The Phoenix Suns model is to have just enough veterans to teach the young guys the right way to play the game and make the playoffs, then fade into the distance when the young guys are ready to take over.
The Phoenix Suns have had a busy year trying to find the right combination of players to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010 without sacrificing most of their youth and future draft picks along the way.
"What we've tried to do isn't easy," Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said last week.
The Suns have fielded one of the youngest NBA teams the last two years and won 87 games against 77 losses, but came up short of the playoffs each time. After surprising the league with a 48-34 record in 2013-14, the Suns crashed back to earth last season behind a series of unfortunate events culminating in losing 10 of 11 to close the year with a 39-43 record and yet another late lotto pick.
The Suns have done this with a growing stable of youth, supplemented by a sprinkling of veterans to help carry the load.
"The thought process is, as time goes on," he said. "You try to have a winning team every year, you try to get into the playoffs and try to compete for a championship every year. And then at some point, the older players their level falls off and they're not what they once were the young guys have developed and are ready to step right in."
The problem is the Suns haven't had enough of those high-value older players to hold the fort and win games until the kids are ready to win games on their own.
After a cinderella 2013-14 season, the Suns front office mistakenly thought the kids were ready. The team went really young, letting veteran Channing Frye leave in free agency, reducing roles of late-20s Goran Dragic and Gerald Green, and trusting the team to handful of 25-and-unders who held it together for a while but eventually unraveled.
Clearly, that plan didn't work.
"Last year I thought we were too much skewed toward the younger end," McDonough said. "I thought we were a little small up front, we got beat up sometimes in the post and on the boards."
Nine players (two starters) are gone from last season's opening night roster: Goran Dragic, Zoran Dragic, Tyler Ennis, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Miles Plumlee, Shavlik Randolph, Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver. More than half of them were regular rotation players (Goran, Gr33n, Mook, Miles and IT). Also gone is the prized Laker pick that is only Top-3 protected in 2016.
Seven more players came and went during the 2014-15 season, including Brandan Wright, Earl Barron, Seth Curry, Marcus Thornton, Danny Granger, Reggie Bullock and A.J. Price. None will be back in 2015-16. Still hanging on: Jerel McNeal, who may be released after Summer League before his 2015-16 contract becomes guaranteed.
Only six players remain from last season's opening-night roster, four of them starters most of the year. Still around are Markieff Morris (longest-tenured Suns player at 4 years), Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin. The Suns also have their own future draft picks, plus three more future first-round draft picks, currently slotted in 2016 (Cleveland's, via Boston), 2018 (Miami's, top 7 protected) and 2021 (Miami's, unprotected).
As we stand on July 13, three of those returning players project to be starters in 2015-16. Only Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker were on the roster inherited by GM Ryan McDonough 26 months ago.
The last two weeks have been a whirlwind around the Suns roster. Just since June 25, the night of the NBA Draft, the Suns have re-signed Brandon Knight and added six new players - Devin Booker (R), Jon Leuer, Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic, Sonny Weems, and Ronnie Price.
Tyson Chandler is the only new starter added, but Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems expect to get a lot of playing time next season as long as they are making their shots. Of the five new players added, only one (Booker) is younger than 27 years old.
"We certainly upgraded the roster," McDonough said. "Tyson is a huge part of that. The young guys can learn a lot from him and watch him. And some of the other veteran guys we brought in as well. Hopefully, take the next step next year and make the playoffs."
Despite all the changes, the Suns still return three players who have been in the starting lineup most of the last two seasons: PF Markieff Morris, SF P.J. Tucker and PG Eric Bledsoe. None is sure-fire All-Star caliber, but all three contribute to a winning environment.
GM McDonough and President Lon Babby have been trying to surround them with an All-Star or two but just have not been able to close the deal. The Suns have not had an All-Star since Steve Nash retired/left the Suns in 2012.
In retrospect, it's quite amazing that coach Jeff Hornacek has been able to squeeze out an 87-77 record from this squad despite the lack of top-end talent and a plethora of unfortunate off-court and on-court events.
Now, the suns can trot out center Tyson Chander, the first player ever to wear Suns colors who was at one point the league's Defensive Player of the Year (2011). He is also the team's first All-Star (2013) player since Steve Nash.
