The Phoenix Suns will trot out yet another revamped roster for 2015/16. Will fewer cooks in the kitchen and a new dynamic in the locker room mean an end to their playoff drought?
Team Name: Phoenix Suns
Last Year's Record: 39-43
Key Losses: Marcus Morris, Gerald Green, Brandan Wright
Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic, Sonny Weems, Jon Leuer, Devin Booker, Ronnie Price
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
There wasn't much earth left for Suns' GM Ryan McDonough to scorch by the time the summer began. Following the madness at the trade deadline that saw five players shipped out and only Brandon Knight coming to the desert, the Suns finally collapsed under the weight of a couple key injuries down the stretch and entered the offseason with a number of holes to fill.
They swung for the fences, nearly pulling off a coup to bring LaMarcus Aldridge to Phoenix to pair in the frontcourt with center Tyson Chandler, who was quickly signed to a 4 year, $52 million contract. This moved promising young big man Alex Len to the bench, forming something Suns fans aren't used to: a firm foundation at the center spot.
Knight struggled to find a groove during his short stint in Phoenix before an ankle injury shut down his season, but the Suns were undeterred, locking up the combo guard for 5 years at $70 million. Knight put up impressive numbers before the All-Star break as a Milwaukee Buck, and will join up with Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt to revive the dual-PG system that had unanticipated success in 2013/14 with Goran Dragic.
The Suns also cleared out a logjam at small forward in a trade with the Pistons that sent away Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger for only a future second-round pick. This opened up minutes for T.J. Warren, who displayed an impressive scoring ability after finally earning rotation minutes during the late stages of his rookie season.
Forward Mirza Teletovic was signed to help stretch the floor with his career 36.2 3P%, and Sonny Weems will be returning to the NBA after his stint in CSKA (Moscow), where he developed a three-point shot to add to his multi-faceted style of play. Both players received only one-year guarantees, with the Suns holding a team option on Weems.
To shore up the frontline depth, second-round pick Andrew Harrison was flipped for Jon Leuer on draft day. This is important because Earl Barron actually received rotation minutes during the latter stages of the 2014/15 season.
Leuer has potential as a stretch big, hitting 36.7% from 3 on only 90 career attempts. While he isn't in immediate position to challenge anyone for minutes, he is already making his presence felt on the roster, going for 17 points and 13 rebounds in only 19 minutes during the Suns' first preseason game.
Ronnie Price was also brought in on a one-year deal to provide encouragement and emergency point guard duty.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
It's not easy to say right now. The Suns are ostensibly built to be a spacing-and-shooting team driven by dual ballhandlers, but there doesn't appear to be a wealth of shooters on this roster. It also remains to be seen how well Knight and Bledsoe can complement each other, and it is a bit troubling that they share some of the same weaknesses (turnovers, overall decision-making).
As utterly bizarre as it seems, the Suns' biggest strength might be defense. Chandler and Len will provide the team with 48 minutes of rim protection as long as both are healthy and available. Bledsoe is one of the best defenders at his position when locked in, P.J. Tucker has guarded everyone from Monta Ellis to DeMarcus Cousins, and Weems has proved to be a plus defender both in the NBA and overseas.
While their offense has lost some firepower since last opening night, the roles appear to be more defined this time around. The plethora of score-first players has been systematically whittled down and replaced with a group that seems much more poised to complement one another rather than wrestle away shot attempts.
It might not be as talented, but it figures to be easier on the eyes than the previous iteration, which was rife with improv acts and devoid of assists. With a team playing for each other rather than themselves, who knows what might happen?
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The Suns thrived in 2013/14 with a pace-and-space attack, ranking 8th in both Offensive Rating (109.5) and 3-point shooting (.372). Last offseason, they effectively replaced stretch big Channing Frye with Isaiah Thomas, moving Markieff Morris to the starting power forward spot. With less driving lanes, the roster full of high-usage scorers resorted to chucking isolation jumpers and the shooting slowly evaporated with the deteriorating chemistry (.341 from 3 by season's end).
