Isaiah Thomas and T.J. Warren will help the Suns get tough buckets in crunch time and the playoffs. But how much of a good thing is too much? Also, Eric Bledsoe's contract negotiations leave me feeling further alienated from the stoic star...
Hey there readers... Yes, both of you. Going Gorilla is back by popular demand! And by popular demand I mean one person was insistent that I resuscitate the weekly segment of opinionated prose. So here goes nothing (or at least very close to it).
"That's a tough skill to have. A lot of guys, they can shoot open shots but when you get down in -- and hopefully we're in the playoffs -- you start getting into the playoffs in tough games, you need tough buckets. He's a guy (T.J. Warren) that we think can get tough buckets."
- Jeff Hornacek (on azsports.com)
The main impetus for the Suns drafting Warren is his elite scoring ability. Warren was the second most prodigious scorer in college basketball last season, averaging over 28 points per 40 minutes, with a .590 TS%. This is even more impressive considering that Warren managed the feat in a major conference (ACC). Here are the schools of the other top 10 scorers in the NCAA last season - Creighton, Niagara, Canisius, Tennessee St., BYU, Evansville, Eastern Washington, Providence and Texas Southern. Pure speculation on my behalf leads me to believe that Warren may have achieved his exploits against more formidable defenses.
In T.J.'s last two simulations of playoff style basketball he had mostly positive, though somewhat mixed, results. Warren scored 16 of his 25 points in the second half of N.C. State's play in game against Xavier that qualified the Wolfpack for the NCAA tournament. In his team's first round match against St. Louis, the fifth seed in the Midwest Region, Warren went for 28 (his 19th consecutive game over 20), but was just 6-14 from the line... including a miss that would have tied the game in the final minute of overtime. Warren was a .690 free throw shooter on the season.
Warren will want to shore up that free throw shooting in addition to working on extending his range.
Obviously the Suns couldn't predict (with exact certainty) what would be available in free agency when they selected Warren with their first pick (#14 overall) in the NBA draft, but what was the greatest strength of their first free agent acquisition?
Elite scoring ability.
As I previously delineated in my story heralding Isaiah Thomas's great fit on the Suns, Thomas was one of just six players in the NBA last season to average at least 20 points and six assists per game. He did this on an efficient .574 TS%.
But did he get tough buckets?
According to 82games.com Thomas was 16th in the NBA in points per 48 minutes (36.9) during clutch time (which is defined as fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points). Isaiah was 23rd in FGA per 48 minutes (25) while shooting .400 from the field. Does .400 sound low? Remember, these are tough buckets. Of the 22 players ahead of Thomas he was better than or tied with 14 of them. Where Thomas really shines is getting to the line at the 14th highest rate while knocking them down at a .920 rate.
How will this translate to his new role on the Suns, though, where he may struggle to get minutes at the end of games competing with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe for playing time?
Bledsoe makes his own case for getting tough buckets.
Bledsoe was fifth in the NBA in points per 48 minutes (41.8) during clutch time. Bledsoe was fifth in FG% among the top 10 in scoring per 48. Eric was 13th in FTA per 48, one spot ahead of Thomas, but made just .770. Not necessarily terrible, but fourth lowest among the top 14.
What about Dragic?
This set of criteria isn't as glowing for the Dragon. He finished 99th in scoring per 48, below his teammates Markieff Morris (57) and Gerald Green (92). Does this mean Goran isn't clutch?
The San Antonio Spurs might disagree, but that fourth quarter is about the extent of Dragic's crunch time playoff career. In fact, it's about the extent of the entire team's crunch time playoff career...
Bledsoe could have dominated the ball late in games the duo played together, but he missed quite a few games. Other sets of teammates also were able to rank near the top (Nowitzki, Ellis - Durant, Westbrook), so it's definitely possible for a team to have two players that combine to close out games. Dragic just wasn't offensively assertive according to this metric.