At 32, Chandler may never be an All-Star again, but the same was said of Shaquille O'Neal who made the team in 2009 thanks to the training staff mafia #TSM. Even so, he's the Suns most accomplished player, having made the playoffs in 7 of the last 8 years.
Joining him in the starting lineup next season is Brandon Knight, just turned 23, who was acquired last spring but only played 11 games for the Suns before injuring his ankle. Knight was under consideration for an All-Star berth in the Eastern Conference before coming to the Suns. He won't be an All-Star in the deep West, but he will be an improving starter still on the upswing of his career.
Most of the turnover occurred on the bench, but even there the primary bench unit of Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin are returning players. Only veterans Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems look to be new regulars.
All tolled, that's four new regular rotation players (two starters) who will begin the 2015-16 season as of this writing in mid-July. Booker, Price and Leuer are unlikely to play major roles next year unless the Suns suffer from major injuries or ineffectiveness.
The depth chart a year ago:
The Suns regular rotation last season was the youngest of the West playoff contenders (26.1 years old), while they clung to the 8th position in the West until the trade deadline. The team's average playing age dropped to 24.3 years after the trade deadline though, which contributed (along with injuries) to the Suns losing record in the second half.
The depth chart now:
"The model involves some veteran guys starting and playing the majority of the minutes and the young guys learning from them," he said at the Chandler press conference. "And then at some point, the older players when their level falls off and they're not what they once were, the young guys have developed and are ready to step right in."
"That's what the good teams and good organizations do."
San Antonio is a perfect example of this, at least with the development of Kawhi Leonard in recent years as well as the development of unheralded young guys in Patty Mills, Danny Green and Corey Joseph, among others.
With the addition of Chandler (33 years old on opening night), Teletovic (29) and Weems (29) to the rotation, you'd think the Suns would be getting a lot older again. But they won't.
Assuming some basic distribution of minutes on a 10-deep rotation (not including Price, Booker or Leuer), the Suns will still be playing at just over 24 years old next season over the course of the game. The starters will run a bit older (27 collectively, mostly because of 30 year old Tucker and 33 year old Chandler), while the bench will be considerably younger on the whole. Ages are as of opening night.
On the surface, the Phoenix Suns have exhausted all their cap space with the agreed-to contracts.
But the Suns have not officially signed anyone new beyond Tyson Chandler at the moment. They will have to use their cap space to sign Teletovic to his $5.5 million contract, but it's possible that Weems and Price could be fit into the "room" exception and a veteran minimum exception, respectively, for teams that reach the cap in one offseason. Knight, whose cap hold is smaller than his new salary, will still be signed last.
In the meantime, if the Suns release Jerel McNeal next week (after Summer League ends) before officially signing any more players, they could have somewhere between $4.5-5.5 million in cap space to offer another player or include in a trade if they so choose.
"There's a few more moves to come," McDonough said in the Chandler press conference last week.
Lon Babby said the Suns roster would be largely finalized "in the next two weeks".
They might have just been talking about Weems/Price/Teletovic. But at the time, Teletovic was the only 'unknown' name and the agreement to terms occurred before the press conference started.
We may not be done yet.
Phoenix now 1-1 in Summer League play.
The dream of an undefeated 2015 NBA Summer League is over.
The Phoenix Suns opened up Summer League play with an 86-77 win over the Washington Wizards. There were plenty of positives to take away after that victory on Saturday. On Sunday Phoenix fell behind 30-19 after the first quarter and were beaten soundly by the Houston Rockets, 108-89. There were considerably fewer nice things to say.
Like Saturday, the Suns were out-hustled early and did themselves no favors with sloppy ball handling and poor communication. Unlike Saturday Phoenix dug a hole that was a little too deep. Where was the team defense today?
Archie Goodwin: "I guess it's on the bus, I don't know. We have to get better at that. We weren't talking as much as we were yesterday, we weren't on our gaps, we weren't helping each other out. Also, you got to realize we didn't have Alex Len, which is a key anchor in the back for us. I think even without him we could have done better on our gaps, we could have done better at contesting shots, we could have done better helping each other out."
