It's no secret that with the limited roster space available, the Phoenix Suns are likely looking to add another big man first and foremost. With Channing Frye out for at least this season, the Suns are down one versatile big who could not only stretch the floor on offense and help rebound on defense, but also play both the power forward and center positions as well.
In order to help fill this void, the Suns are trying out three big men; Ike Diogu, Solomon Jones and Luke Zeller. While the odds-on favorite, Ike Diogu, has already been covered in a previous article, it's time we looked a little more closely at the other two roster hopefuls who may have a better shot at making the team than most realize.
Solomon Jones is a 28-year-old, 6-foot-10, 230 pound PF/C who has spent the last six years playing with four different teams. Originally drafted in 2006 with the 3rd pick in the 2nd round by the Atlanta Hawks, Jones has yet to find a true home in the NBA.
Let's take a look at his stats over his career thus far:
As you can see, Solomon Jones fits the definition of a journeyman, and has been relegated to mostly back-up minutes no matter where he played. His numbers have been consistently average as a reserve player in limited minutes, so what you see is what you get. Jones' career high in points is 14 which he has notched twice, and his career high in rebounds is 10 which he has reached three times.
Jones actually had his most productive season thus far in New Orleans last year, where he averaged more minutes and more points than ever before. Even with his increased minutes, he was also more effective as well, averaging his highest Per 36 point total of 11.3, and a respectable 7.5 rebounds in those hypothetical minutes as well.
Jones' biggest strengths are his length (7-foot-4 wingspan), his free-throw shooting (over 80% his last three seasons), and his quick-leaping ability allowing him to beat his man to the ball. Jones also has a fairly reliable mid-range shot and a nice, high release on his shot which allows him to shoot over his opponents. Jones's biggest weakness is his size. He's too small to match-up against most centers, and too slow to guard more quick and agile power forwards. Jones has put on some weight since entering the league and he certainly has the length to match up well against opposing big men in the low post, but he still doesn't have the strength to hold his position or back his man down, nor the skill or footwork to help him offensively.
Luke Zeller is a 25-year-old, 6-foot-11, 245 pound center who can stretch the floor. Zeller is the brother of Kendall Marshall's college teammate and first-round draft pick Tyler Zeller. No, not the younger brother who was also a top freshman prospect for Indiana last season, that's Cody. Luke Zeller is actually the oldest of the three brothers and the one you've probably never heard of before (unless you're a big-time college basketball fan). Despite his relative anonymity, Luke Zeller played four years at the University of Notre Dame from 2005-2009 before spending the past two seasons in the D-League.
Here are his stats over the past two seasons:
Although Zeller shares the same last name as his two younger brothers, he shares very few similarities beyond that. Luke is primarily a jump-shooter who struggles to score, defend and rebound in the post. However, if there is any team in the NBA who he could possibly succeed with, it's probably the Suns. Zeller shot the ball at 41% from the field and 36% from three over his past two seasons on the D-League. With the absence of Channing Frye, Zeller could provide valuable depth and could help the Suns stretch the defense on a reserve basis.
Luke Zeller had a noticeable start to his NBA preseason try-out with the Suns in his first live action against the Portland Trailblazers. Zeller tallied 5 points on 2-5 shooting, 2 assists, and 1 rebound in his 11:52 appearance ... and showed his ability to score from deep going 1-1 from beyond the arc. Time will tell if Zeller will continue to show that he can be productive in limited minutes, but he will also have to prove that he is not a liability on defense as well.
Both Solomon Jones and Luke Zeller certainly have his work cut out for them to be able to make the final roster ahead of Ike Diogu, who has shown himself to be a more well-rounded player and also has a higher ceiling than either of these two. The advantage that both Jones and Zeller have is that the Suns are more likely than before to keep more than the minimum 13 players this season because of their new-look roster, and their need for more depth after the loss of Channing Frye.
Still, while there's a chance the Suns may end up keeping two additional big men, it's very unlikely they decide to keep all three. Ultimately, it will come down to how well they play in preseason, and which player can fill the biggest need..
Many fans and national pundits have accurately characterized the Phoenix Suns as sliding backward in recent years.
After reaching the Western Conference Finals in consecutive seasons (2005 and 2006) with a young team on the rise led by league MVP Steve Nash each season, the Phoenix Suns didn't know it at the time but they'd already reached their precipice. The next three seasons were spent clinging to that echelon with varying degrees of success.
