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2014-15 Phoenix Suns Season Preview

Can the Suns build on last season’s surprising success?

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The Phoenix Suns were the surprise team of last season, exceeding all expectations and almost making the playoffs in the deep Western Conference. Rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek put Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in the backcourt together with great success. Bledsoe unfortunately missed roughly half of the season because of a knee injury, but Phoenix remained competitive without its athletic point guard.

The Suns lost big man Channing Frye to the Orlando Magic this offseason, but are bringing back the majority of its young, talented roster from last season. In addition, the Suns signed free agent point guard Isaiah Thomas, adding another talented point guard to Phoenix’s explosive backcourt. The Suns won’t catch opposing teams off guard this upcoming season, and face an uphill battle in a stacked Western Conference. But with a season under Hornacek, and a roster full of young talent, the Phoenix Suns will be one of the most interesting, and entertaining teams in the NBA this upcoming season.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Phoenix Suns…

Five Guys Think

Very little has changed to alter anyone’s perception of the Suns as one of the league’s most exciting young teams, particularly since adding Isaiah Thomas and rookies T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis. The only bummer from this past summer was failing to re-sign Eric Bledsoe and the apparent fall-out that has occurred in the months since. Whether Blesdoe wants to be there long-term, however, doesn’t matter much for this upcoming season, as he’ll still be part of a point guard rotation that involves him, Thomas and the reigning Most Improved Player, Goran Dragic. Jeff Hornacek has a full successful season of head coaching under his belt now, and most of this young core is back after surprising everyone by almost making the Western Conference playoffs last year. Of course that side of the bracket should only be tougher this season, but Phoenix will be just as pesky as they were a year ago.

4th Place – Pacific Division

-Joel Brigham

Eric Bledsoe’s free agency obviously hasn’t played out as planned, but he should be back on either a long-term deal or a one-year deal for the qualifying offer. If he’s healthy for the entire 2014-15 season, and the team’s new additions like Isaiah Thomas and T.J. Warren play well, the Suns could be a playoff team this year. I love the signing of Thomas, who put up excellent numbers with the Sacramento Kings and could emerge as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Phoenix. That backcourt just continues to get better and better with Bledsoe, Thomas, Goran Dragic and Tyler Ennis all capable of running the offense. Last year, the Suns were the league’s biggest surprise. This season, they won’t be able to sneak up on teams, but I think they’ll have another successful year and be in the mix for a playoff spot.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

Last season’s biggest surprise will enter this season with some newfound expectations. With rookie Tyler Ennis and Isaiah Thomas added to the team, head coach Jeff Hornacek hopes that the team can build upon the success they had last season. Qualifying for the playoffs out West is a tall order, though, and unfortunately for the Suns, it is difficult imagining them supplanting one of last season’s top eight finishers out West, especially if the New Orleans Pelicans fulfill their expectations this season. The Denver Nuggets may also have something to say about the conference’s pecking order. As it stands, the Suns have not done much to improve themselves this past summer. Although Eric Bledsoe’s situation is still fluid, he seems safe bet to return on a one-year qualifying offer. What the Suns do seem to have going for them is their low salary ledger and the flexibility that will give them. For this team, though, an impact free agent will be necessary in order to get them into the playoffs, and that will not be coming before July 2015, at the earliest.

3rd place – Pacific Division

-Moke Hamilton

You would have to search far and wide to find a season preview which had the Phoenix Suns flirting with 50 victories and a playoff berth during the 2013-14 campaign. But the franchise did just that, winning 48 contests and just missing out on a postseason berth. The Suns won’t have the luxury of anonymity heading into this season. The secret is out. Now it’s about continuing the positive momentum. Young teams rarely win at a high level in the NBA, but the Suns are in a position to be an outlier. The majority of Phoenix’s roster heading into training camp is under 30 years old. The Suns have plenty of talent and are invested in head coach Jeff Hornacek’s system, but a sudden crash back down to earth isn’t too farfetched.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

