletovic, sidelined last season by blood clots but now good to go, and alleged stretch big Jon Leuer. McDonough also looked for more ammo on the wing, drafting Kentucky's Devin Booker and signing veteran Sonny Weems, who came up in the NBA before heading overseas and earning recognition as the best player in Europe.
The Suns' biggest summer story, though, was Markieff Morris' displeasure with McDonough's decision to trade Marcus in the push for Aldridge.
Angry at being separated from his twin, Markieff kinda-sorta demanded a trade. When McDonough declined, the power forward tweeted that his "future will not be in Phoenix," prompting a $10,000 fine. McDonough stood pat, saying he expected Markieff to show up to training camp. Markieff did just that, saying at Media Day, "I want to be here."
If Markieff puts this summer's rancor behind him and commits to the team, Phoenix looks stronger up front, deeper on the wing and in position to make a playoff push. If he stops playing nice, though, it could be a long season.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Chandler, who chose not to wait for the Dallas Mavericks to pursue DeAndre Jordan and decided instead to ink a four-year, $52 million contract in Arizona — a somewhat surprising deal for a dinged-up big past 30.
First considered a 7-foot-1 carrot aimed at enticing Aldridge into signing, Chandler will now be called upon to serve as the screen-setting, rim-rolling, glass-cleaning basket protector in charge of improving a defense that finished 17th in points allowed per possession last year. How much he offers, though, remains unclear.
Dallas outscored opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions last season with Chandler on the court, according to NBA.com's stat tool, right around the 60-win Atlanta Hawks' efficiency differential. But while the Mavs were better on D with him in the middle, they still allowed 102.1 points-per-100 in nearly 2,300 Chandler minutes — a good-but-not-elite mark that would've tied for 12th in the league. Dallas' awful defensive rebounding rate — the Mavs pulled in 72.2 percent of opponents' misses, second-worst in the league — improved when Chandler played ... but only to 73.6 percent, a bottom-10 ranking right in line with Phoenix's own.
Dallas opponents took fewer shots in the restricted area with Chandler in the game than with him sitting, and fired more midrange attempts when he was in the paint, but the shot profile wasn't drastically different; a little over 1 percent of opponents' tries moved away from the rim. Dallas opponents actually shot better in the restricted area with Chandler on the floor, cashing in on 62.1 percent of their attempts, equivalent to the NBA's fourth-worst full-season at-the-rim defensive field-goal percentage.
Opponents shot just under 51 percent at the basket on attempts Chandler defended, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data; that ranked 36th among 69 bigs to play at least half the season and face five or more shots per game. Nylon Calculus' rim protection stats estimate that he saved about one more point per 36 minutes of floor time than the positional average for NBA centers last season, and ranked 17th among bigs in the share of at-the-rim shots he contested. Again: good, but not great.
That doesn't mean Chandler can't contribute. Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting graded him much stouter than Len last season in the post and against roll men in the screen game. He brings years of knowledge on the finer points of big-man defense and communication that can only help the 22-year-old Len, who's still learning the ropes after missing 53 games over his first two pro seasons. He fills a leadership void, both speficially for Len, who has a bit of a temper, and more broadly for a team that's had its fair share of internal combustion.
It's reasonable to wonder how Chandler, now 33, will hold up after logging nearly 2,500 total minutes last season; he had, after all, missed significant time with injuries in four of the previous six years. If Phoenix's legendary training staff can keep him upright, though, he could provide just the stability the Suns need.
Shooting. After losing Frye, Phoenix kept firing away, ranking 10th in the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted last year. Two problems: both represented significant declines from the previous year's model, which ranked sixth in makes and fourth in attempts; and the Suns shot just 34.1 percent from deep as a team, 21st in the league.
Phoenix needs significant improvement from Bledsoe, Morris and Knight, none of whom made even one-third of their 3s last year, to field a starting five that stretches defenses. It needs a reserve corps led by Teletovic, Weems, Booker and veteran Ronnie Price to generate and can more long-range shots. It'd be nice if either third-year live-wire Archie Goodwin or sophomore scorer T.J. Warren stretched their strokes, too.
The more credible the Suns' shooting, the harder it'll be for defenders to pack the paint. That means more driving lanes for Bledsoe and Knight, more space for Chandler and Len to dive to the rim, and more opportunities for Morris to work unmolested in the post.
Squint and you can see an optimal version of the Suns roasting opponents in the desert heat. Teletovic seems confident he'll be bombing away in no time, according to Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun:
"Somebody's gonna be open every time," Teletovic told Bright Side. "Especially having Bledsoe, Knight really driving the ball, the way they are aggressive and physical driving to the basket." [...]
"I think Tyson, offensively, is a huge strength in the pick and roll when he rolls to the basket," Teletovic explained. "When I roll up, I think it's going to be a huge advantage for us. They have to come and they have to help. So somebody, me or the guy in the corner, has to be open."
It sounds great in theory. We'll need to see Phoenix find that open man and make enough shots before we start planning the parade, though.
Contributor with something to prove:
With apologies to Markieff, whom we'd like to see play like a star after spending a summer making demands like one, let's go with the guy who just got $70 million.
