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.

Will the breakout players from last season regress?

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.

Will the Suns make up for the loss of Channing Frye?

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?

Can the Suns stay healthy again?

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?

Will any of the eight playoff teams from last season in the Western Conference drop out of that position this season?

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….

Does Ryan McDonough make his big move?

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 Suns

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.

  • Isaiah Thomas, 4 years, $27 million, $6.75 million average annual value (AAV), through 2018
  • Markieff Morris, 4 years, $32 million, $8 million AAV, through 2019 (extension)
  • Marcus Morris, 4 years, $20 million, $5 million AAV, through 2019 (extension)
  • Eric Bledsoe, 5 years, $70 million, $14 million AAV, through 2019

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?

Suns president Lon Babby was a player agent for nearly two decades, representing the likes of Tim Duncan and Grant Hill for most of their careers.

"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.

Suns owner Robert Sarver indirectly criticized the San Antonio Spurs for keeping five rotation players and their coach at home during a Thursday preseason game in Phoenix. Sarver’s mic-grabbing...

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Welp. Today at the San Antonio Spurs shootaround, head coach Gregg Popovich fired shots back at Suns owner Robert Sarver.

Later, McDonald provided the exact quote: "The only thing that surprises me is that he didn't say it in a chicken suit. I'll just leave it at that."

Popovich is referring to Sarver's antics in 2005 when the Spurs held out their best players during a regular season game when the Suns and Spurs were both on top of the Western Conference heap.

Remember that the Spurs sat out many of their stars during Thursday night's preseason game. Robert Sarver got on the microphone and offered the fans a gift to supplicate their potential disappointment in missing out on the league champions best players. The Suns won the game by 31.

I sincerely doubt that Sarver begrudged the Spurs injured players, like Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. It's that Popovich, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were healthy but stayed in San Antonio to "rest".

Here's the Sarver apology to fans.

After the game, he told Paul Coro it wasn't really about why the Spurs didn't bring three starters and two of their best bench players. It's that, in totality, it wasn't the Spurs who played the Suns on Thursday.

"I just felt that the fans paid good money for the game and they didn't see the players that they anticipated seeing," Sarver said to Coro. "It was just a gesture to let them know that we appreciate their support and want to do something to compensate for that."

"It's their decision and it's my decision to decide what to do for our fans," Sarver continued. "I'm fine with it."

Will the Suns make room on the roster to keep Earl Barron?

Earl Barron was a free agent training camp invitee who was projected to be a camp body, and help the Suns scrimmage and get ready for the season.  He signed a non-guaranteed contract, along with three other signings; Joe Jackson, Jamil Wilson, and Casey Prather.

Of course, the Suns already have the maximum number of players, 15, signed to the roster under guaranteed deals.  So, there really wasn't much of an opportunity for Phoenix to add another player to the roster

This should have been where this story ended.  However, with Alex Len being injured to start the preseason, Barron has seen extended time playing at the center position.

When asked about his prospect of making the roster and how he felt about his chances overall, Earl responded, "Things have been going good so far.  I've got three more games to continue to prove that I deserve to be in the league and to be on this team."

But he also understands that he still has more to do, and that he must continue to play at the highest level possible in order to make the cut.  So what is his plan going forward?  "Just try to be consistent...Continue to rebound and play solid defense."  He continued,  "Tonight I picked up some pretty stupid fouls, but I'll try to change that these next couple of games, and go out and be efficient shooting the ball while making good decisions on offense and try not to turn it over."

Barron also commented on the unique speed of the Suns' system, and what the team is looking for in that regard, even from their big men.  "It's a fast pace that (Hornacek) tries to make us play at.  I'm slowly adjusting to it.  Every practice and every game I'm continuing to get in better shape.  Sooner or later I'll be able to fly up and down (the court) with the guards."

Of course, this isn't Earl's first time playing in Phoenix either. He was signed to a contract mid-season, but spent only five weeks on the Suns' roster in 2011 before being released.  So what does he think is going to be the difference this time around?  "Last time I came it was the middle of the year.  I was still working out and I was in pretty good shape, but it wasn't like working every day, two or three times a day and getting ready for a training camp."

Barron continued, "Sometimes when you're in the middle of the season, you're kind of caught of guard by 10-day contracts or workouts.  But this time I was already prepared, and I've been preparing myself for months to go somewhere.  Once I found out I was coming here for training camp, I upped my amount of working out, because I knew the exact date, and how much time I had to turn some heads."

It wasn't only Earl's conditioning though that caused him to struggle.  In his first stint with the Suns, Barron shot only 23.5% from the field;  a ridiculously low number, especially for a post player who takes most of their shots at or around the basket.

So what happened?  "Last time I came I was a little hesitant...guys were telling me 'shoot, shoot, you're open, you're open!'.  I was just hesitant a lot of the times."  He continued, "Steve (Nash) was here at the time and making some amazing passes, and I was just kind of caught off guard, and I wasn't ready to shoot a lot."

That hasn't been the case so far this preseason.  Barron has shot the ball much better from the field, including a newly featured jump shot.  In all, he's shot 61.5% over the first four preseason games, hitting eight of his 13 shots thus far.

When Earl was asked about what's made the difference, he attributed it to being better prepared this time, and more confident in his shooting. "I've been shooting the ball so well all summer, and it's just a matter of confidence.  I think every time I shoot it's going to go in."

Of course, the scoring is secondary.  It's really rebounding and defense that the Suns are looking for out of the center position more than anything.

In his first four preseason games, Earl has averaged 5.75 rebounds in 17 minutes of play per game.  In doing so, he has averaged the highest amount of rebounds on the entire team.  While that may be more of an indictment against the Suns' lack of rebounding as a whole, it certainly helps Earl's case that he has been the most productive rebounder in a team who is desperate for help in that area.

Because of this, Earl Barron may very well be playing his way onto the roster.  Suns' Head Coach commented on the matter saying that Earl had stood out the most among all of the new players, and that they would "eat a contract" if necessary to keep the right player on the roster.  That player who's contract they would "eat", most likely, would be Shavlik Randolph--who is already under contract for this year for $1.22 million.

However, Barron still understands that it is still anything but a guarantee.  "I know it's a business and that anything can happen."  He continued, "So it's just a matter of keeping a positive attitude and working hard everyday at practice, and hope that good things happen."

Regardless of what happens, the Suns will likely be making a decision sooner than later, as they will need to have their roster finalized by October 27th.

Randolph or Barron...Who will they choose?

Will Earl Barron Make the Suns' Final Roster This Season?

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