It’s still really hard to believe that the Suns, a team that appeared to have such little interest in being seriously competitive, just barely missed the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. They were beyond impressive, especially considering the amount of time that Eric Bledsoe, who I thought their success was more contingent on than it ended up being, missed. Part of me still wants to believe that they’re going to come back down to reality, but how can you second guess a team that excelled the way they did based off the stiff competition they faced. The Bledsoe distraction is concerning, but they’re still tough to match up with and extremely talented.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic has come a long way in his six-year NBA career. Last year, at age 27, Dragic had his best season so far, averaging 20.3 points a game on 50.5 percent shooting from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. Fellow point guard Eric Bledsoe wasn’t too far behind Dragic in terms of nightly scoring, but shot a much lower percentage from the field and beyond the arc than Dragic, and also missed almost half of the season because of a knee injury. At age 24, Bledsoe has the room to develop into a better overall offensive player, but for the time being, Dragic holds that title.

Top Defensive Player: Eric Bledsoe is one of the most athletic players in the entire NBA and uses that athleticism to shut down opposing guards on a nightly basis. Even though Bledsoe stands at just 6’1, he is incredibly strong and fast, which allows him to effectively guard point guards as crafty as Chris Paul, and shooting guards as big as James Harden. Bledsoe’s ability to guard shooting guards is what makes Phoenix’s two-point guard backcourt possible, and gives Hornacek a lot of flexibility with his lineups. Also, it’s just fun to watch Bledsoe occasionally fly out of nowhere to block a shot at the rim like a miniature LeBron James.

Top Playmaker: Tough call to make here with both Dragic and Bledsoe averaging six assists per 36 minutes last season and both taking turns running Phoenix’s offense. But Dragic averaged less turnovers than Bledsoe, has more experience playing point guard, and played in 76 games compared to just 43 for Bledsoe last season. Both players are good playmakers, but for now the edge goes to Dragic.

Top Clutch Player: Bledsoe hit a game-winning three-pointer against the Utah Jazz last season, but Dragic is still Phoenix’s best option here. Dragic is the better shooter and just as, if not more, dangerous with the ball in his hands than Bledsoe. Bledsoe is especially good at driving to the rim and kicking it out to open shooters, but with time winding down and the game on the line, the ball should go to Dragic.

The Unheralded Player: Most people know Gerald Green for his highlight dunks, but many don’t realize that Green has developed into much more than just a dunker. Last season, Green averaged 15.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists in just 28.4 minutes per game. Most importantly, Green shot 40 percent from three-point range, and made the fourth most three pointers in the league (204).

Best New Addition: Isaiah Thomas has been dismissed by his critics throughout his career for several reasons, with the main criticism being that he stands at just 5’9, making him a liability on defense and unfit to be a team’s starting point guard. But Thomas, drafted 60th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, has improved each season and continues to prove his critics wrong. When the Suns signed Thomas this offseason, many questioned how Thomas would fit alongside Dragic and Bledsoe. The answer to that question remains to be seen, but Thomas will probably play a sixth-man role off the bench, and will make the Suns already potent offense even tougher to stop. Last season, Thomas averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game.

– Jesse Blancarte

Who We Like

1. Jeff Hornacek: Jeff Hornacek established himself as one of the best rising coaches in the league last season. In his first year as a head coach, Hornacek maximized the talent on his roster, turned the Suns into a top-10 offensive team, and almost made the playoffs in the deep Western Conference when many predicted the Suns would be one of the worst teams in the league. It will be interesting to see what Hornacek can do in year two.

2. Goran Dragic: Dragic is Phoenix’s most dangerous offensive player, and biggest difference maker. Even with Bledsoe going down with a knee injury last year, Dragic kept the Suns in the Playoff hunt up until the end of the season. Dragic has been with the Suns for over four seasons now (on two different stints after spending some time with the Houston Rockets) and is at this point the heart and soul of the team.

