This year, it’s possible that the Phoenix Suns could be a playoff team. Apart from the Markieff Morris situation that must be dealt with, there is optimism in Phoenix.
In the brutally tough Western Conference, there may be at least one spot up for grabs if the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks drop out of the playoff picture (and the Oklahoma City Thunder climb in, as expected).
The only teams that could conceivably rise to be the eighth-best team in the conference would be the Suns, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings. The Kings might have the talent, but there are a whole lot of new pieces and drama surround the team. The Jazz will be without sophomore guard Dante Exum for the season, but even so they are the Suns’ top competition for the final playoff spot in the West. Can Phoenix take the next step and crack the top eight?
Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2015-16 season.
The Suns nearly won the offseason by signing LaMarcus Aldridge. At the end of the day, Aldridge’s decision came down to Phoenix and the San Antonio Spurs, with the free agent power forward admitting that it was a very tough call. He obviously went to the Spurs, but the Suns still did add some veteran reinforcements over the offseason such as Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems (in addition to drafting rookie Devin Booker). I’m excited to see how Brandon Knight does alongside Eric Bledsoe, since Knight was sidelined and limited for much of his time with the Suns last season after joining Phoenix via trade. I’m also curious to see how the addition of Chandler impacts this team. I believe the Suns will compete for the eighth seed in the Western Conference this season, but as of the right now, I have the Utah Jazz sneaking in instead of them. With that said, it’ll be a tough battle for that final seed and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Suns get in if they play to their full potential.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
On the one hand, getting Tyson Chandler to bolt Dallas was a coup. That was one of the better pickups of the offseason, mostly because this talented Suns roster needed some hard-nosed veteran leadership to help them take things to the next level. Of course, that was when it looked like they were still seriously in the hunt for LaMarcus Aldridge, and that obviously didn’t happen. Now, even Markieff Morris is unhappy with his brother having been shipped off to Detroit, and the Brandon Knight/Eric Bledsoe backcourt combination isn’t one guaranteed to dominate. There are plenty of kids on this roster to like, but it feels like an odd mix. The Pacific is a rough division this year with the Lakers and Kings improving this offseason, so Phoenix could slip a little. If they didn’t make the playoffs the last two years, they certainly aren’t going to do it this season.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
Phoenix hovered around .500 last season, but in a stacked Western Conference those type of results won’t raise many eyebrows, if any at all. The team unexpectedly changed pace at the trade deadline shipping guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas out of town. The team netted guard Brandon Knight, who was recently locked into a long-term deal with the franchise. On the interior, the Suns signed aging center Tyson Chandler, who will provide a defensive presence. Although there has been plenty of changes in Phoenix, don’t expect too much fluctuation in one direction. Stagnant would be a word that comes to mind when evaluating the 2015-16 Phoenix Suns.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
If you thought there was drama with the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns are right there with them. Markieff Morris has made his displeasure with the organization abundantly clear following the trade of his twin, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons. The outlook of the Suns’ season depends on how this situation plays out. A disgruntled top player doesn’t lead to wins, it leads to turmoil in the locker room and on the court. A trade could garner new talent, though Morris’ public display of unhappiness doesn’t give them much leverage. Where the Suns do have dependability is in the backcourt with guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. They also added Devin Booker in the draft. If Morris cannot contribute as he has in the past, the offseason signing of Tyson Chandler gives the Suns a veteran big man presence regardless. Just as the Kings have gone through ups and downs with DeMarcus Cousins, the Suns could find themselves in a similar situation if this continues this season, which could hinder their improvement.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
Anyone who has spent time around Jeff Hornacek would attest to his spirit and presence. There’s something about him that simultaneously puts his players at ease, but still garners their respect. Entering this season, the two questions I have for them revolve around Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler. First, Bledsoe quietly put together what could be regarded as the best season of his career last year. He played 81 games after missing 39 games of the 2013-14 season. Without Goran Dragic, Bledsoe will have to carry more weight for the Suns, as Brandon Knight will clearly be regarded as his secondary. Tyson Chandler’s spirit and work ethic will have a positive effect on the youngsters he will be surrounded by, and in the end, I’d expect the Suns to continue to overachieve behind Hornacek and have a shot at a playoff berth. Along with the Mavericks, Jazz and maybe the Kings, the Suns will probably hang around the eighth seed until the final week of the season, though they are still a notch below the powers in the Pacific. I’ll pencil the Kings in above them, but I do so reluctantly.