**Perfunctory disclaimer about the reliability of advanced statistics as evaluation tools.**
A little bit more anti-rainbow information that can be inferred from the clutch time statistics. The Suns ability to score late may be disrupted by their ability to maintain possession of the ball. Bledsoe (6), Thomas (9) and Dragic (26) were all near the top in most turnovers...
Spoiler alert - Warren may not jump to the top of the clutch time scorers in his rookie season. Who knows if he'll even be able crack the rotation and wrestle away minutes from returning veterans. With seasoning the Suns hope is that he'll join that class eventually. The Suns shouldn't need that from him right away, either.
The Suns have a wealth of elite scoring and players with track records of finishing games.
But how much is too much? Phoenix added four new players this offseason, none of whom are known as strong defenders. Thomas and Warren can help get the team buckets, but none of the additions appear to be elite at getting the team stops. The team's philosophy of getting two way players appears to have run catawampus.
At this point I wouldn't expect the Suns defense, which was already deficient compared to its offense, to improve heading into next season. The offense has won the seesaw battle this offseason.
One of the Suns players that gets the team those tough buckets is in another tough situation right now. Eric Bledsoe's contract negotiations have taken on the perception of outward hostility even if that doesn't necessarily exist in reality. Eric's representation believes he is worth the max, even though he's in a position with very little leverage to demand it.
Many people thought Bledsoe would receive a max offer sheet from another team that the Suns would be forced to match. He hasn't. Bledsoe's intentionally evasive and aloof nature all the way through his exit interview seemed to be a negotiating tactic designed to educe a deal from another team in free agency. It didn't.
And if it was a negotiating tactic, as I've stated before, I think he (despite what Lon Babby might have said) was getting bad advice. I still very much question whether Eric Bledsoe wants to be a Phoenix Sun.
Above all, I think Bledsoe wants to be where he gets paid. That aspect of reality was once again made quite transparent in the relocation of Channing Frye to the Orlando Magic. Money talks and hometown discounts are few and far between. Loyalty is very nebulous in the business of professional sports.
Completely aside from Channing, there shouldn't be any other expectation than for Bledsoe to fight for every contract dollar. The first way I would think of using the words Phoenix, Bledsoe and hometown in a sentence is... Phoenix doesn't feel like Bledsoe's hometown.
Some of this is due to the fact that Eric Bledsoe is so reticent and impassive. Basketball is entertainment and I don't think it's beyond reason that I should expect a little off the court flavor from the players on my team. Bledsoe is as insipid as they come.
Dragic takes every opportunity to let it be known just how much he likes playing in Phoenix. He's a star player a fanbase can really get behind. I really like Goran Dragic. For some reason when I think of Bledsoe's relationship with Phoenix I'm more reminded of the pallor that fell over Zach Lavine when he heard his name called by the Minnesota Timberwolves. I'll admit that I've never been much of a Bledsoe guy.
Maybe I'm on an island here, but if Eric was just a little more charismatic and had been a little more complimentary of his time here in Phoenix... I'd be a little more inclined for the Suns to sweeten their deal. Here's my slide - if the on court performance is relatively equal the guy with the personality off it is going to garner my affection. Even though these situations are always evolving a player usually exudes the appearance of belonging unless he doesn't want to belong (see Love, Kevin).
Am I picking on Eric based on his social skills and personality? Quite possibly. At the same time, I get the feeling that every other player on the roster really likes being here. I just don't get the vibe from Eric.
There are a lot of great players around the league that can at least pretend to enjoy the situation they're currently in and I still think that settling for a max (or near) player that can't bring the complete package is, well... settling. With these protracted negotiations shuffling along towards the end of July I'm not sure whether I find myself siding more with the Phoenix Suns or against Eric Bledsoe, in a situation that has always felt more venal than familial.
If things end up getting settled and Bledsoe plays up to (or outplays) his contract and the team flourishes the wins might have a way of swaying my opinion on this subject. I'm not intransigent to the point that I can't be won over by a post-contract Bledsoe and a playoff Suns team.
It could happen.
But it also wouldn't break my heart right now if the Suns decided to move on from Bledsoe and go in a different direction with a player that feels a little more like a Phoenix Sun.