3. T.J. Warren: With the 14th pick in this year’s draft, the Suns selected T.J. Warren from North Carolina State. Warren was the ACC Player of the Year last year, avergaing 24.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Warren is not a top athlete, or knock-down three point shooter, but he is a crafty and efficient scorer with a knack for scoring the ball at and around the rim. He may have a hard time earning minutes on the floor this upcoming season, but we may be labeling Warren as the steal of 2014 Draft in just a few years.

4. Miles Plumlee: Give credit to Miles Plumlee for going from a throw-in in Phoenix’s trade with the Pacers to the full-time starting center for the Suns last season. Alex Len may be the center of the future in Phoenix, but until that time comes, Plumlee gives the Suns a solid option down low. Plumlee isn’t the most talented center in the league by any means, but knows his role and gives Phoenix what it needs from the center position.

5. P.J. Tucker: P.J. Tucker was one of the best values in the NBA last season. He averaged 9.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game, but made just $884,293. Phoenix rewarded Tucker this offseason by signing him to three year, $16.5 million deal (third year partially guaranteed). Tucker may be somewhat overpaid at this point, but he is still an important piece for Phoenix, providing three point shooting (38.7 percent last season), defense, toughness and versatility.

– Jesse Blancarte

Strengths

Guards, offense and youth. Bledsoe and Dragic are Phoenix’s best players and are the keys to everything Phoenix does on offense. Isaiah Thomas adds even more playmaking and scoring to Phoenix this upcoming season, but it remains to be seen how Jeff Horancek will balance his three point guards. Gerald Green is another important piece in Phoenix’s perimeter attack, and is primed for another productive season. With three starting caliber point guards, Phoenix has one of the most unique and explosive backcourts in the NBA. Beyond these three players, Phoenix has a ton of young talent with Green, the Morris twins, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis on the roster and Bogdan Bogdanović (drafted 27th overall in this year’s draft) developing in Turkey.

– Jesse Blancarte

Weaknesses

Star power and experience. The Suns are undoubtedly a fun team to watch, and can beat any opposing team on any given night. But as good as Bledsoe and Dragic are, neither cracks most people’s top-10, or even top-15 list of best overall players in the league. Teams don’t necessarily need a top-five player to win at a high level, but having an elite player on the roster may have helped the Suns lure a top free agent this offseason. Stars want to play with other stars these days, and Phoenix wasn’t really a serious player for any of the top major free agents this offseason despite having the flexibility to add two max free agents. Bledsoe has the potential to develop into an elite player, but he needs to get past his health problems for that to happen (and his long-term future with Phoenix is still in question). Beyond star power, the Suns have very little playoff experience between all of its players. If the Suns do reach the Playoffs, they will be at a disadvantage to a team like the San Antonio Spurs, whose main of core of players have years of experience playing together in the postseason.

– Jesse Blancarte

The Salary Cap

The Suns are still in limbo with restricted free agent guard Eric Bledsoe, who is sitting on a $3.7 million qualifying offer.  Unsigned, Bledsoe takes up $6.6 million of the Suns’ cap room, leaving a healthy $12.1 million in spending power.  If Bledsoe takes the one-year offer, the Suns will actually gain space under the cap ($15.0 million); if they let him leave outright, the team will have $18.7 million in space.  Meanwhile Phoenix is locked into 13 guaranteed players, with up to two roster spots available.  The team has been linked to free agent guard Zoran Dragic, brother of point guard Goran Dragic.  Phoenix can also use their cap space to help another team clear salary, typically in return for draft considerations.  The Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus) are eligible for contract extensions, with the deadline for deals by Halloween – otherwise they’ll become restricted free agents next summer.  If the Suns use the remainder of their cap space, they’ll gain the $2.7 million Room Exception.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

