Last year, the Phoenix Suns seemed poised to take the next step in their development and challenge for a playoff spot. With a promising core of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Alex Len and Devin Booker along with veterans like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and more, it’s easy to see how they should have been in the playoff hunt.
The team jumped out to an 8-9 start last year, but then the wheels fell off and things went south quickly. They finished the campaign with a 23-59 record. Head coach Jeff Hornacek was let go in February and Earl Watson took over the position on an interim basis. With Watson now on board as the permanent head coach, the team hopes that a few veteran additions plus the team’s core taking the next step in their development will lead to improvement this season.
Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Phoenix Suns are a cautionary tale of what can happen when a rebuilding team experiences too much success too soon. After beating expectations early on under former head coach Jeff Hornacek, the franchise tried to skip a few steps in the normal rebuilding process by adding some players to help them win now. After those moves failed to make them anything more than fringe playoff contenders, the team seemingly went all in on the youth movement again this summer, drafting Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis and trading multiple picks to the Sacramento Kings for Marquese Chriss. The team now has young talent at every position and are led by Earl Watson, who earned the head coach position by connecting with his players last season. The Suns have a young core to build on and veterans like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler to help keep the team competitive in the short term, while mentoring the young guys. Having said all of that, there is no one more exciting on the Suns’ roster than Devin Booker, who came on strong towards the end of last season and looks like a potential star at guard.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
I really like this young core of players and I think the Suns have a lot to be excited about heading forward. Devin Booker exceeded my expectations during his rookie season and he still has so much potential. It seems like he could emerge as a star given his remaining potential, and watching his development will be fun. Throw in fellow up-and-comers like Brandon Knight, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ulis – all of whom are under 24 years old (and most are significantly younger than that) – and there’s a lot to like. It’s on head coach Earl Watson to lead this young unit, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Watson is well-respected throughout the NBA and one of the reasons he was given the permanent gig after serving as interim coach is because his players loved him and praised the job he did. Also, veterans like Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and Leandro Barbosa are in place to lead and help the youngsters maximize their full potential. I don’t think the Suns will be able to make the playoffs this upcoming season, but the young pieces are in place for this franchise to return to respectability and relevance in the near future.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Suns have been a relatively dysfunctional bunch over the past two seasons. From inexplicable trades of their top talent to players demanding trades and head coaching changes, things in Phoenix have resembled a circus as of late. But even with all of the chaos surrounding the franchise there are numerous bright spots. Devin Booker, the team’s 2015 lottery pick, averaged 19 points per game in 28 games post All-Star break (17.4 in 51 contests as a starter) this past season. The club also boasts a dynamic backcourt in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight and intriguing rookie forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The club also invested free agency money in veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley this summer to bring leadership into the young locker room. Expect an improvement of last season’s 23-59 mark, but the playoffs are a distant dream on the horizon at the moment.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
It’s hard to know what to expect from the Suns this coming season. Devin Booker has almost immeasurable promise, but unless Dragan Bender is the second coming of LeBron James, the Suns don’t necessarily seem to be heading anywhere anytime soon. The Brandon Knight-Eric Bledsoe tandem hasn’t paid huge dividends and Tyson Chandler didn’t have the same impact that he has had in some of his prior stops. The Suns will likely find themselves competing with the Lakers to avoid the final spot in the division, and that prediction shouldn’t really come as a major shock to anyone.
5th Place — Pacific Division
— Moke Hamilton
It was a rough year for the Suns last season, due largely to some of the injuries they experienced, but assuming everybody is healthy this time around they could be one of the sneaky good teams in the Western Conference this year. Devin Booker looks like he’s going to be an All-Star sooner rather than later, and he’s just one-third of an impressive backcourt rotation that also includes Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley are both back, giving Tyson Chandler a little help in the “veteran leadership” department, and two top-eight picks in Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender should send the ol’ hype train streaming into Arizona this fall at full speed. They’ve got some gelling to do, but the talent is there to make a run at the Western Conference Playoffs. They just have to stay healthy.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
Although he appeared in just 31 games last season, Bledsoe led the Suns in points per game at 20.4. A knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year in December, and the Suns began their downward descent shortly after. While the team has capable scorers in Brandon Knight, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker, their success hinges largely on having a healthy Bledsoe around. He possesses great speed teams want out of their point guard and he has a great ability to drive to the rim and make defenders miss. He can be electric to watch at times and is active all over the court. Unfortunately, the story throughout his career is his health. It’s certain that if he can remain healthy this season, the Suns could be a fun team to watch.