I recognize this is not a particularly arch stance, but I think Knight is pretty good. After a tough couple of seasons in Detroit, headlined by highlights that live in infamy, he found himself running point for the Milwaukee Bucks. After the Pistons sent him there following his second season, the chaos of the pro game started to subside.
"Once I knew and I had confidence that the people behind me had confidence, as far as my teammates [and] my coaches, then I would say it started to slow down," Knight told me at 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend back in February. "I stopped thinking as much and started really to just play basketball, play the basketball I grew up playing.
"I think my first two years, I tried to fit in a lot and tried to please people, instead of just coming in and playing my game," he continued. "I realized, 'Just do what got you here.' That's what I started to do — I reverted back, not necessarily to how I played in high school, but the same mentality that I had, and that was doing what I could to win games, being myself. I think that, kind of when I got traded, I was like, 'I might as well just do it myself.'"
Perhaps not ideal point-guard play, but given Knight's game — he's a better shooter than passer, more gifted at using his speed to create for himself than others — the approach seemed to work. He averaged about 18 points, five assists and four rebounds per game over parts of two seasons for a Bucks team long on athleticism but lacking capable initiators.
Knight's production merited consideration for an Eastern All-Star slot last season, but the individual stat line obscured the larger context. Not only was Knight leading a below-average offense before the All-Star break, but Milwaukee actually scored about five more points per 100 possessions — the difference between a top-10 offense and a bottom-five unit — with him off the floor.
That, plus the chance to add a bigger, more pass-first-oriented point man, led the Bucks to ship Knight out in the three-way dance that imported Michael Carter-Williams. But neither likely contributed as much as the specter of having to pay Knight this summer when they weren't sure he'd earned it. McDonough, looking for another starter who might fit better than Thomas next to Bledsoe, decided it was worth the risk.
The Suns gambled that a 6-foot-3 combo guard who can guard some wings and who'd shot better than league-average from 3-point land in three of his first four seasons would work alongside their cornerstone. They didn't really get to test their theory, as Knight suffered a severe ankle sprain and a heel bone bruise that cost him most of March and April. Knight and Bledsoe shared the floor for just 235 minutes; Phoenix got outscored by 12 total points in that span, generating 3.5 fewer points-per-100 than its season average.
McDonough evidently felt comfortable enough chalking that up to injury and small-sample-size noise to bring Knight back. It's a $70 million bet that he'll play up alongside better offensive talent under a smart offensive coach in a sound system; that he'll be more potent as a spot-up shooter off the ball, where he posted a strong Effective Field Goal percentage as a Buck last season; that his size and active hands (he snagged a steal on 2.5 percent of opponents' possessions in Milwaukee last year, a near-top-20 mark) will help tighten up Phoenix's perimeter defense; and that the key to rediscovering the Suns' offensive flow is downshifting from Cerberus to Neutral Milk Hotel.
It's a hell of a wager. Phoenix needs Knight to pay dividends immediately.
Potential breakout stud:
Warren, 2014's 14th pick, who could step into a much larger role this season.
After spending most of his first 3 1/2 months as a pro riding the pine behind P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward opened eyes down the stretch. Afforded more playing time as Phoenix chased the West's eighth seed, Warren chipped in a shade under eight points, three rebounds and an assist in 19.5 minutes per game after the All-Star break, shooting 55 percent from the floor.
Warren isn't an ideal small forward for the pace-and-space game; he attempted just over one 3-pointer per 36 minutes of floor time as a rook and connected at a lacking 23.8 percent clip. But he's a natural scorer, with the strength to finish through contact and the soft touch to convert in traffic. He shot a sterling 68.5 percent in the restricted area — a top-20 mark among players with at least 100 attempts. He's also a smart mover off the ball, ranking in the 88th percentile in points scored per possession after making a cut; that's the kind of skill that can help you contribute when defenses ignore you beyond the arc.
McDonough removed two impediments this summer, letting Green walk and trading Marcus Morris. After a stellar Summer League showing and a September in which he reportedly emerged as the star of the Suns' intrasquad pickup games, Warren saw some time in training camp with Phoenix's expected starters, ahead of the veteran Tucker. Hornacek brushed that off as merely trying something out and emphasized that floor time will be earned through defensive commitment. If Warren can show he's taken a step forward on that end — and the coach has spoken well of his efforts — more burn, and more buckets, should follow.
Bledsoe and Knight find instant harmony, aided by Markieff singing "Kumbaya" in every huddle. Better chemistry leads to smoother execution and sharper shooting. Chandler's presence organizes Phoenix's tenacious wing defenders. Phoenix cracks the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Suns survive the brutal battle, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
If everything falls apart:
Bledsoe and Knight can't stop getting in one another's way, the shooting never improves and the offense remains middling. Keef drama returns, fracturing team chemistry, and Chandler doesn't move the needle defensively. The Lakers stink, meaning the Suns just gave up a top-five pick to pay an underperforming combo guard $70 million. A poor start either leads owner Robert Sarver to push for a win-now move that doesn't pan out, or prompts McDonough to hold a fire sale and relaunch the rebuild. Either way, the playoff drought continues.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
42-40, ninth in the West.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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