Not much has gone right for the Phoenix Suns this season. After a disappointing season opener against the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns starting stringing together some wins and looked like a solid playoff-caliber team led by point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. That duo looked to be playing themselves into at least the conversation for All-Star spots.
Then the losses started coming. They blew fourth quarter lead after fourth quarter lead to sub-par or depleted teams. Home court wasn’t defended as they lost games to terrible teams in Phoenix. What seemed like a very good defensive team on paper (with Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker and offseason acquisition Tyson Chandler) has struggled mightily – currently ranking 22nd in the NBA.
Their guards struggled to contain penetration and their rotations were slow, resulting in fouling late (which just compounded the issue). They couldn’t stop anyone in transition. The bad defense combined with stretches during games where the offense stalled gave opponents time to gain a lead that proved to be insurmountable once the Suns got out of their funk within the game. This resulted in losses piling up.
The entire season has been overshadowed by the Markieff Morris situation. The offseason issues and trade demands have been looming over the Suns for months. The situation got even worse with the recent incident where Morris hit head coach Jeff Hornacek with a towel as he was upset with being benched. Morris was suspended two games by the team, but that didn’t affect the rotation much since he had been inserted into the lineup only sparingly in the last month.
The first game Morris missed due to suspension was in Phoenix against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers only had one win on the season at that point, yet the Suns lost to them at home. To make it even worse, Philadelphia was missing their highest scorer and rebounder, rookie Jahlil Okafor, making it an even more inexcusable loss.
Everything started going downhill from there. Two issues arose out of that game.
First, Bledsoe (arguably Phoenix’s best player) hurt his knee. After evaluation, it was determined he needed surgery to fix his meniscus, making this the third serious knee injury that he has had during his NBA career (although the previous two surgeries were on his other knee). The original timeline was about six weeks, but following the surgery on Tuesday, Bledsoe was ruled out for the entire season. That is because they are repairing the meniscus instead of removing it, which is better for the long-term health of his knee, but has a long recovery period.
Secondly, the Suns management sat down with all the players following the Philadelphia debacle and decided to fire the two lead assistant coaches Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting. They promoted Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren and already have Corey Gaines as an assistant coach. Watson was seemingly hired to help recruit LaMarcus Aldridge this offseason and was retained even when Aldridge chose San Antonio. Bjorkgren was, as recently as last season, coaching the Suns’ Developmental League team (the Bakersfield Jam), but was promoted to the Suns’ staff as player development coordinator this offseason. According to reports, the Suns are reluctant to fire Hornacek and are trying to shake up the coaching staff in any other way. It certainly doesn’t seem like Hornacek will be gone before the end of the season with the recent news, but he may be gone in the summer.
This leaves Phoenix with some choices as they try to right the ship.
One choice is to “blow it up” and another is to plod along and hope they can make the playoffs. The former plan follows the likes of the Boston Celtics when they traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and eventually Rajon Rondo until they had basically no vets but a lot of young players and draft picks. Now they are starting to be competitive. Another example is the Portland Trail Blazers, who just blew it up and are already occasionally competitive, but not consistent. An example of the latter is roster tinkering that the Toronto Raptors have been doing for a few years. They keep a young core, even though they are having no success in the playoffs, choosing to switch out ancillary pieces until they find the right one. The constant seems to be that Markieff Morris will be traded no matter what. Let’s take a deeper look at the potential plans.
Choice #1: Plod Along
This choice isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. While the Suns are sitting with a horrible record of 12-22, as of this writing, they are currently only three games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The bottom of the West is pretty weak with the Houston Rockets (16-17) in seventh, the injury-plagued Utah Jazz (13-17) in eighth and the Portland Trail Blazers (14-20), Minnesota Timberwolves (12-20), Sacramento Kings (12-20) and Denver Nuggets (12-21) all clustered together as the only teams in between the Suns and the playoffs. It certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility the Suns can still make the playoffs. However, it certainly isn’t likely as it seemed in the middle of November.
Phoenix can continue to play the older players like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems in their appropriate roles and hope the coaching changes help propel them to the eighth seed in the weak Western Conference. The “next man up” mentality could aid in this endeavor and they could make waves.
The pros of this plan are potentially breaking the five-year playoff drought since the team’s Steve Nash days and getting Phoenix’s young guys invaluable playoff experience. It would certainly help sell tickets and the entire business side of the organization.
With the salary cap in the NBA going up so significantly in the next few years, it wouldn’t be too difficult to even add some other veterans and tread water and make the playoffs, while the young players gain experience.
The cons of this plan are both the improbability of securing a postseason berth (everything would have to go right) and that it would make the draft pick in the offseason worse. Also, adding veterans would take minutes from the young guys, stunting their development.
Choice #2: Blow It Up
In this scenario, Suns’ management basically surrenders this season, trading Chandler, Tucker, Teletovic and, of course, Morris for whatever young players and draft picks they could return. You then also see what you have in Sonny Weems for a little longer and then potentially cut ties with the 29-year-old swingman, who has spent most of his career overseas.
Then, they play as many young players as possible. The starting lineup becomes Brandon Knight (23), Devin Booker (19), T.J. Warren (22), Jon Leuer (26) and Alex Len (22). They would also have a big dose of Archie Goodwin (21) to see if he can be a solid rotation player. In this scenario, development is key. Wins and losses don’t matter, but the plan is to get the young guys to play consistently and together as a team, increasingly at a high level. With the way the East is pretty good across the board (10 teams are within five games of first place) and the way Phoenix is playing, there is a decent chance the Suns’ draft pick this summer could be in the top five.
The Golden State Warriors are so good, along with the San Antonio Spurs and even the Oklahoma City Thunder, that even if Phoenix kept the band together for a few years, the chances they would break through to the Finals are minuscule. However, if they blow it up, they will have a solid base of talent that could grow together, the way the Boston Celtics and now the Portland Trail Blazers are doing.
The cons to this plan are losing games. A lot of games.
Choice #3: A Combination Rebuild
Perhaps a better option would be to do a selective “blowup.” If they don’t think Chandler has anything left in his tank, then trade him. Tucker is the perfect complementary piece on a contender. Of course, Morris is probably gone. But you only trade them (Morris excluded) if the trade is perfect. The value needs to be in Phoenix’s favor.
In this scenario, you do everything you can to avoid even the idea of “tanking.” It can plague a team and its players for years. Consistent losing can stunt development and even sour your young core, pushing them out the door after their rookie contracts are up. While a Finals berth probably isn’t in the offing for a handful of years, playoff experience is absolutely crucial if you ever want to get there. So maybe they don’t blow it up completely. They keep the young core, find value players over the next few years to mix in and take into account fit as well. They keep a mix of youth and vets. It wouldn’t hurt to avoid certain players so there is not a repeat of the Morris fiasco. That is certainly a high bar, but Ryan McDonough, Hornacek and company are up for the challenge. It’s time for them to get to work, and get creative. We’ll see which path Phoenix goes down very soon.
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