Fixing The Phoenix Suns

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Few teams in the NBA are having as poor of a season as the Phoenix Suns. Ironically, though, even fewer clubs have the opportunity for a future as bright as those very same Suns.

It’s no secret that the Suns have spent most of the season leaving basketball arenas with a loss. Entering play on March 14 at 22-45, Phoenix sits in fourth place in the Pacific Division. As a result, the Suns currently hold the third-best odds to win the NBA Draft Lottery. Still, all is not lost out in the desert. The Suns have multiple young pieces in place, and on rookie-scale contracts. They have shown flashes of being building blocks in Phoenix moving forward.

Possessing the opportunity to add another young stud to the mix and having plenty of money under the salary cap, the Suns can make their bleak situation shine brightly should they execute well following this season.

Develop Your Homegrown Talent

The Suns have one of the most crucial parts of any rebuild already in tow: a potential superstar.

Second-year shooting guard Devin Booker has all the makings of an elite wing player in the NBA. Few players have been as pleasant of a surprise as Booker in terms of growth. Situated on a guard-heavy roster, Booker not only carved out for himself a starting spot—he’s flat-out dominated.

Averaging 21.1 points, 3.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, Booker is the second leading scorer this season from his 2015 draft class, trailing only Karl-Anthony Towns. He has done this despite being selected 13th overall. Even more promising, Booker will turn just 21 in October as he will be entering his third NBA season. By comparison, he’s just four months older than projected top-5 pick Josh Jackson, who is likely wrapping up his NCAA career at the University of Kansas.

Letting Booker continue to flourish while mixing in players to complement him is crucial to the Suns taking the next step towards winning.

Along with Booker, one of the pieces that should be around for the foreseeable future in Phoenix is last season’s eighth overall pick, Marquese Chriss. The 6-foot-10 stretch-four has elevated his game since the All-Star break to a point where his raw potential is beginning to show consistent flashes—he could truly be an impact player at the NBA level.

Over that 10-game span, Chriss has increased his scoring output to 11 points per game from the 7.1 points he averaged over his first 57 games. Most impressive though, is Chriss’ ability to connect from beyond the arc. During that same span, Chriss has shot 47 percent from deep—a remarkable clip for a big man.

Two young building blocks are already in tow in Phoenix. Together, Booker and Chriss can be vital cogs.

That brings the Suns to the next step in their process.

Drafting The Next Piece

For the Suns, the silver lining to losing so many games is the opportunity to add an impact player in the draft.

For Phoenix, there will be plenty of options should they receive the third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (they enter play on March 14 with the third-worst record in the league). With the current layout of their roster and the players they should focus their building around—Booker and Chriss—the best player for the Suns to target is Duke’s Jayson Tatum.

On the season, Tatum turned in one of the most impressive campaigns in the country, averaging 16.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the field. But it was Tatum’s play in the ACC Tournament that really showed what he is capable of at the next level.

During the four-game stretch, Tatum helped Duke capture their conference tournament title by averaging 22 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game—all while shooting an insane 68 percent from two-point range.

Tatum’s ability to successfully work the midrange game would force opponents to key in on him every time he held the ball on the perimeter. That focus would play perfectly to Booker and Chriss’ ability to shoot from downtown.

By holding a top-three pick, the Suns will have as good a shot as any team to bring Tatum into the fold. If the 6-foot-8 wing is on the board when it’s the Suns’ turn to select, they should sprint to the podium with a draft card featuring Tatum’s name.

With Booker, Chriss and a lottery pick in the 2017 draft, the Suns will have three young pieces on cap-friendly contracts. That should help with their third important item…

Keeping The Books In Order

A big problem for a team in the midst of rebuild is spending money unwisely in order to salvage a few short-term wins. Should the Suns want to work toward the ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship, they would be wise to avoid cramming their salary cap with players who don’t fit there long-term.

First and foremost, the Suns should rid themselves of Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler

Over the same 10-game span that has seen Chriss and Tyler Ulis play valuable minutes for the Suns, Knight and Chandler have been riding the bench.Their contracts aren’t pretty—three years at $43.8 million for Knight and two years at $26.5 million for Chandler. Neither player seems to fit with the team, either. Knight was lost in the rotation as Phoenix boasts a bevy of talented guards in Booker, Ulis and Eric Bledsoe. Chandler doesn’t fit the pace of the Suns’ system and with Phoenix drafting Chriss and Dragan Bender last June, an aging big man with a bigger contract doesn’t serve them any good in a lost season.

Suns head coach Earl Watson spoke recently about the choice to sit his veterans.

“I’m not changing it unless management changes it,” Waston said. “I have a boss and my boss has a boss, so whatever comes from up top is what’s going to happen. And right now, that’s not even part of our equation.”

Watson then went on to mention how such a move is a “great thing for younger players” but how “it’s a dangerous thing for coaches.”

Should Watson continue to let his young guys get some run and develop them to their strengths, he shouldn’t have to worry about his job status for the foreseeable future.

Next season, Knight and Chandler will account for a combined 26.1 percent of the Suns’ salary cap, should they stick around. For two players who seem to be on the outside looking in before this season is even over, having that money freed up seems like a much more useful practice than continuing to tie it up in those two players.

This season is surely one to be forgotten for Suns fans, but if management is smart with their money and targets the correct players for their system, and if Watson continues to get the most out of his budding stars, the Suns could relive their early 2000’s glory days and shine brightly on the rest of the NBA.

Turning a team around is not overnight process. But, fortunately for the Suns, there is an apparent path forward.