Top Defensive Player: P.J. Tucker
While an argument can be made here for Tyson Chandler, we’re going to highlight Tucker instead. Tucker held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage last season when he guarded them compared to what the opponent normally shot. His opponents shot 44.6 percent on average, but that number fell to 43 percent when Tucker guarded them. That number doesn’t exactly place him into elite status around the league as a defender, but it’s still a promising number nonetheless. Tucker has always proven to be a guy that does the dirty work on the defensive end by grabbing loose rebounds, making hustle plays and putting the team’s needs ahead of his own. Look for Tucker to continue to be a workhouse on the defensive end for the Suns this season.
Top Playmaker: Brandon Knight
We like Bledsoe as the team’s playmaker, but Knight is also just as capable as Bledsoe. Knight battled through several various injuries last season and appeared in just 52 games, but he looked to be very effective when he did play. He averaged 19.6 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season. There have been questions on whether or not Knight would start in the backcourt alongside Bledsoe, but it looks as though Knight will be able to produce and continue being a great playmaker in the starting lineup or off of the bench. Knight is a proven starter, but he could flourish even more off of the bench when matched up against the opposing team’s second unit. It will be an intriguing decision for head coach Earl Watson to make when it appears Bledsoe, Knight and Booker could all start in the backcourt.
Top Clutch Player: Eric Bledsoe
Most analysts classify clutch stats as how they performed during the last five minutes of games in which their team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Seeing as how the Suns won just 23 games last season, there may not have been many games that qualified. Bledsoe ranked 82nd last season with 46 total points scored in the last five minutes of games in which the Suns were either ahead or behind by five points. Knight actually ranked three spots higher than Bledsoe in terms of total points, but Knight shot just 27 percent in those situations while Bledsoe was a bit better at 34 percent. It’s clear that both Bledsoe and Knight are the team’s go-to players late in games, but Bledsoe gets the nod here due to his higher field-goal percentage. He’s a guy that can be trusted to take care of the ball in crucial situations and can make his way to the basket when needed.
The Unheralded Player: Tyson Chandler
Ask any of his former teammates, and it’s likely most of them will say Chandler is a great locker room guy. The Suns want to build a positive culture and so far have done exactly that. The young players on the team rave about Chandler and what he’s meant for their development on and off of the court. While last season wasn’t exactly Chandler’s best as he averaged 7.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and .7 blocks, he still is a major part of this team. The former Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 brings so much to floor defensively, especially in the paint. That alone is a big reason why the Suns signed him last summer. Since his stats don’t exactly jump off of the page, Chandler brings so much more to the Suns than his production on the court and may not receive as much love as he should.
Best New Addition: Jared Dudley
In terms of a new player on the team that will be able to impact games, Dudley gets the nod here. An argument can be made for one of the many rookies the Suns added over the offseason, but the Suns know what they’re getting with Dudley. The team wanted to add a veteran player that can help mentor the younger players and Dudley is perfectly fine with that role. Dudley has become a prototypical player that can thrive in the pace-and-space style of play the NBA is shifting toward. He can guard multiple positions, he’s proven that he can play up-tempo and he is a career 39 percent shooter from three-point range.
– Cody Taylor
WHO WE LIKE
1. Earl Watson
Head coach Watson headlines the list of individuals we like within the Suns organization. He’s one of the most respected guys all around the league from his time as a player and that has clearly carried over into the team’s locker room. Watson was named as the interim head coach after Jeff Hornacek was fired in February and the players began buying in his system soon after. When new coaches are integrated into new situations, it’s easy for players to eventually tune them out, but it’s been the complete opposite with Watson and his roster. He took over the job last season as if it was his for the taking, and it’s that confidence that led him to become the permanent head coach starting this season.