The Suns feature prominently in three interesting but relatively unrelated league trends going forward.  The first is the increasing understanding of how having great shooters at the big positions opens up the floor.  The Suns allowed 31 year-old Channing Frye to leave for what appeared to be an enormous offer from Orlando, $32 million over four years.  In the long-term, this was probably the right move given Frye’s age.  The team will need assets to pay Markieff Morris, who is extension eligible this fall, re-sign Goran Dragic in 2015, possibly re-sign Eric Bledsoe, or bring in other free agent reinforcements. Isaiah Thomas will be making slightly less than Frye over the next four years, and he is much younger and perhaps just as underrated. One would also suspect the team believes enough in 2013 number five overall pick Alex Len to want to open up minutes for him at center.  Nevertheless, Frye was one of the best offensive big men in the league by adjusted plus/minus metrics because of his shooting gravity.  In fact, Phoenix has always punched above its weight offensively since he arrived in 2009-10, and while they have had other great offensive players in that stretch it is undeniable that he has been a major part of their success.  The one down offensive year Phoenix had was when he missed the 2012-13 season with a heart ailment.  It will be interesting to see how much of Phoenix’s success offensively was due to their perimeter players, and how much was Frye’s doing.

Another trend is the debate about rebuilding and/or tanking.  The Suns were decried as tankers before last season began, only to roll to an entirely unexpected 48 wins.  They are still in a solid place going forward, but ironically and perhaps unfairly the path to true championship contention is murkier than it was when they projected as a doormat last year.  Imagine this core with Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, or Dante Exum in the fold via a high draft pick.*  (On the other hand, we probably wouldn’t think much of this core had it just won a mere 20 games.)  Nevertheless, this is a team devoid of a true superstar and great rim-protection, which are perhaps the two most difficult areas to fill.  Would they have been better off playing a lot worse last year?  Probably not considering how long it usually takes a 20-win team to get to a 48-win level, but it is a viable discussion.

*You might also imagine their defense with Nerlens Noel (taken just behind Len in 2013).

The last trend is one I think will begin to sweep the league, and that is the dearth of two guards and wealth of point guards leading to teams playing two lead guards together.  Phoenix now has three such players on its roster, allowing them to keep two ball handlers on the floor at all times.  Sure, playing a shorter point guard at the two is undesirable defensively, but at some point having good players trumps playing in traditional positions, and there are so many great point guards around the league and few traditional shooting guards.  I think smart teams will realize this and that we will see more two point alignments.  The defensive hit won’t be as bad, because the lack of shooting guards means there are few offensive threats at the position that could abuse a point guard’s defense.

The biggest downgrade will come in help defense, where a point guard can struggle to provide help or close out on shooters.  Nonetheless, playing a second point is overall a better idea than trotting out a stiff just because he’s 6’6.

Best Case:

55-37

Dragic repeats his performance from a year ago, as does Gerald Green.  Rookie T.J. Warren shows flashes after a strong summer league, Markieff Morris continues his growth and picks up his shooting to help replace the loss of Frye, and the Suns gets some solid minutes out of Len.  Bledsoe stays healthy all year in a contract push, Thomas integrates seamlessly and allows Bledsoe to play more pressure defense in fewer minutes, and the Suns have a top-three offense.  Coach Hornacek continues his solid work defensively, and Len shows the makings of a solid shot-blocker.

Worst Case:

42-40

Frye was more valuable offensively than anyone realized.  Markieff Morris can’t provide the same spacing, and Len gets minutes even though he doesn’t deserve them, killing the offense in the process.  Dragic comes back to earth after a career year, Bledsoe (sadly) suffers through more knee problems, and Thomas struggles to adapt to a system that requires more ball movement.  Last year looks like a mirage as Hornacek cannot coax a top-20 D out of a team with no established shut-down defender as Bledsoe misses time.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

How does the Eric Bledsoe situation play out?

When locked in and playing within himself, Eric Bledsoe is Phoenix’s best overall player. But Bledsoe and the Suns have spent the entire offseason in a staring contest (regarding his contract situation) and neither side has blinked yet. Bledsoe is looking for max-level money, but Phoenix, so far, has drawn the line at four years, $48 million. Bledsoe, like Greg Monroe in Detroit, may ultimately roll the dice and sign Phoenix’s qualifying offer, which will make him an unrestricted free agent next offseason. There are several reports that the contract situation has strained the relationship between Bledsoe and the Suns, and it will be interesting to see if this has any effect on Bledsoe’s play this upcoming season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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