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
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN