How will the Suns' focus on developing their young players affect their long term success, and the expectations of the fans this season?
Although the Suns came out of the NBA All-Star break barely holding onto what would be the eighth and final seed if the playoffs would have begun right then, they have since been sliding down the standings. And save for an impressive win over the Thunder on national television last week, they have also been trending downward in their play and performance.
As long as the post season is at least a possibility for Phoenix, you can expect that the Suns will keep their younger players, like Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, and Reggie Bullock on a short leash, as they have been thus far. However, as the prospect of competing in the playoffs becomes more and more unreachable, you can expect a gradual shift toward developing players for the future rather than trying to compete in the here and now.
So what will that look like?
For one, I see little reason for the Suns to continue playing Marcus Thornton once they have waived the white flag on the season. Marcus is an $8.7 million expiring contract; nothing more, nothing less.
Thornton has some value for the Suns as a scorer if Phoenix is planning on making the post season. But he is not a part of the future of this team. You should expect his minutes to disappear altogether, or at least be drastically reduced (even more than they already have been) once this shift in direction is made.
Next, is Gerald Green. Green exploded onto the scene last season as an explosive scorer off the bench, and even in the starting line-up, who seemed to finally find the right team and system in which he could succeed.
Despite the fact that Green has had some good games this season as well, he has definitely come crashing back to Earth when compared to his impact from a year ago. So much, in fact, that he registered his first DNP-CD as a Phoenix Sun on January 30th against the Chicago Bulls, and registered his 2nd DNP after reportedly disappearing to the bathroom when coach Hornacek was going to sub him in on February 23 against the Celtics.
Although McDonough has consistently made remarks that the Suns would like to re-sign Gerald this off-season, I just don't see how he fits in the future of this team, unless he agrees to a drastically reduced contract...and even then.
The Suns will likely replace the minutes given to Gerald Green and Marcus Thornton with more Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, and Reggie Bullock in the coming weeks.
All three of these players are under contract for next season with very cheap team options for the season after, and they will all likely be given the opportunity to solidify their place in the rotation.
But with young players comes inconsistency, as Archie and T.J. have already demonstrated in their increased roles since the All-Star break.
Goodwin raised some eyebrows when he recorded double-digit scoring numbers in the first three consecutive games post All-Star break, something a 20 year-old hadn't done in Phoenix since Amare Stoudemire did it in 2003-2004.
As for Warren, he has also been a model of inconsistency thus far. T.J. has shown an impressive ability to cut at the right time on offense and also seems to have a nose for the ball, especially with offensive rebounds. However, his numbers have also been all over the board.
Warren's point totals in the five games that he's played in since the All-Star break look like this: 2, 8, 10, 9, 2. And while you may wonder if his minutes fluctuated just as much, they have been relatively consistent, averaging around 15 minutes per game.
Reggie Bullock is the biggest unknown, as he has yet to receive any meaningful minutes in the rotation. The one exception was the 14 minutes he played against the Spurs, where he shot 0/1 from the floor and failed to score any points.
While many Suns fans seem to be pining for the team to play the youngsters more, and appear resigned to the fact that the Suns are no longer in win-now mode, they must also understand that more minutes for the young guys, means more frustration and growing pains in the interim.
Suns fans have to prepare themselves for even more mistakes, turnovers, and bad decisions as the young players adjust to playing against more talented opponents, and getting consistent minutes on the court.
While I do believe the shift to developing more toward the future will be gradual, and is already happening to some degree, more minutes for the young players will mean more inconsistency...there isn't any getting around that.
Suns fans will need to be patient with the players, the team, and the coach as the Suns transition into development mode. Wins need to become less important than learning...you simply can't have it both ways.
Will Brandon Knight be known as Ryan McDonough's first big gamble?
We don't talk about the 2012-2013 Phoenix Suns enough. That team won 25 games, barely had any future assets on the roster, and was stuck with a large group of players that either didn't belong in the NBA or belonged on winning teams.
There was no hope. Some Suns fans (like myself) were hoping for a tank job in 2014 and dreaming of Andrew Wiggins.
New general manager Ryan McDonough did what he could to make this possible. He took all of the valuable basketball assets he had for the present and traded for the future. The point of this rebuild from McDonough was the lack of risk.
If the Suns were going to be terrible, they were going to be really terrible and hopefully end up with a franchise saving player though the draft. All of these deals made by McDonough didn't have any risk.
Marcin Gortat was not going to re-sign in Phoenix and was dealt for a first-round pick that turned into Tyler Ennis.