It's hard to feel confident that the team's three-point shooting was improved this summer. Warren and third-year guard Archie Goodwin combined to shoot 27.2% in 2014/15, while Morris and Bledsoe are both only at 32% for their respective careers. Weems hit a respectable percentage overseas (36.8% over four seasons), but his NBA 3P% currently stands at 24.1.
The purest shooter on this team is probably Devin Booker, who just turned 19 years old and is currently the youngest player in the NBA. With a system that relies heavily on shooting to be successful, the Suns basically need every shooter on the team to improve from last season.
Additionally, the bench in general looks to be a wildcard at this point, with most key contributors either being very young or looking to regain their footing in the NBA.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Playoffs, as always.
If the Suns fall short again, it will be the longest playoff drought in their 47-year history. Playing in the Western Conference without a true star player will again complicate matters, but the fanbase in Phoenix desperately needs something to get excited about and has offered about as much patience as can reasonably be expected.
If playoffs are out of the question, some stability and professionalism would be a decent consolation prize. Only five players remain from the 2013 opening night roster, and many of the departed have voiced displeasure with the organization on their way out of town. Most fans realize that building a competitive roster requires a lot of eggs to be broken, but the chorus of disgruntled players in Phoenix has been deafening.
Add in the unseemly barrage of technical fouls last season, plus a felony assault charge for good measure, and quite frankly the last twelve months have been embarrassing. For a franchise with a rich history of likable players and fun teams, it should be a top priority to put a group of guys together that are easy to root for.
The organization seems to have realized this. They made locker-room leadership a top priority of the summer, scoring big in that department with Chandler. After returning from training camp they held a free scrimmage in their old stomping grounds, affectionately called the 'Madhouse on McDowell', replete with appearances by various Suns legends. The next logical step would seem to be extending the contract of their charismatic head coach, Jeff Hornacek, who has impressively secured a winning record during his first two seasons despite the lack of a star player, endless roster turnover, and considerable turmoil off the court.
Hornacek is entering the final year of his contract and is more recognizable in Phoenix than many of his players. Here's hoping the team plays well enough early on to secure their coach's job.
5. What's going on with Markieff Morris?
Only Markieff knows. Well, and Marcus. He probably knows too.
After the trade of his brother sent Markieff into a tantrum both on Twitter and in the media proper that lasted the whole latter half of the summer, Morris reported to Media Day and declared his wish to stay in Phoenix. He also refused to discuss his own behavior, giving the appearance of a man who isn't exactly penitent, but is willing to bear with the present situation for the sake of his teammates and his own future.
To suggest that the Suns are still fielding offers for Morris is a bit misleading. Until a contending team is assembled, it is reasonable to assume they are fielding offers for everyone.
Finding a trade partner for Morris figures to be quite difficult, however. He is facing charges for felony assault, and the trial proceedings are currently scheduled to last the majority of the season, if not longer. Marcus Morris was traded despite being charged with the exact same assault, but the Suns were able to secure nothing but a future second-rounder for him.
Markieff is a better player than his brother, and trading him for scraps is simply not a palatable proposition.
Trade rumors are certain to swirl during the upcoming season, but any team interested in his services would have to relinquish a player of comparable value. So why would a front office willingly swap two players who are more or less equal just to land the one with legal troubles and a recent history of other behavioral issues?
Markieff has dug a hole to deep to climb from in Phoenix, and both sides are likely going to have to get used to each other for the time being.
6. Playoff Predictions?
I honestly have no idea what this team will do. If their supporting cast meshes well and one or both of Bledsoe/Knight has a career year, this could be a very good team. Chandler and Len will do all the dirty work in the paint, and there are enough lunchpail guys on this team to make me feel wary about doubting them.
On the other hand, there are a few too many question marks to allow much confidence until we all get a long look at these guys.
Flip a coin. I really can't even guess.