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NBA PM: Suns Managing Len, Minutes and Roster Imbalance

Suns are managing minutes, Alex Len’s pending free agency and roster imbalance in a bumpy season.

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For the Phoenix Suns, the NBA Playoffs are 58 games away. The team came into the season with relatively low expectations after finishing last season with the NBA’s second-worst record. In addition, the team’s plan for the season included the continued reliance on a number of young developing players. However, the team started well enough and after eight games were 4-4 after a 122-116 win on the road against the Washington Wizards on November 1.

Unfortunately, since then the team is 4-12 and quickly appear to be well beyond any postseason hopes. Although the season is still young, the franchise has already fired its original head coach Earl Watson (after three games) and traded away its starting point guard, Eric Bledsoe, after his public complaints. Now at 8-16, the team must set more wide-ranging goals than just winning and losing to help define success.

Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough, who served in this role since 2013, recently spoke about a number of topics recently including how to balance winning against development for this team.

“It’s a challenge any time you have a young team,” McDonough responded in an interview with 98.7 Arizona Sports. “We’re a historically young team.”

For comparative purposes, the Suns are the youngest team in the NBA. However, McDonough quickly went on to project optimism regarding the franchise’s attitude towards winning.

“We want to win as many games as possible,” McDonough stated while balancing this idea with the following caveat. “Given the age and inexperience of our roster, we’ve been happy with the level of competitiveness most nights. A few nights it’s gotten away from us.”

Interim Coach Jay Triano (promoted following Watson’s dismissal) addressed the managing such a young roster and meshing that with the franchise’s goals.

“They’ve asked me to play who deserves to play, and reward who is playing well. That could be it right there. Guys are going to get minutes based on production.” Triano said after the team had lost an overtime game to the Milwaukee Bucks. “Our goal was to have these guys compete at a high level and hold guys accountable.”

McDonough spoke of Triano’s coaching style and echoed the franchise’s philosophy regarding holding players accountable under the new coach.

“We don’t want to set the precedent where anybody will get unconditional minutes regardless of how they play,” McDonough stated. “We want our guys to earn it.”

When asked about second-year power forward Marquese Chriss and center Alex Len, McDonough brought up the positional logjam the team faces at power forward and center.

“[W]e have some other good options (besides Chriss) at the power forward spot, Dragan Bender, Jared Dudley, even T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson, if we go small.”

The Suns know what they have in Dudley, a 10-year veteran that has been around the league, and Warren, the only other reliable offensive option after star guard Devin Booker. However, the team has a dilemma when the three other players mentioned, Chriss, Bender and Jackson, are each 20 years old, and require the opportunity to play demonstrate progress and potential. Things don’t get any easier when it comes to minutes at the center position.

McDonough recently spoke specifically about center Alex Len, who recently sat out two of three games in late November and is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

“I think anytime you have three quote, unquote traditional centers with Alex Len, Tyson Chandler and Greg Monroe, its hard because short of an injury or foul trouble, usually you only play two guys in that slot,” McDonough stated. “Especially in today’s NBA, in the pace and space era with as fast as teams play today, it’s hard to play any more than two guys it can be hard to find minutes even for two.”

For comparison, since the departure of Bledsoe, the Suns have been employing Tyler Ullis, a 5-foot-10 playmaker who is likely best suited as a back-up and Mike James, a rookie signed under the new two-way player contract system where he must be signed to a standard NBA contract or eventually released as a free agent. This leaves the Suns thin at the point and helps explain why the Suns are last in assist to turnover ratio in the NBA, per NBA.com.

McDonough addressed the ability of Triano to manage players minutes.

“One of Jay’s [Triano] many strengths is that he communicates and is upfront with the players,” McDonough stated. “I guess something that he communicated to Alex last week is that he may not play but he should stay ready.”

Coach Triano made it clear that he believed Len had played well recently and praised the young center after a win against the Bulls. Len had just come off of a 17-point, 18-rebound game in a win against the Lakers.

“He was great not only defensively but also rebounding the basketball. He’s done a good job. He’s stayed ready,” Triano stated. “We told him there would be some games that we couldn’t play three bigs. So, stay ready and he did, and he was outstanding.”

While the front office has commended Len for being patient and rising to the occasion when his number is called, Len didn’t shy away from voicing his frustration.

“I want to be out there and I want to compete,” Len stated last week. “I put in the work hoping to show my skills on the court. So, when you’re not able to your team, it’s frustrating.”

In his fifth season, Len has been a part of the franchise since being drafted fifth in the 2013 draft and is still shy of his 25th birthday. Contrast Len with Chandler, 35 years old, and Monroe, who is 27 years old but whose long term future with the team is unclear as he was only recently acquired in the Bledsoe trade and is also an unrestrected free agent. In addition, Len has been averaging 14.0 points, 1.4 blocks (down from last season) and 14.7 rebounds (would be a career high) per 36 minutes. McDonough was willing to address whether Len is seen as a part of the future and under what circumstances that may happen.

“We are certainly open to that,” McDonough stated. “Nobody would be happier than us if he continues to play well and we give him a big contract next summer. That would mean that he earned it. It also probably means that he was pretty consistent in the course of 82 games.”

McDonough statements indicate that bringing Len back is a possibility but that he has to continue to demonstrate that his play, consistency and potential must warrant the investment going forward. Like other young players on the Sun’s roster, the hope is they will prove they are worth the investment but it’s not clear if there are enough minutes to allow that to happen.

One additional complicating factor is the long term status of Triano as the coach. After being promoted as the interim head coach, Triano was asked about coaching the team long term and appeared possibly noncommittal.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Triano said. “But I’m going to embrace this 100 percent and dive into like I hav everything else in my career.”

The Suns are a franchise that continues to build towards the future. Not only do they have a wealth of young talent on the roster but are to set to have more incoming. In addition to their own first round pick (which should be a high draft pick), they may also receive first round picks owed from previous transactions from Miami (very likely) and Milwaukee (less likely) based on various protections.

With so much potential, the team is in a good position to be active in the trade market to help alleviate their roster imbalance and potentially allow the younger players on the team to demonstrate what they can do. With the playoffs out of reach, the team needs to make sure that they do what’s necessary to allow the young players to earn their minutes and show what they can do.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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