At the time the Suns did not need role players with veteran leadership so they traded them away. Jared Dudley and a second-round pick turned into Eric Bledsoe. Luis Scola turned into Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, and a future first-round pick.
What actually turned out happening was that the Suns were not terrible at all and decided to win 48 games. We all know that story though. The Suns moved a little too fast for McDonough in that story, but that did not stop him from rebuilding and continuing to look towards the future instead of the present.
He had a core for the future with Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, and all of his draft picks. At the other side off that core though was a duo of veterans who were ready to build upon that 48 wins in Goran Dragic and Channing Frye.
It looks like McDonough was not ready to take that risk, as he let Frye walk and sign a 4-year deal with the Magic. With Bledsoe's restricted free agency and Dragic surely becoming an unrestricted in 2015, McDonough took away the risk and signed an insurance policy in Isaiah Thomas to a very cheap contract.
There was no risk with Thomas. If one of the guards decided to leave, McDonough could replace him with a 20 PPG scorer ready to enter his prime. If both guards decided to stay, McDonough could move him very easily because of the cheap contract Thomas was on.
While that turned out to be a humongous risk that didn't work out (more on that later), McDonough thought he was taking his first risk in re-signing both Bledsoe and the Morris twins.
McDonough was looking towards the future and wanted his future All-Star point guard to stay in Phoenix and saw even more development in the Morris' future and decided to re-sign them a year early. This was not a major risk because these were major young assets that McDonough had to hold onto. There still was some present though and it has paid off so far.
Everything was looking up and all seemed secure for the Suns future. There was still a lot we did not know, but there wasn't much to worry about looking at the long-term future.
As it turns out, that would soon change. What we did know this season was that the Suns were not the same. The energy and balance on the floor was not there. Regression from certain players and prioritizing Thomas' playing time crippled them.
Little did we know, there was more than just a limp in this team's future as Dragic was extremely unhappy behind the scenes and wanted out of the organization. Further more, a list of teams he preferred magically found it's way to various NBA reporters, making this a no-win situation for the team he thought betrayed him.
The insurance policy of Thomas had backfired in the worst way possible and now the Suns didn't even have a chance to keep Dragic. Taking that a step further, it looked like Dragic was ready for a payday with the teams he listed and the Suns were not going to be able to avoid the risk of a player in his 30's regressing on a big-time contract.
While we could sit back and debate whether or not the Suns would have been able to keep Dragic, McDonough avoided the risk of that gauntlet in the summer and the even bigger risk of sticking to his guns by not even honoring the trade request and trying to pay him the most.
What McDonough got once again in a deal was something for the future, with the Miami Heat's 2017 protected first-round pick (top 7) and a 2021 unprotected first-round pick. Unless you think James Ennis and Shabazz Napier are the future, the Heat are going to need to get a once in a generation player again through either free agency or the draftin order for those picks to not be extremely valuable.
McDonough admitted in the press that the roster was unbalanced so he took option 2 in that Thomas situation and traded him for an expiring contract in Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick from Cleveland. While it wasn't in the dream scenario (Bledsoe and Dragic both on the roster), McDonough didn't want to risk an unbalanced roster any longer.
The fix for that deal though is where we finally arrive at Brandon Knight and it's the first major risk McDonough has taken in his tenure as general manager of the Phoenix Suns. The shining and glimmering asset of the asset-collecting McDonough was the protected first-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers.
McDonough has not been shy in admitting that the Suns were waiting for either an All-Star or a future All-Star to make their next move. Well, it looks like the Suns think that is Knight and they decided to deal the Lakers pick, Ennis, and Plumlee for the 23-year-old combo guard.
We can debate the value of that Lakers pick and whether or not it's highest value is right now, but where that Lakers pick winds up is the first big risk McDonough has taken.
If that Lakers pick turns out to be eligible this season (top five protected), Suns fans will be headbutting a wall as the Sixers take someone like Stanley Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, or Justise Winslow. If the Lakers suck again next year or even the years after that, the same situation occurs with the Sixers picking either in the top five or possibly even first overall in 2018. That's the risk.
The risk the Suns are betting on is free agency. They see the Lakers reloading in 2015 and that pick ending up somewhere in the mid-lottery. The other side of that coin is the Lakers striking out in free agency again and now we are back to headbutting walls.
The payoff of that risk is Brandon Knight, but like dealing the pick, Knight has his risks. He's been playing point guard in Milwaukee, but the Suns see him as more of a shooting guard who excels the most off the ball. The main question here is if Knight agrees and will this summer during his restricted free agency.