4th Place — Pacific Division
Top of the List
Best Offensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
This is Eric Bledsoe’s team. While Brandon Knight is his running mate in the dual point guard attack, everything stems from Bledsoe’s driving penetration, blazing speed and Hulk-like strength and toughness finishing in the lane. It’s his time to be the Suns’ alpha dog. Seemingly, Bledsoe is taking a larger leadership role going into the season and becoming more vocal. It may his time to take the league by storm, and it seems he is primed for a big season. The Suns will only go as far as Bledsoe takes them.
Best Defensive Player: P.J. Tucker
Tyson Chandler could’ve gotten the nod here, but we’ll focus on him more later and decided to go with Tucker instead since he is the heart and soul of this Suns team. Tucker is the king of fourth-quarter clutch rebounds, and he is a great defender. He is also versatile, guarding multiple positions. Additionally, he has what every coach looks for in a player: an intense work ethic and team-first attitude. Every year, Tucker adds something to his game, typically on the offensive side of the ball. We’ll see what new wrinkles to his game he comes to camp with this year, but expect him to continue being a lockdown defender.
Top Playmaker: Brandon Knight
It’ll be nice to see Knight actually flourish in a Suns uniform this year after being limited by injuries toward the end of last season. Last year was a disaster for Phoenix in many ways. They were beaten on a ridiculous amount of improbable buzzer beaters, were kind of forced to trade away a third of their roster at the trade deadline and dealt with some nagging injuries. This year (especially once the Markieff Morris fiasco gets sorted out), everything is looking up for the Suns in general and for Brandon Knight. Healthy and comfortable in the system, Knight may be able to produce at the level he did in the first half of last year with Milwaukee.
Best Clutch Player: Markieff Morris
Morris was far and away the most consistently clutch player for Phoenix last year and near the top of the league as well. The chance that he’ll be on the Suns by the beginning of the season is quite low, and it’s even less likely he’s on the team following the February trade deadline. But he remains with the team right now, so he’s eligible for this distinction. If he does stay in Phoenix and everything gets resolved, he’s the go-to option down the stretch in a close game.
Best New Addition: Tyson Chandler
This is such a great (and underrated) pickup for the Suns. While he is past his prime, Chandler brings exactly what the Suns need. He brings stability to the center position (the budding Alex Len tends to get banged up with small “inconsequential” injuries). He brings spectacular interior defense as well as communication, leadership and accountability on that end, which the Suns have basically never had in the history of their franchise. He also sets great picks, which Phoenix has been recently pretty poor at and will benefit Bledsoe and Knight greatly.
Who We Like
Alex Len: Len is a cornerstone piece for the Suns. He is a legit center with a smooth touch on his shot. He has length, explosiveness and athleticism. While still learning the game, for a 22-year-old he shows flashes of greatness. He is a bit injury-prone, but not in a major way. He’s had a broken nose here, bruised something there, but nothing major since his early ankle/foot issues. He gets to be mentored by Tyson Chandler and gets to play against backup centers (even though he started last year and is starting-caliber). He’s going to feast on backup centers all year. He has the whole package. It’s coming along slowly, but the improvement is there. Look for a big season from him this year or next.
Archie Goodwin: Goodwin is just fun to watch. He seemingly has boundless energy and a knack for disrupting the opposition. He’s a spark. His season will be very intriguing to track. He isn’t a “gimmick” player (i.e. dunk contest winner Jeremy Evens, who hasn’t done much else), but he also hasn’t proven that he can have consistent production across a season. His shot was unreliable to say the least, but as is evident from summer league, he seems to have reworked it and his release is quicker and cleaner, and his shot looks smoother. He will be competing with sharpshooter rookie Devin Booker for backup shooting guard duties and probably has the upper hand right now due to experience, but if he can’t have a consistent jumper in his back pocket, he could end up buried on the depth chart.
