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Here's a look at the Suns' center position this season, and what you can expect these players to bring to the team.
Although the Phoenix Suns are going to depend on the play of their guards to carry the load offensively this season, the play of their centers may be what ultimately determines their overall success.
There's no doubt that the Suns have scary talent and potential at the guard position, but they will also need significant contributions from their big men inside. Not just to score, but more importantly, to defend the rim and grab rebounds...something the Suns simply cannot rely on their guards to do...no matter how talented they are.
Here's a look at who the Suns will be using at the center position this season, and how they will be depended upon.
After trading Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards just before the start of the regular season, Miles Plumlee became the starting center for the Phoenix Suns last year. While most thought of Plumlee as the third string center upon his arrival, he quickly proved to be much more than that with the athleticism, hustle, and defense he provided on the court. Phoenix let go of one of the better centers in the league as part of the rebuilding process and handed the reigns to Miles, who proved to be more than adequate in the starting role for the Suns last year.
So what can we expect from Miles this season?
Although Miles has been working on his offensive game, including his hook shots, his post moves, and even his free throws and jumpers, I don't expect a big jump in either scoring of efficiency from Plumlee this season. While I think Miles is more than capable of providing the Suns with adequate scoring in the post, especially in the pick-and-roll, he is still limited in this regard, and will not be one of the main options in the Suns offense. Instead, Miles will continue to score opportunistically on tip-ins, and dunks/lay-ups when open and rolling to the basket.
Plumlee's main job in the Suns' system is to provide defense...and this is where I believe he will continue to make the biggest difference on the court. Miles is an excellent rim protector in the post, and is very skilled at challenging the opponent and blocking shots while remaining vertical. His presence on the court completely changes the way in which the opposing team attacks the basket. He changes and alters shots with his athleticism and ability to time his jumps just right, causing the opposition to often miss their shot even when he isn't able to block it.
One area I would like to see Miles improve in this season is his rebounding. Miles has always been one of the most athletic players in the post, so it is a natural habit for him to go after the rebound rather than box-out the players around him. This still worked for him pretty well last season, when he averaged 7.8 rebounds per game, but if he could improve on boxing out his man when the shot goes up, it will not only give himself a better chance to get the ball, but allow his teammates to help grab loose balls that bounce out of his reach.
Alex Len is by far the biggest question mark going into the season...not only for the center position...but on the team as a whole. Len was the Suns' fifth overall pick last year in the 2013 NBA draft. Phoenix drafted him because of his potential to become an elite starting center in the NBA. Len has the rare combination of true-center size at 7'1" with a body that can support the added bulk needed to defend against NBA big men, and also the mobility and agility to play on a fast-tempo team who likes to run up and down the court. This is truly a rare commodity among big men in the league, and there is no question that Alex is one of the very few big men in the league who possess these highly sought-after traits.
However, at least so far, Len's professional career has been hampered by injuries which have stifled his development and prevented him from contributing. Before the beginning of last season, Alex underwent minor surgeries on both of his ankles to fix small fractures that could become bigger issues later on if they weren't addressed. The good news was, the Suns doctors believed Len would make a full recovery and have no lingering effects from the procedures, and that his ankles would be as good as new. Although this prevented him from playing most of last season, and adding the strength and weight he had planned on, the Suns didn't mind being patient, and viewed Len as a long term investment who would reap the benefits of having a red-shirt season in the NBA and taking his time to learn the system.
Len participated in the Suns' summer league where he performed fairly well overall in his first game, but suffered a small fracture in his right pinkie when it got caught in another players jersey. The good news was, it wasn't a major injury and would be healed in plenty of time for training camp to start. Over the off-season, Alex was finally able to commit to a workout regimen that would have him gain 15 lbs of muscle, and give him the NBA body he needed to compete with the big boys. As I detailed in my article here, both Len and the Suns' coaching staff were excited and encouraged by his progress, and expected big things from him this season.