T.J. Warren: "They were more aggressive than us. Rebounding, they just got after it more than us today. Just got to bounce back next game. First day was pretty solid. Today it was kind of tired. Just got to lock in next game and just focus in on that end. The other end I'm not worried about, that's going to come easy. Just got to lock in defensively."
Coach Nate Bjorkgren: "Yeah it was different. Yesterday we came out and we jumped out to that lead. Today we were on the other end of it. You know, that happens. These games are long games, and they're never over, and you saw throughout the game that we did cut it to three or four a couple of times, or cut it to four with the ball, and we kept fighting on our way back, so just one of those things where we got to start a little bit better."
Bjorkgren also weighed in on Len's absence.
"You know, I just coach these guys so they'll say when he's playing and when he isn't. Alex Len looked great yesterday. Obviously when he's in the paint there he's altering a lot of shots and getting a lot of those boards but again, these guys are on the floor, they're off the floor, everybody's got to step in. All 12 guys that we have to rebound and to do their job on defense and we'll be better against Utah."
A positive to take away from Sunday's performance was the improved shooting from Goodwin. He followed up a Saturday effort of 6 of 13 from the field and 1 of 4 from behind the arc with 6 of 10 and 2 of 3 on Sunday.
"Well if you look at the game yesterday I shot two of them that were, well three of them, and one of them was at halftime, when I shot a full-courter. One was with one second left, and the other one was towards the end of the game, that I shot with like two seconds on the clock. So I don't count those as misses towards how I was shooting. The shots that I shot when I was set, I'm like 3 for 4 or something like that. So I was 1 for 4 from three yesterday just for that simple fact."
Coach Bjorkren praised his team's effort on Sunday.
"You know I saw a lot of good things out there. The effort was there. I just think we needed to rebound the ball better and that's not one guy or two guys, that's team rebounding. We need to do a better job with that, making that a focus. I thought we left a lot of shots, you know three or four bunnies that we missed today. That could have maybe tied the game or put it to a one possession game. We did, we kept crawling back, and it just didn't work out."
"I didn't think we quit. We kept battling back. I know it got away from us a little bit there at the end. We kept fighting back and our guys are together in the locker room, and that's the most important thing."
Devin Booker struggled mightily on Sunday for Phoenix. The number 13 pick in the draft hit 4 of 11 shots for 12 points on Saturday. Sunday he hit just 2 of 12 attempts including 0 of 4 from three point range. Booker has yet to connect from behind the arc on 8 attempts in Summer League play.
Warren: "I told him to keep shooting. I'm not worried, Devin is a great shooter, great player. I believe he's going to come back, bounce back next game and shoot it tremendous. That's the type of player he is, he's a great player. Devin, he's very crafty on the offensive end, he can do a lot of stuff for us, he's a great shooter."
Coach Bjorkgren praised the other things that Booker does well when his shot isn't falling.
"He's been great. Defensively he's been great as well. And he had some good looks today they just didn't go down, but they'll go down next time. He shoots the ball nice. He shoots it clean. The guys were finding him, so he's going to be really good."
"He's a great teammate. Like really good teammate, really understands the game. In practice, he just fills it up. You're going to see him fill it up out here too, it's just a matter of time. He does a great job of running the floor, getting to those corners. He can handle it as you saw in game one, he handled an off the ball screen, hit a big jumper for us late in that first game, so he can do some nice things."
Looking forward to Tuesday's matchup with the Utah Jazz, Goodwin and Warren talked about their goals at Summer League.
Goodwin: "Win. Personally I don't really have anything I'm trying to really do just for the simple fact I wanted to just come out here and show that I've gotten better. My objective really is to win a championship."
"I mean I'm just playing the game how it goes. If you watch me play you know you can see that I've gotten better. So I'm not how here just trying to prove a point, I'm just out here playing."
Warren: "Just freshen up everything. Tone up my defense and do what I do best which is score. Just be aggressive when I'm out there and try to just lock in defensively and just communicate more on the defensive end."
Goodwin had another goal in mind for Warren this season.
"He's obviously showing what he's able to do. He's known as a scorer and he's stayed doing that. If we can get him to talk a little bit more, he'll be a great guy to come in and do what he does."
Phoenix is back in action against the Utah Jazz Tuesday at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. Tip off is scheduled for 4:30p PT.