Suns Still Fighting Despite Down Season
Although the record for the Phoenix Suns doesn’t necessarily reflect it, the players inside the locker room are still showing plenty of fight. They’re buying into the new system created by interim head coach Earl Watson, and their play on the court is beginning to show that.
The Suns have posted one of the worst records in the league up to this point at 17-46. They find themselves with the third-worst record in the NBA, behind only the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers.
This was supposed to be a team that challenged for a playoff berth this season. With a promising core of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Alex Len and Devin Booker – with veterans like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Sonny Weems and Mirza Teletovic among others – it’s easy to see how such a talented group could have been in the hunt for the postseason.
Instead, the Suns are just 9-37 since the beginning of December after jumping out to a decent 8-9 start. There was turmoil within the system among players, and their head coach was fired at the beginning of February.
Watson was appointed head coaching duties shortly after Jeff Hornacek was fired. He’s well respected around the league from his time as a player, and was even hired in an attempt to persuade LaMarcus Aldridge to join Phoenix in free agency last summer. Aldridge obviously chose to sign with the San Antonio Spurs instead, but seriously considered the Suns.
Phoenix is just 3-11 with Watson in charge, but it’s clear that the team is beginning to look ahead to next season. The team is trying to change a losing culture over the past several years, and it appears to be working even though their record doesn’t reflect it. It remains to be seen whether Watson will be the guy to lead that charge, but he’s operating as if it’s his job for the taking.
Watson is trying to instill an edge in his players over the remainder of the season. He spoke very highly of Orlando Magic head coach Scott Skiles on Friday night. Watson was a big fan of Skiles from his time as a player, and he loves the way his teams have always resembled how Skiles performed as a player.
Skiles was known to have been a grit-and-grind type of player who never backed down. Watson wants his guys to play with that sort of edge that Skiles displayed, and it seems that philosophy is beginning to resonate with the team.
“It takes a while when you’re going through a coaching change to really understand the philosophy,” Chandler said. “Guys are buying in. We’ve been so banged up, but I feel like guys are definitely buying in. That’s the most important part for any team. [From] the most successful teams [to] the teams at the bottom of the league, if you’re not buying in, it doesn’t matter the type of talent that you have.”
Two of Watson’s three wins have come within the last two games. The Suns dominated the Magic on Friday night en route to a 102-84 win, and they’re coming off of an impressive 109-100 win over the Memphis Grizzlies last night. It’s the first two-game win streak for the Suns since wins over the Chicago Bulls and Magic back on December 7-9.
The Suns were in control for nearly the entire game on Friday night, and seemed to be playing with that edge that Watson and his staff wanted. Chandler set the tone early during the game after picking up a flagrant foul with a few minutes left in the first quarter. There seemed to be some chippiness between the two teams following that foul.
Several players were jawing back and forth with each other, and it seemed as though they were following in Chandler’s footsteps. It’s easy to see how such fight and aggressiveness could be non-existent for a team well out of playoff contention, but it’s an attitude that has been set by their new coach and has continued during their play on the court.
“It says a lot about us, that we’re not going to give up,” Booker said. “We haven’t won very many games this year and the playoff chances are not there, but we’re still fighting. That’s starting the rebuild process right now. We’re going to get ready for next year. Once we get our full roster back, they’re going to mix in. They’ve been here supporting us, too. They see what we’ve been going through, so next year will be fun.”
The team had high hopes for this season. They have a young core that’s continuing to develop, and they had a good summer in free agency. After acquiring Knight at last season’s trade deadline, they re-signed him to a five-year, $70 million extension. Shortly after, they signed Chandler to a four-year, $52 million contract.
Those two moves were thought to be part of a bigger plan to lure Aldridge to Phoenix over the summer. Chandler joined Watson, Bledsoe, former head coach Hornacek and a few members of the Suns’ front office in a meeting with Aldridge during free agency. Aldridge confirmed in January that he was “very close” to picking the Suns over the Spurs.
Instead, Aldridge landed with the Spurs and the two franchises are heading in completely opposite directions. While Chandler was brought in to help the team sign Aldridge, he’s been a critical part of the team’s rebuilding process. His stats in his first season with the Suns don’t necessarily jump off of the page (he’s averaging 6.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in 23.5 minutes per game), but he’s given the locker room a leadership presence that was desperately needed.
“It’s the reason that I came here,” Chandler said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to grow with a young team and kind of help change the culture around here. For me, it’s about showing up and playing the right way.
“Granted, we want to win every game, but the most important part is how you show up and how you play the game. I’m trying to show my guys that you come out and you play no matter what. We’re on a back-to-back and there are no excuses. I thought the guys fought hard.”
With the Suns suffering injuries to several key players, it’s created an opportunity for Booker. He didn’t see too much time on the court during the first couple months of the season, averaging just 16 minutes per game through the end of December.
However, since that time, Booker has more than doubled his playing time to 34 minutes per game and is averaging 16.6 points, 3.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds. He credited Chandler with his development on and off of the court during his up-and-down rookie campaign.
“[He’s meant] everything,” Booker said. “It’s like a leadership voice. He’s kind of like the father of our locker room. It’s crazy because some of the things he says, my dad still says to me. They’re around the same age [and] it’s just great to have him around. He’s not the only veteran around here – P.J. [Tucker] is also very vocal. Ronnie [Price] is over 10-plus years in here.
“It’s a lot of good vets that we have, they’re teaching us the ways. They’ve all been on losing teams before, so they’ve been through this and they’re just trying to talk us through it. You’re still being evaluated by every other team in the league so just go out there and play your hardest every time you get a chance.”
For Chandler, the feeling between he and Booker is mutual. Chandler spoke of Booker almost like a proud older brother and praised his maturity level and his understanding of the game.
“He understands how to handle himself,” Chandler said. “He listens, he takes advice from vets and he’s a sponge. As a vet, that’s all you want from a younger player. If they listen and you see them out there trying to implement a lot of things that we’re telling them then you know they got a shot.
“For him, it’s just understanding the pace of the game and picking his times. He’s a rookie so he’s going to make some mistakes. He still doesn’t understand traps and things like that at times, but the more and more that he sees it, he adapts. He has such a high basketball IQ as a young player that we’ve seen him over the last couple of games adapt.”
While the 2015-16 season is far from where the Suns would like to be, it seems as though they have the pieces in place for their future. They seem to have a good mixture of young players and veterans that should experience more success next year.
If things fall their way, the Suns could be back on track as soon as next season. They could have as many as three first-round picks in June’s draft, and they could have as much as $32 million in cap space this summer.
The team will have to address their head coaching situation at some point, but it looks as though Watson has the team buying in and on the right track heading into the final games of the season.
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