Before the first preseason game, news broke that Alex once again fractured the same pinkie on the same hand, but in a different location, while going up for a dunk during a scrimmage in practice. Although this sounds like another minor setback, it's beginning to seem as though Len is a bit snake-bitten when it comes to injuries. Len is expected to fully recover and be able to participate by the beginning of the regular season, and pwrhaps in preseason games as well, but the amount of injuries that have plagued Len's very short career are starting to become a concern.
The Suns need Len to stay healthy this season, above all else. Whatever Alex can contribute to the team while getting playing time and backing up Miles at the center position this year will be a big boost to the team. Right now, Phoenix is relatively thin at the center position. Having Alex Len as an option at the five suddenly gives the Suns a legit big man to help defend the bigger post players in the league, and a quality back-up to help spell Plumlee. Len could be one of the more important complementary players on the team this season, if he can avoid injury.
Randolph was brought back to the Suns this season in order to provide depth at the center and power forward positions. Although Randolph came to the Suns late last season, and was used sparingly as a reserve, his veteran presence, hustle, and ability to rebound are all characteristics the Suns covet.
Shavlik worked on his game in the off-season to increase his range, and improve on his shooting. The former high-school blue chip prospect who played for Duke was no stranger to scoring when he was younger, so the ability is still there. However, he had settled into his role in the NBA as a post player who was needed for rebounding and defense, so scoring hasn't been an area of his game he has focused much on.
Although he will still be used in a back-up role this season, Shavlik understands that in the Suns offense' big men are expected to shoot. I don't expect him to play big minutes this season, and neither does he. In fact, at the moment he is in direct competition with Earl Barron to even stay on the roster. However, if he does make the final roster, his versatility and dependability could see him play spot minutes at either the four or the five whenever the Suns need him. Shavlik will be ready when or if his number is called.
Earl Barron wasn't part of the plan going into training camp. The Suns had already signed the maximum number of players, 15, to guaranteed contracts prior to preseason starting, so it was assumed that their four invitees--Earl Barron, Jamil Wilson, Casey Prather, and Joe Jackson--would only be on the roster for the short term.
However, after Alex Len was sidelined with yet another minor injury, Earl Barron was given a regular spot in the preseason rotation, and has been outplaying the presumed third-string center, Shavlik Randolph. It now seems very possible that Barron could get a spot on the roster and that Randolph could be released.
The competition is certainly real at this point, and it will almost certainly come down to the Suns keeping one or the other...They simply will not be able to keep both. However, if the Suns decide to keep Barron, I expect him to continue doing the same things he has for the Suns during preseason. He likely won't see many minutes, but if he is called upon to play, he needs to help defend the post, and most importantly, help rebound. I think Earl has shown that he is capable of both as a reserve.
The Phoenix Suns are not a playoff team this season as it stands. There it is. I said it. To put it in the most simple of terms, things are going to need to happen. With that process in mind, I decided to look at the five biggest questions the Suns face this season. I tried to run these in circumstantial order, meaning I don't think we even get to talking about #2 if #1 doesn't happen and so on and so forth. There's a little twist at the end with the format, so just stick with me here. The premise here is that there are several points as to why the Suns wouldn't make the playoffs and there are some things that will need to happen or stay consistent in order for the playoffs to make sense. Let's take a look at what they are.
We start with the most obvious counterpoint to every "the Suns will make the playoffs this year" proclamation. Every single player in the main rotation last season had a breakout season for the exception of Channing Frye. P.J. Tucker developed a corner three, Eric Bledsoe got that money, Goran Dragic made All-NBA, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green turned into scoring assassins off the bench, Marcus Morris had the best shooting percentages of his career, Miles Plumlee looked like a legitimate NBA center, Ish Smith shot over 40% and stuck on a rotation, and rookie Archie Goodwin showed flashes of potential to get everyone excited. That is a lot to hold up for this season, which is why the strong amount of skepticism is there.
I started off with this question because I think it’s the easiest one to uphold for the 2014-2015 season. With a deeper rotation now the overall averages of some of these players might slip, but I don’t see that as a sign of regression. There’s no hardcore evidence to grab from last season that this was just an extremely long "hot streak" or anything close to that. The one big checkmark Suns fans can tally is having a great head coach to keep this team focused and in the same mindset as last season. Jeff Hornacek will keep this team in line and add new elements to try to give them that extra push. They were projected as the second worst team in the NBA last season, will they still have that same fire and level of play now that 45 wins wouldn’t be unexpected as opposed to 25? I think so, but there’s one major red flag we still have to cover before we move on any further.
This is what they like to call "the big question". I didn’t want to use the word "replace" here because that’s just ridiculous. Frye did a lot of things on this team that Markieff Morris is simply not going to be able to do right away and it’s going to have to be a combination of many players to fill that hole.
If we run through what Frye did for this team last year the number one we can say is that he spaced the floor. Frye was a weapon whenever he was on the perimeter and where he was going to go after setting a pick for one of the Slash Brothers was just as important to some teams as what Dragic or Bledsoe would do with the ball. He’s not going to be here anymore and neither of the Morris twins will be able to replicate the threat he possessed out there. The first question here is if they can at least supplement it. Markieff is coming off of a disastrous 32% from three last season, but his brother Marcus was much better at 37%. The question I want to put on top of that question is that would you rather cut off Dragic and Bledsoe to the key or have one of them shooting an open three? Those two along with Anthony Tolliver are going to have to make other teams pay to earn opposing defenses respect before the Slash Brothers start to see any resemblance of the spacing they saw last season. By the way, this is not to say that the spacing will be non-existent or anything like that. It will be there, it's just that the magnitude of it might have to be put down a couple dials though.
More under the radar here is how solid of a defender in the post Frye was. He wasn’t a shutdown guy by any means, but he knew how to take the bumps and had years of experience to make him a good enough team defender as well. He was a very big body as a power forward and he understood how to use it. I’ve expressed my massive concerns on Markieff on defense already, so what will the Suns do to help him out? A lot of it is on Markieff to improve and it might just be a lot of double teams and "flashes" from the guards to try to pester guys backing down in the post. This could become a major weakness for the Suns and it’s absolutely something to watch for this season.
Something to quickly note here is the possibility of Tolliver actually starting. He has not been shy at all from three in what we've seen so far this preseason and he's a much more active defender than Markieff. The offense in general has flowed better when Tolliver has been on the floor as opposed to Markieff and that's led to a lot of belief that this could actually be something that happens (cue the "it's just preseason" comments). It would not be extremely surprising given Markieff's success off of the bench last year and it wouldn't necessarily mean that Markieff plays less minutes, it would just give the Slash Brothers more room to operate at the beginning of the game to get going.
If Markieff improves enough, the Suns figure out enough clever ways to neutralize his differences with Frye, the offense turns out to be too good regardless, or Tolliver starts and turns out to be what this team needs, what’s next?
I can hear the keys typing already and before you go on about how nicked up or out the two best players on the Suns last year were, stay with me on this. The Suns had SIX players in their rotation play 80 or more games last season. Five out of those six players are returning this year in Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, P.J. Tucker, and Miles Plumlee (Channing Frye is the other). Those five combined only missed FOUR games last season, which is a pretty startling number. If you are trying to find the point here it’s that only two of the Western Conference’s playoff teams pulled that number of players staying that healthy off last season.
Right now the Suns are in a position where they can’t afford anything major to go wrong. The new additions to the roster are going to be massive here. Isaiah Thomas specifically will help out Bledsoe and Dragic in not getting hammered on minutes, and both Archie Goodwin and Tyler Ennis will both be ready enough for small chunks of minutes if Hornacek is feeling overwhelmed by how much time his three guards have seen of the floor. At forward it’s more of that, as new faces T.J. Warren, Zoran Dragic, and Anthony Tolliver will give Hornacek that same look. This is by no means to say that the Suns are going to be able to replace someone and not have a drop-off in production, but now they are much more covered and don’t have to make emergency calls to Brazil, have their energy guy on the bench actually play minutes, or have a third-string point guard be their backup this season. It should all go well in this department and if it does where does that leave the Suns?
The Suns are going to need help if they make it to the postseason this year. Nearly every single team out West made a significant improvement or avoided major loss. San Antonio held onto Boris Diaw and Patty Mills to keep their absolutely absurd depth, Oklahoma City looked around and went "sure, I guess?", the Clippers tried to add some bench depth with Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar, Houston lost Chandler Parsons but added Trevor Ariza, Portland will look for its youth to step up more, Golden State
got Kevin Love is going to try again with Steve Kerr at the helm, Memphis will be healthy and has new addition Vince Carter, and Dallas added Chandler Parsons.
It’s a depressing top eight to look at as a Suns fan, so where are the possibilities? Well, Portland is one major injury to the rotation away from panic, Golden State has a new coach who no one knows is good or not with injury prone stars everywhere, ditto for Memphis, and Trevor Ariza is not playing for a contract in Houston with Kevin McHale still at the helm coaching a surprisingly thin rotation. Those are the bottom four teams to keep an eye on and it’s clear that the Suns need a break to come in their favor. The ceiling of this current Suns team is in a playoff spot, but that would require for a lot of things to go right for them and a lot of things to go wrong for someone out West. Instead of tying in our last question into if that would happen, let’s look at if that doesn’t happen. How could the Suns get better? Well….
McDonough is sitting on a picture perfect execution of what Daryl Morey was trying to do in Houston for so many years. He has a large variation and collection of players that a lot of NBA teams would want, all of them are on reasonable or cheap contracts, and he has a bunch of draft picks as well. Morey was going to wait for superstars to come available and he wound up getting two. Could McDonough get one? He went 0/2 this summer as any of us would have so where does he go from here?
There's already the bulk of good seasoned NBA players that the Suns have, but they can offer a whole lot of youth as well. McDonough has four young players in Alex Len, Goodwin, Ennis, and Warren that should still somewhat hold their value of where they were selected in the draft. The Los Angeles Lakers 2015 first-round pick is top five protected and it looks like that they should finish just a smudge above that, the Minnesota Timberwolves first-rounder will turn into two second-rounders if they don’t make the playoffs this season, and the Suns have their own draft picks for the future to deal as well. Like I said, he has a lot of depth in the talent department where he could swing 2-4 of these players and 1-3 of these draft picks for a really good freaking player.
From here on out, it’s all about waiting for that opportunity to come about. McDonough doesn’t want to make this move for just a solid NBA player and most of the All-Stars in the NBA right now are off the market. It’s an extremely small window of players that fit the mold and quite honestly I don’t think that player is out there right now. Someone needs to become unhappy with their situation or a team has to want to blow up and restart their build. The Suns can give a team that, but the question is if they can be provided that player in return. If the Suns get an All-Star or just about one at the forward position this becomes a surefire playoff team in the West and turns into a flat out dangerous team that no one would want to play in May. Unless McDonough wants another point guard he's going to have to get lucky and come through. Will he get the opportunity?
The players and their agents knew the salary would rise significantly in two years. So why sign four and five-year deals this summer? Former power agent and current Phoenix Suns president Lon Babby has the answer.
While negotiations between the NBA and its TV partners ESPN/ABC and TNT were proprietary this summer, rumors leaked that the TV deals would at least double in value beginning in 2016.
Players knew it. Agents knew it. Since revenues and the salary cap are a function of each other, they knew the money available in two years would dwarf the money they could get this summer. Many projected at least a 30% jump in the salary cap beginning in 2016. A 30% jump in the salary cap means a 30% jump in player salaries on new free agent deals.
Hence, the prevailing expectation was that the better free agents would fight hard for shorter deals with opt-outs in 2 or 3 summers, rather than taking the full 4 or 5 year deals being offered by teams.