Even more of a risk is how much the 23-year-old decides to develop if he re-signs in Phoenix. The Suns seem to think he's that future All-Star they wanted, but is he really going to grow that much? Is that risk for eight figures worth more than the risk of that first-round pick? Going further, what about the money they would have saved on that rookie deal as opposed to Knight getting paid? What could they have done with that extra money and possibly the better asset?
The ordeal of Knight re-signing is a risk on its own, but those questions are going to determine if Ryan McDonough first true gamble as GM will come through.
Either way, McDonough is going to keep learning and we will learn along with him that there is always risk despite there not appearing to be any. He has certainly learned that with the Thomas deal.
Even two deals like getting Brandan Wright and Reggie Bullock for pretty much nothing still has to come with them earning time on the court and being able to play their natural position in order for the deals to actually pay off. Even while performing robberies like the Dudley and Scola deal and letting Frye walk, he runs a team that is so desperate for veteran leaders and role players that all he has to do is look back to the past two summers to see where they have gone.
There are always risks, but McDonough's just recently entitled himself to his own large chunk. In 5 years we will be analyzing a lot of risks that McDonough took on the way and we just saw the first one unfold. He wasn't ready with Frye and Dragic, but now he's ready with Bledsoe and Knight. Now it's a question of whether or not his players are ready.
It's time for the Phoenix Suns organization to find their way.
Where the Phoenix Suns are at seems so simple yet the overriding theme of the organization is currently confusion.
From a big picture stand point, the Suns overachieving during the 2013-14 season, and just missing out on the playoffs ended up being the worst possible scenario.
The achievement of not only being a surprise, but also one of the biggest surprises in NBA history has brought on frustration from all parties. The increased expectations caused discontent.
There's a level of frustration from the fans.
There's a level of frustration from the players.
There's a level of frustration from the coaching staff.
There's a level of frustration from the front office.
It's created a toxic atmosphere from all perspectives. Players are bitching about fans (and it's more than just Markieff Morris - I know and saw this first hand), fans are fed up with the players, head coach Jeff Hornacek is comparing his players to high school students and general manager Ryan McDonough and president of basketball operations Lon Babby are airing out the team's dirty laundry for everyone to see.
None of this should be happening - everyone is in the wrong.
Even though I didn't personally agree with everything the Suns did at the trading deadline - I was behind moving Goran Dragic and opposed trading Isaiah Thomas plus dealing the Lakers pick for Brandon Knight - the organization is still in a good place. They're flush with young talent on good contracts, stockpiled with future draft picks and have plenty of flexibility with regards to cap space going forward.
There's no reason for the negative vibe that exists.
The biggest difference from last year to this year is they no longer look to be in-sync from top to bottom. A lot has been made of the chemistry in terms of how the roster hasn't been the cohesive group they were. To me, it's bigger than that.
The best organizations are on the same page from ownership, to the front office, to the coaching staff and all the way down to the players. You know what you want to accomplish, there's a singular goal and you stick with it. Whether you agree or disagree with what the Philadelphia 76ers are doing, they're in unison going forward with a plan.
What is the Suns plan?
Are they trying to make the playoffs or are they building for the future?
One game the goal comes off as the playoffs, while during another the young kids get mixed in. A direction needs to be picked for this year and the foreseeable future, and then Sarver, Babby, McDonough and Hornacek must stick with it.
I'm not talking about some bullshit line of "we're doing what's in the best interest of the organization" either. A real decision has to be made about what they want to be.
They can't worry about trying to placate a fan base that is extremely hungry to get back to the playoffs, it's about doing whatever route they think is best (go back and look at the comments on my story from January 3rd about how the Suns should be looking to the future and not now if you don't think that's true).
How I would handle it?
The rest of this year would be about developing the youth of the roster. Unrestricted free agents to be, Marcus Thornton and Gerald Green, would no longer play and I would communicate with them exactly why I was doing it.
With the rotation the rest of the season I'd feature Alex Len, Markieff Morris, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Brandan Wright. That's a ten-player look to give consistent minutes to with all positions covered.
That's my thought process, which I happen to think is pretty logical at this point.
Maybe the Suns don't agree with me and that's perfectly fine. As long as they choose a path, make clear what it is they want to be doing, and start the process of heading down that road; they can start to settle back down the turmoil they have internally created.
There are too many smart people in this organization for them to be sidetracked like they currently are.
The Suns are still in a virtuous position, but a little bit of fine tuning to the vehicle they're using to take them where they want to go is in order.
A vision must be selected and carried out from this point forward. No more confusion, no more frustration and finding a way to get everyone back on the same page is of the highest importance.
What's gone wrong this season can easily be fixed, it's just about the Suns figuring out how they want to go about it.