2. Devin Booker
It was Booker’s strong second-half of last season that really gave him a lot of momentum heading into this year. In 48 games before the All-Star break, Booker averaged 10.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 23.3 minutes per game. In 28 games following the All-Star break, Booker elevated those numbers to 19.2 points, 4.1 assists and three rebounds in 35.4 minutes per game. He saw a much bigger role under Watson and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue this season. Booker was also one of the best players during the Las Vegas Summer League and he showed a lot of confidence in his game during his time there. It’s going to be very interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off from last season, but all indications are that he will be able to.
3. Ryan McDonough
General manager Ryan McDonough’s work in June’s draft has many impressed with what he did. The team added Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis in all throughout draft night. They drafted Bender with the fourth pick and then packaged Bogdan Bogdanovic along with the 13th and 28th draft picks to move up and take Chriss eighth. Drafting Ulis with the 34th overall pick in the second round seemed to be a steal considering Ulis was projected as a first-round player. It remains to be seen exactly what role each rookie will have moving forward, but each player they added features a ton of upside, and that’s basically what any team is looking for in the draft. The Suns as a whole have a lot of younger players, but also some crafty veterans to help those guys development into better players. The Suns look to be in a great position to see improvement this season.
4. Leandro Barbosa
The addition of Barbosa will certainly help the Suns in the backcourt. The team had good depth prior to Barbosa returning to the Suns, but his addition can only be seen as a positive. Barbosa of course brings his experience from his time with the Golden State Warriors and playing in the past two NBA Finals series. The Suns have made it no secret that they wanted to add high-character veterans into the locker room and Barbosa certainly fits that bill. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out in that backcourt with the likes of Bledsoe, Knight, Booker, Ulis, Archie Goodwin and Barbosa all sharing minutes.
– Cody Taylor
SALARY CAP 101
The Suns are well below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with just $79.9 million in guaranteed salaries. The team has 14 players locked in for the season, with a decision to be made on John Jenkins, who is non-guaranteed at $1.1 million for 2016-17. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season, even with Jenkins, the Suns are $3.8 million under – any shortfall will be paid out to the team’s rostered players at the end of the year.
With at least $13.2 million in cap space, Phoenix will have significant flexibility in trade throughout the season. Looking ahead to next summer, the Suns could have in the neighborhood of $32 million in spending power. Before November, the team will need to make decisions on the rookie-scale options for Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, and extensions for Alex Len and/or Archie Goodwin. Keeping both Booker and Warren is a no-brainer, but the team will have to put serious thought into locking in Len and/or Goodwin before they become restricted free agents next July.
– Eric Pincus
Perhaps one of the biggest strengths on this Suns team is their youth. In a time in the NBA when teams would like to be as young as possible to build up for the future, the Suns certainly fit the bill with an average age of 25.3 (fifth-youngest in the league). Led by Devin Booker, the Suns also have several other young core players like Len, Warren, Knight and Goodwin among others. Of course, they also added three new rookies in Bender, Chriss and Ulis. Another strength on paper looks to be the team’s depth. The backcourt seems to be its strongest right now with the addition of Barbosa in free agency. Watson will have a decision to make for his starting backcourt with Bledsoe, Knight and Booker all in contention for the two starting spots. Regardless of who starts, his second unit looks to be strong.
– Cody Taylor
Just as the team’s youth can be seen as a strength, it can also be viewed as a weakness. Young players are bound to make mistakes and that showed all throughout last season. A big part to the team’s success this season will depend on those younger guys continuing to develop and minimizing their mistakes. Another critical thing will be learning how to close out games. We’ve seen time and time again how young teams can fall apart late in games. This will be something to monitor throughout the season to see if the team can move past those issues.
– Cody Taylor
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Suns return to being competitive in the Western Conference?
Last year, the Western Conference didn’t look to be as dominant as it was in prior years. Even in a down year in the conference, the Suns didn’t come anywhere close to being competitive. In a year in which the conference looks to be picking up steam again, will the Suns prove to be players come the second half of the season? The roster didn’t go through many changes compared to last year, so the front office will be banking on these players taking the next step in their development. Don’t be surprised if the Suns can improve on last season’s 23-win mark, but locking down a playoff seed might still be a season or two away.
– Cody Taylor
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