NBA front offices knew it as well. In fact, NBA front offices knew the new deal would more than double (it ended up tripling) and the agents most likely had a strong suspicion of the same, if not the facts themselves.
With front offices knowing this, it's no surprise they tried hard to lock up the game's best free agents to 4 and 5 year deals at today's prices because today's good deal is tomorrow's steal.
"It was a factor," Suns president Lon Babby of the looming TV deal. "Everybody saw this was a development coming on the horizon."
So who won this tug of war on contract lengths?
Don't hold your breath. The war never materialized. Of the NBA's very best free agents in their prime, only LeBron James insisted on a deal that expires within two years. LeBron signed a "maximum" deal that expires in two seasons , but also allows him to become a free agent next summer via a player option. It's possible the NBA and the union will agree artificially increase the cap by half the expected required jump in 2016 to "ease in" the increase. If that happens, LeBron can re-sign to a higher salary as early as next summer.
The plan was a sound one: get into the free agent market as often as possible during your prime. Sounds genius, right? If not genius, it at least sounds logical.
But none of the other free agents took the same route. Every one of the free agents in their primes took the most years possible.
Sure, Lance Stephenson took three years from Charlotte. But that was a function of being squeezed out this summer. He accepted $9 million/year (25% less than he wanted on day one) in exchange for hitting the market again in three years. His initial request of the Pacers or any team was a longer-term deal at his asking price.
Chandler Parsons took three years from Dallas, but that was Mark Cuban's doing more than anything. He constructed a contract offer for Parsons in such a way that Houston would refuse to match. That included the one less year, a major trade kicker (15%) and a maximum salary offer that was at least 20% more than Parsons' real worth. Cuban won.
Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Eric Bledsoe and Marcin Gortat all took the full five years to stay with their current team. Each is very likely to still be playing at a high level in two seasons and could have requested even higher salaries, but chose the security.
The other big names took four years, either from free agent offer sheets or deals constructed by "home" teams to slightly out pay what another team could offer without going the full five.
The Phoenix Suns had a good summer. Knowing free agent salaries could rise at least 30% in 2016, they locked in four of their six free agents to at least four years at today's rates. Only Anthony Tolliver and Zoran Dragic got shorter deals, but that was due to the Suns offer more than their desires.
All are 24 or 25 years old, just barely entering their primes. Beginning in 2016, with an increased salary cap likely raising the mid-level exception into the $9 million AAV range, those deals will look like steals.
Why would the players commit to such long terms deals?
"As a player," Babby said. "It's a balance between when do you want to end up back in the marketplace and how much of your future do you want to secure? The challenge is finding that balance."
In the Suns players cases, each wanted long term security over the potential of more money in two seasons.
"For the Morris twins, we were prepared to give them the longest deal we could offer," Babby said. "For them, part of it was their desire to secure their future."
But Babby also said there was a special catch with the twins: "For the twins it was also that were the only place that was likely to provide them the opportunity to play together. They wanted it badly, and we wanted it badly too because we know they play better together. We wanted to put that out there for as long as possible. There's no guarantee they will stay here or stay together, but we pointed out the most likely possibility was in Phoenix."
Bledsoe and Thomas wanted long-term security as well. Bledsoe's injury history likely played at least a small part. From the outset of free agency, Bledsoe's camp demanded 5 years at $84 million ($16.8 million AAV). The Suns initially countered with 4 years and $48 million ($12 million AAV) based on what other teams could offer, but eventually relented in a compromise that saw the two sides come closer to the Suns' AAV in exchange for year five.
"For us, the way to resolve the Eric Bledsoe situation was to take advantage of the fifth year which only we could offer," Babby said. "That's what drove that compromise. In Eric's case that fifth year helped."
The NBA is a fickle business. There's only 450 jobs out there each season and only so much money for each player.
"The significance of what events might occur in the future played a role but not a significant role in the negotiations," Babby concluded, regarding the Suns' summer of signings.