T.J. Warren: Toward the end of last season and even during this year’s summer league (where Warren took home first-team honors), he looked like a breakout candidate for his sophomore season. He has a beautiful arsenal of floaters and unconventional shots around the basket that he can pull out at any time. His floater even extends further, rivalling the rest of the NBA. His off-ball cutting is superb as well. His jumper is just okay, but not great, and he hasn’t quite extended it to three-point range yet. That, as well as upping his defense from barely below average to average defender, will take him to the next level. But he really has an amazing knack for scoring. He just gets the ball in the hoop.
Devin Booker: Booker is a flat out pure shooter. Just being drafted, he instantly became the best three-point shooter on the Suns. He’s a rookie and depending on how the competition between he and Goodwin goes, he could spend some time over in Bakersfield playing for the Suns’ D-League affiliate. His shot release is quick and so, so, smooth. It’ll be nice for Phoenix to have a knockdown shooter from deep again. He will help space the defense for the likes of Bledsoe and Knight to drive into the lane.
Mirza Teletovic: It never hurts to have a guy on your team who cares so much that he says he’d die for basketball, right? That really is the embodiment of the phrase “ball is life.” Teletovic is a stretch-four, who missed a bunch of last season when he played for the Brooklyn Nets and developed a blood clot in his lung. Depending on how the Markieff Morris situation plays out, Teletovic could have a bigger role on the Suns than initially expected when he was first acquired.
Sonny Weems: A relative unknown to casual NBA fans, he started his NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors but has been playing overseas in Lithuania and Russia in recent years. Now, Weems will be a veteran presence on the young squad. The 29-year old will be a spark off the bench. He shouldn’t be relied on to initiate the offense, but he can get out in transition, he works well off the ball and he can shoot pretty well (including from three, especially after expanding his shot while overseas). He has a long wingspan, great athleticism and plays good defense. We’ll see how he fares against NBA competition once again, seeing as he hasn’t faced opponents of that caliber in a while. He has a high IQ and a high motor and could thrive in a bench role for Phoenix this year.
One strength for Phoenix is their depth. They have one of the better benches in the league, especially with the addition of Chandler moving Len back to the bench, Warren’s emergence and the drafting of Booker. This Suns team has always loved getting out in transition and that shouldn’t change this year. They prefer that style and are very good at running that up-tempo system. Their bigs like to run, along with their point guards. They also have a solid mix of youth and experience, which is what teams want.
In contrast to their depth, probably the biggest problem Phoenix has had (since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire left) is the lack of a superstar. They have a lot of good players, but no great ones (yet).
Phoenix also has a problem winning close games. They won a few last year, but lost even more, including some brutal buzzer-beaters. They had issues getting technical fouls at all the wrong times, which may be helped by moving Marcus Morris and the seemingly imminent departure of Markieff Morris, but Bledsoe and Tucker were also part of this problem. Tyson Chandler will help in this aspect for sure.
Booker (and to a lesser extent Weems) will help with Phoenix’s three-point shooting woes, but it will probably still not be a strength for them. The same goes for Chandler and Phoenix’s rebounding.
The Burning Question
What will happen with Markieff Morris?
This is obviously the big question with the Suns. By making it clear that he wants to leave, this hurt the leverage the Suns have in trade talks, which may actually decrease the chance of Morris getting dealt.
However, Morris insists that he doesn’t have a future with the Suns, so it’s very possible he’ll be moved anyway despite Phoenix’s lack of leverage. Markieff is an above-average player, but is by no means a star who can try to demand anything from his team. He also can’t threaten to leave since he has several years left on his contract. Morris hasn’t handled things very professionally, publicly demanding a trade (which resulted in a fine) and overreacting to the trade of his brother. He also had an offseason assault charge that really hurt his trade value.
Morris is probably gone by opening night, unless they can’t get his trade value up, in which case he’s almost certainly gone by the February trade deadline. He’s not a bad player and will probably still improve, but he isn’t a player worth this recent trouble.
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