The 2015-16 Phoenix Suns season was marked by turmoil, injuries and one bright spot – Devin Booker.
The offseason started it all as Phoenix was “very close” to signing marquee free agent LaMarcus Aldridge according to his conversation with Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro. Aldridge went on to say, “It came down, neck and neck, between Phoenix and San Antonio. It wasn’t overplayed. That was accurate.”
Two factors came into play that made it a close decision between the Spurs and Suns, who after a disappointing season have missed the playoffs six seasons in a row. These factors included adding Earl Watson, who had a strong connection with Aldridge, and the surprising signing of Tyson Chandler for four years, $52 million. The signing was huge for Aldridge as he let it be known that he wanted to play with a true center like Chandler.
Unfortunately, in their attempt to facilitate the potential acquisition of Aldridge, management had to ship out Marcus Morris, Danny Granger and Reggie Bullock for a second round pick. This upset the Morris brothers to no end. They felt disrespected and until Markieff Morris was dealt to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline, a dense fog hung over the team.
The season started out pretty great as the Suns were 7-5 by November 20th. Then things went downhill. Phoenix was 11-14 on December 13th, then they went on to go 2-17, falling to 13-31 by January 21st. During that stretch, Eric Bledsoe went down with another season-ending injury, management fired Jeff Hornacek’s two main assistant coaches, Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi, and then they lost T.J. Warren to a season-ending injury. Then at the beginning of February, seeing the season was lost, they fired Hornacek and promoted Earl Watson to interim head coach.
From then on, the season was all about development. It certainly wasn’t about the playoffs as the Suns finished with a 23-59 record, the fourth-worst in the league only behind the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets.
Fortunately, there was a bright spot in Phoenix – and his name is Devin Booker. The 19-year-old was given a large role with Bledsoe and Warren injured, Morris traded, and Brandon Knight in and out of the lineup. Booker finished as the seventh-highest scoring teenage rookie ever and he would have finished much higher if he had played more in the first few months of the season.
To eventually get back to the playoffs, the Suns need to build the right way, assimilate talent that specifically fits together, develop continuity and chemistry and establish a sustainable culture of winning. It will take the right free agents and the right coach, a pursuit which could be hampered by the recent perception – and reality – of dysfunction regarding player and management relations in Phoenix.
Hire the Right Coach
The Suns have a core of young talent that requires a tough, but personable coach that can create a culture of accountability and trust with his players. The Suns need a coach who understands the player development side and can put his young players in a position to succeed and develop. They also need to instill a culture of accountability and professionalism, especially after the Morris situation splintered the locker room this past season.
Interim head coach Earl Watson certainly has the trust and respect of his roster, who have voiced that they want him back on a permanent basis. The question with him is rotations and creativity on offense.
Phoenix should be a somewhat coveted coaching destination since they have some good, young players so it’s possible they could nab one of the bigger names being floated for current coaching vacancies. However, there will be stiff competition from teams like the Wizards and Timberwolves, among others. Tom Thibodeau would be a good acquisition, and would elevate the defense, but he’s probably looking to turn a fringe playoff team into a contender not a lottery team into a fringe playoff team. Scott Brooks is also a trendy coaching name and, like Watson, seems like a player’s coach, but may be in the same boat as Thibodeau in terms of what situation he’s looking for. Even Jay Wright, coming off a national championship at Villanova, has been linked to the Suns’ job.
The most important part of hiring a coach this offseason is finding someone that can create some synergy with his players and a culture of professionalism and accountability.
Utilize Cap Space Wisely
The Suns have gotten a couple meetings with marquee free agents (most recently Aldridge), but haven’t locked up a superstar recently. That trend may continue in the wake of the dysfunction seen in the Goran Dragic/Isaiah Thomas dilemma as well as the Markieff Morris/Marcus Morris debacle. With that said, you still have to make your pitch to Kevin Durant and other elite free agents, but keep in mind, the Suns will probably end up with a second or third-tier free agent.
Phoenix’s young core features Eric Bledsoe (26), Devin Booker (19), T.J. Warren (22), Alex Len (22) and Brandon Knight (24). Knight is talented, but it seems that Booker will be a better fit alongside Bledsoe in the starting backcourt (though in exit interviews, Knight said he doesn’t envision a change in his role). Booker (6’6) is taller than Knight (6’3), which is important on the defensive side playing alongside Bledsoe (6’1). Booker also seems to play better off the ball, while Knight is best with the ball in his hands, so it may be ideal to move Knight to the second unit. If he can accept the demotion, Knight would be a great sixth man off the bench, sparking the second unit as a starting quality point guard.
The Suns will have one max slot open to pay one of the mid-tier free agents this offseason. Whoever they acquire could easily be perceived as overpaid with the lack of elite free agents and so much money ready to be spent across the league. They’ll likely pick up P.J. Tucker’s partially-guaranteed $5.3 million and should re-sign stretch-four Mirza Teletovic (cap hold of $6.6 million) as he holds the record for most threes in a season off the bench in NBA history.
They could re-sign Jon Leuer if they aren’t able to upgrade via the draft or free agency, but that starting power forward spot is the position they need to target this offseason. Some players they could target are Ryan Anderson, Chandler Parsons (as a small-ball four) and Terrence Jones. They should also try and bring a player like Jared Dudley back into the fold. He’s a good three-point shooter, can play the three or the four and has a high basketball IQ. They also need to decide what to do with Archie Goodwin as well since they may bring in Bogdan Bogdanovic from overseas.
Also, there is the lingering issue of what to do with Tyson Chandler. While Chandler has had flashes of his former self, he certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype of his signing. However, he has been a good mentor to Alex Len and the rest of the team and to some extent he has served his purpose as a locker room leader. However, he is still a solid backup to Len, so unless a specific opportunity arises, there is no urgency to move him.
Nail the Draft
Regardless of who they end up getting in free agency, nailing the draft is crucial to rebuilding a team. The Suns have three picks in the first round this summer and where exactly they draft will not be decided until the draft lottery in May.
The Suns have the fourth-best lottery odds (11.9 percent at the number one pick) with their own pick and the Wizards’ pick is 13th (0.6 percent). They are also owed a first-rounder by the Cleveland Cavaliers that will be the 28th selection. The Suns have managed to land some nice pieces in recent drafts, so it’s fair to imagine them finding some nice young talent this year as well. If they manage to do so, they will solidify what is already one of the best collections of young talent in the league, which could quickly change the perception of this team.
This offseason could be a big turning point for the Suns. However, there are a lot of ways this offseason could go, especially considering how many draft picks Phoenix has, how much spending power teams will have and the lack of talent to meet market demand in this year’s free agent class.
In Phoenix’s dream scenario, a top-level free agent like Durant would agree to join the team. However, Durant will be heavily-courted by the entire league essentially, so it doesn’t make sense to get hung up on that scenario. But the Suns could still do well by adding some reasonably-priced free agents, adding some exciting talent through the draft and building a culture of professionalism and accountability through a well-qualified head coach.
Not too long ago the Suns were considered to be one of up-and-coming teams in the NBA. With a good coaching hire, some solid finds in free agency and a strong draft, Phoenix can become one of those teams again rather quickly. Needless to say, the next few months are going to be extremely important for Phoenix.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.