It’s been an awfully strange few seasons for fans of the Phoenix Suns.
In 2013-14, their team was the NBA’s League Pass darling — a run-and-gun fun bunch of fast-paced young’uns on the rise. Guided by an innovative double-headed point guard dragon, the Suns won 48 games, just missing the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, and head coach Jeff Hornacek earned a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year voting that season. It was all very encouraging.
In 2014-15, they added Isaiah Thomas to a backcourt mix that already included Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in the hopes Hornacek could employ that two point guard model for as many minutes as possible. Despite a somewhat respectable above-.500 record at midseason, the Suns were convinced they were headed in the wrong direction, dealing both Thomas and Dragic and a potential lottery pick for Brandon Knight and three future first-round picks in three separate 2015 trade deadline deals.
The net result, at least before those picks started trickling in, was the less productive point guard duo of Bledsoe and Knight, who lost a combined 81 games to injury in 2015-16. The Suns were setting.
Meanwhile, on- and off-court troubles plagued promising forward Markieff Morris, which elicited this from Phoenix owner Robert Sarver in January 2016: “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example.”
True to form, Hornacek was held responsible for helping create a culture that failed to hold Phoenix’s many millennials culpable during an injury-riddled 14-35 start. And when the Suns responded by losing another five straight games after their coach was fired, they shipped Morris to the Washington Wizards at the 2016 deadline for yet another future first-round pick. See: It’s been a strange trip.
On the bright side, this season marks the start of what, as it was happening, seemed like an unscripted plan by general manager Ryan McDonough. With the benefit of hindsight, though, his vision is beginning to take form. The Suns tanked their way to the No. 4 overall pick, taking Dragan Bender, and while McDonough surely regrets dealing a future All-Star in Thomas, he packaged the pick from that deal and the one they got in the Morris trade for Marquese Chriss at No. 8.
Pair those two top-10 selections with last year’s lottery pick (Devin Booker), McDonough’s first two lottery picks (Alex Len, T.J. Warren) and the Bledsoe/Knight combo, and suddenly the Suns have another run-and-gun fun bunch of fast-paced young’uns on the rise. The 2013-14 edition had promise, but this group may actually have a higher ceiling, and that’s something Phoenix fans can get behind.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
I'm blocking most of the Suns fans on my timeline ???????????????????? most of them bandwagon any way ????????????. I still got love for some #foe
— Marcus Morris (@MookMorris2) July 31, 2015
Suns owner (Robert Sarver) on Markieff Morris: "Millennials have a tough time dealing with setbacks." pic.twitter.com/T2BUcPQzl2
— Cem Pekdogru (@pekdogru) January 4, 2016
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) January 22, 2016
Suns players found out this morning watching the news that Jeff Hornacek was fired.
— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) February 1, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Short answer: Hell to the yes.
Long answer: Any time you add two top-10 picks, you’ve had yourself a summer. But Bender and Chriss aren’t just two top-10 picks. Beyond the first two selections, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, the Phoenix rookies might have the highest potential of anybody else taken in the 2016 draft. They’re also the rawest. The slender 7-foot-1 Bender doesn’t turn 19 until Nov. 17, and the powerful 6-foot-10 Chriss didn’t start playing organized basketball until high school, but their athleticism is off the charts.
That conversation doesn’t even include Tyler Ulis, the undersized point guard who the Suns nabbed with their early second-round pick. Once a McDonald’s All-American and top high school recruit who held his own in Illinois Mr. Basketball races stacked with future NBA players Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, among others, Ulis averaged 17 points and seven assists as John Calipari’s starting point guard at the University of Kentucky in 2016. There’s little doubt he would’ve been a first-round pick if he weren’t 5-foot-9, so maybe McDonough has lucked into his next Isaiah Thomas.
Then, there’s the fun wrinkle of McDonough bringing back two fan favorites who got their NBA bearings on the seven-seconds-or-less Suns of last decade — Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley, who join fellow veterans Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker as the only Suns born in the 1980s. The influence of players who’ve been through the NBA ringer before cannot be understated, and Barbosa and Dudley especially can help bridge the gap from the last successful Suns run to a potentially new one.
It’ll also be fascinating to see how 37-year-old Earl Watson, who in his debut as an NBA assistant took the head coaching reins from Hornacek and steered Phoenix to a 9-24 finish, balances the bridge between established vets wanting to win now and developing youngsters still learning how to win.
Potential breakout stud:
The Suns may have the most potential breakout studs of any team, and while it’s a long shot to expect too much from Bender or Chriss as rookies, there’s one player on the roster who just about everyone anticipates a big step forward from as a sophomore: Booker, who averaged 26 points on 60 percent 3-point shooting to go along with 6.5 assists and five rebounds a night in summer league.
Interestingly, Watson has already named Booker a starter over Knight, whose role as sixth man will mean a departure from that double point guard dragon of yesteryear. Overall, the sharpshooting Booker wasn’t as sharp with his shot as we expected from a rookie billed as the next Ray Allen, but he averaged 17.4 points in 51 games as a starter last season, capturing NBA All-Rookie First Team honors.
Booker and Bledsoe played just 148 minutes together in 2015-16, and the offensive results weren’t especially encouraging (100.1 points per 100 possessions). Still, it’s not difficult to envision Booker as an explosive 20-plus points-per-game scorer if he can bottle up the stroke that saw him convert 41.7 percent of his 3’s over his first three months as a rookie. Did we mention he doesn’t turn 21 until 2017?
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In terms of breakout studs, Bledsoe has seemingly been on the verge of stardom since arriving in Phoenix three years ago, and both he and Knight have been almost All-Stars at their peaks, but at some point you have to wonder if their injury histories will ever allow them to take that next step.
Playing separately for the Bucks and Suns before the 2015 All-Star break, the two point guards averaged a combined 35 points, 11.3 assists, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 steals, which would be quite a 1-2 punch if they could pack even a healthy portion of that into a 48-minute game for Phoenix.
Likewise, there’s reason to believe Phoenix’s other under-25 contributors could all build on 2015-16 campaigns in which Alex Len averaged a double-double per 36 minutes, T.J. Warren shot 40-plus percent from 3-point range and Archie Goodwin averaged a 16-3-4 in 13 games as a starter. If there’s one potential breakout stud on the Suns, it’s Booker, but really they’re a roster full of them.
If Bledsoe and Knight remain healthy, if the majority of that under-25 crowd takes a step forward in their development under Watson and if a 34-year-old Chandler resembles anything close to the rim-protecting center who earned Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 — and not the one who anchored a defense that allowed 108.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court last season — the Suns will still find themselves struggling for a playoff spot in the ever-competitive Western Conference.
That 2013-14 team might serve as precedent for an overachieving Suns team surprising its way into the playoff hunt, but this year is more about seeing what they have in their recent lottery picks. So long as a few flashes of their brilliance provide some entertainment, Phoenix should feel good about their Suns again, even if they fail to play past mid-April for the seventh consecutive season.
If everything falls apart:
Further injuries for Bledsoe and/or Knight would be devastating, and a step back for either player would be disappointing, considering they’re owed a combined $100 million through 2020. Likewise, it’d be awfully unfortunate if Bender and Chriss are a net negative in Year 1, or if guys like Len, Warren and Goodwin stagnate into “they are what they are” territory. Phoenix has to find a few guys in there who could contribute to a championship down the road, or else they’ll end up rebuilding on the fly all over again, like they did three years ago. At the very least, if all those things happen, the Suns will be in line for another high lottery pick, and we can talk about potential once more a year from now.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
21-61, 14th in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 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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