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NBA Saturday: Can the Suns Compete?

After making some major trades, the Phoenix Suns may be a playoff threat next season … Gregg Popovich praises Becky Hammon

Cody Taylor profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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Can the Phoenix Suns Compete?

For a couple of seasons now, the Phoenix Suns have been known as a young team on the rise. Since finishing last in the Western Conference in the 2012-13 season, they’ve been within reach of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

It was just two years ago that the Suns made the jump from the worst team in the West at 25-57 to a team that narrowly missed the playoffs by just one game in 2013-14. Jeff Hornacek guided Phoenix to a 23-game improvement in his first year as head coach as the Suns became one of the feel-good stories of the year.

Following that huge improvement, expectations were high heading into last season. In the face of those high expectations, the Suns responded by going 39-43 and missed the playoffs for a fifth-consecutive season. While some may have labeled their season a bust by not making the playoffs, their wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline may prove helpful down the line.

The Suns were tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth-best record in the West on the day of the trade deadline. It was around this time that long-time Suns point guard Goran Dragic informed the team that he would not exercise his player option for the 2015-16 season to stay in Phoenix. The team was then placed into a situation where they could lose Dragic for nothing if they didn’t trade him by the deadline. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made the decision to trade Dragic, but also traded away Isaiah Thomas as well. By trading both point guards, the Suns were able to acquire three future first-round draft picks.

The Suns entered last season with three starting-caliber point guards in Eric Bledsoe, Thomas and Dragic. The team recognized that the three guards were struggling to coexist on the court, so the decision to trade away two of those players became an easy one to make. The Suns’ front office knew that trading away those players would hurt their short-term success, and consequently hurt their playoff chances as the Suns finished six games out of the final playoff spot in the West.

Executing that trade allowed the Suns to subsequently trade for Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks. Knight played in just 11 games for the Bucks after an ankle injury limited him, but he was coming off of a career season in Milwaukee, averaging 17.8 points, 5.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game.

With Knight coming off of a career year, the Suns made him a priority this offseason and the two sides quickly agreed to a five-year, $70 million deal on the first day of free agency. The Suns then moved on to free agent center Tyson Chandler and agreed to a four-year, $52 million contract the next day. It was clear at this point that the team had laid out a detailed plan on how they wanted to approach the summer.

They’d retain Knight and add Chandler and then use those two signings in an attempt to sell free agent LaMarcus Aldridge on moving to Phoenix. They began to pitch Aldridge on the idea of pairing him up next to Chandler in the frontcourt. The ploy seemed to be working so much that reports surfaced stating the Suns had “closed the gap” in their pursuit of Aldridge. The front office then began to start clearing up cap space in order to sign Aldridge. To seriously be in the running for the most coveted free agent on the market isn’t bad for a team just three years removed from earning the worst record in the conference.

By now, we know that the Suns eventually fell short of signing Aldridge as he instead signed with the San Antonio Spurs. But by trading Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons, the Suns cleared up just over $8 million in cap space. Instead of using that new space on Aldridge, they targeted a stretch-four and opted to sign Mirza Teletovic in free agency. In addition to clearing up cap space, parting ways with those players will also free up more playing time for some of the team’s younger players, such as T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin. Both players were buried on the bench last season, but figure to see more time next season.

Warren and Goodwin both participated in the Las Vegas Summer League and both were very productive. Warren finished ninth among all players with 18.7 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field, and Goodwin added 15.9 points per game while shooting 47 percent. Both players have been working out hard this summer and are doing all that they can to improve.

“I’m feeling a lot more comfortable out there,” Warren said. “I’m familiar with the NBA style more so basically [I’m] just trying to work on my game. [The game is] coming a little slower. [I] just got to be patient with certain type of stuff [and] just got to use my head and going with my first instinct but that will come with more development and more experience being out there.”

Some critiqued the Suns for signing an aging Chandler to such an aggressive deal. Chandler will be 36 at the conclusion of that deal and will be well past his prime. The Suns are hoping that the 7’1 center can make the team an immediate contender in the stacked Western Conference. He averaged 10.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game last season in his second stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Adding Chandler to the lineup will certainly help the Suns’ chances of taking another step forward in their rebuild. His addition should also help the younger players on the team develop as well.

“From what I’ve heard about him it seems like he’s a great guy, especially in the locker room,” Goodwin said. “From what I’ve seen on the court, he talks a lot. He’s very active and he’s very energetic. I think that’s something that we missed out on last year. I’m happy to have him with us and I know he’s going to be a great acquisition for us.

“I think we’re going to be led better than we were last year because we have a lot more veteran guys. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing. … We’re going to be a lot more playing for each other instead of playing for one person. The teams that are winning, they always play for each other, not for themselves. I feel like if we play for each other we’re going to have a great chance of making [the playoffs].”

With the West as stacked as it is, there could be 11 teams vying for playoff spots by the end of the season with the Suns being a part of that mix. While Chandler’s addition has been a welcomed sign for the team, another positive they’ll be carrying into next season will be the health of Bledsoe. Last season was his fifth in the league and the first in which he’s played in at least 80 games since his rookie campaign. Having Bledsoe back at 100 percent will be a crucial part of the plan to get back into the playoffs.

The Suns are hoping their deadline deals will pay out in the long term. They gambled by passing on a potential playoff appearance this season in favor of multiple appearances down the road by making those trades. And the draft picks the Suns acquired will certainly be important assets they can utilize moving forward.

Now, it’s time to see what the new pieces can accomplish and if they can prove to be a playoff threat next season.

Popovich Praises Becky Hammon

Perhaps one of the biggest stories of the Las Vegas Summer League was Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon. She coached the Spurs’ squad to a Summer League championship and earned praise from virtually everyone in the sports world, and even from those outside of the sports world.

So, it should come as no surprise that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was among those that was impressed.

“I hired her because she was in my coaches meetings for an entire year because she was injured,” Popovich said in a radio interview on KNBR in San Francisco. “She’s got opinions and solid notions about basketball. Obviously, she was a great player. As a point guard, she’s a leader, she’s fiery, she’s got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her, so she’s coaching with us, she’s running drills. That’s why we made her a full-time coach and gave her the opportunity to coach at summer league.”

As history has shown, Popovich has a long history of hiring assistant coaches that have gone on to become head coaches. Mike Budenholzer, Alvin Gentry, Monty Williams and Brett Brown are some of the names that were Spurs assistant coaches before finding roles as head coaches later on. Hammon could be well on her way to finding a head coaching position as well.

“I don’t even look at it as, well, she’s the first female this and that and the other,” Popovich said. “She’s a coach, and she’s good at it. I think some people thought this was some kind of gimmick or we were just trying to be cool.

“I’m glad she’s there. I respect her opinion, I enjoy the give-and-take with her, and when she went to the summer league, that stuff’s about development. … That was her purpose at summer league, and she did a great job trying to make guys play the way we wanted them to play.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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