Injury and circumstance contributed to their lack of progress from that point forward but in hindsight it was clear that, once they failed to climb any higher in 2007, it was "like sands in the hourglass" watching the on-court product regress. Sure, the Suns front office contributed heavily to the decline by not acquiring new talent, but most moves made in isolation were defensible. It's the totality of the moves, factoring in the subsequent decline of the on-court product, that was staggering to fans.
The Suns dropped even further from their precipice after 2010, missing the playoffs entirely in the last two seasons. They struggled mightily with the notion of staying competitive with their most loyal remaining stars while also figuring out a way to make a real difference without relying on luck.
In the summer of 2010, the Suns spent their cap room to try to replace the departed Amare Stoudemire with multiple mid-level players to add depth to the team. That tactic failed miserably. What they got was a mismatched roster, years without cap flexibility and uninspiring draft slots.
In the hurry-up offseason of 2011, the Suns decided to apply band-aids and wait patiently for 2012. It's important to remember that "year 2" of the current front office's regime was 99% lockout vs. 1% free agency. Whether the band-aid tactic failed or not is still up for debate.
Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby will tell you it was successful, despite resulting in a .500 record, a 10th-place finish in a 14-team conference, and another middling draft pick (3rd-string PG Kendall Marshall) in 2012. Suns fans will tell you it was quite painful, and still others would use the word dreadful.
"It took us two years to get the flexibility we had this summer," Babby said at the 2012 Media Day. "We did it in a way where we'll maintain flexibility this season if something comes our way, and we'll have flexibility next summer. All you want to do is be in a position to seize opportunities."
Many Suns fans wonder why that opportunity and keeping Steve Nash were mutually exclusive. Why not add another star to pair with Nash and go for the ring? The organization believes strongly that, to contend or to go "all in", the Suns at the very least needed to acquire a second starting-quality point guard to the roster, even before adding to other positions.
"It was a question of math," Babby says. Investing $10-12 million per year in Nash plus half that on a starting-quality backup would have made other moves near impossible.
The Suns with Steve Nash were heavily point guard centric, as opposed to other teams who can make the Finals with journeymen at the helm (Derek Fisher and Mario Chalmers, for example). A Suns offense with Nash was never going to vary its offensive sets, such as making the point guard a corner spot-up shooter. Maybe in LA, that can happen. But not here. But not in Phoenix.
Lon Babby did what he was primarily hired to do (in my opinion). He let Steve Nash go. He did it with professionalism and class. No back-biting. No character-assassination. No parting shots as he gently showed Nash the door. Many Suns fans hated the move, but most would agree that it had to be done at some point soon.
And now, what's done is done. Where do the Suns go from here to find their next superstar?
"You have to keep looking," Babby says. "You don't know where it's going to come from, whether it be a trade, a draft choice, you just don't know. You have to keep looking. That's a challenge because the thing is set up that the easiest path, and I think the laziest path, is to stink."
Ah yes, the stink route. For one thing, that route was not happening with Steve Nash on board. With Nash, the Suns were mildly competitive at worst. He was too good to lose many games, yet not good enough on his own to carry a team all the way to the playoffs.
Should the Suns have traded Nash years ago, when Stoudemire left? That's easy to suggest, but the reality of today's NBA is that no team is going to surrender big assets for a 38-year old point guard with a back history. That the Suns got even two low first-round picks for him this summer was a pleasant surprise.
Letting Steve Nash go, along with Stoudemire in 2010 would have been a decision to lose on purpose.
"What do you want us to do?" Babby asked, on the prospect of tanking. "Do you want us to be bad so we can get good? Are you willing to live through two, three, four seasons? Everybody's conflicted. It's conflicted if you end up with Durant. You're not conflicted if you end up with Oden. And the torture of going through it. We just have to figure out a better way."
He didn't stop there. Let's just say that tanking is an ugly word to Lon Babby.
"How do you go to work every day and how do you lead a group of people both in an organization and players playing to make their living when either the conscious message or the subliminal message is ‘We want to lose'? I don't know how to do that. So does that condemn us to purgatory for longer? I hope not. Could you come to work every day if you thought your boss was trying to be bad? How long does that take and how many front offices use it as an excuse?"
On the question of how many front offices use it as an excuse, just in the decade of the 2000s we can look to the LA Clippers, Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City/Seattle, Brooklyn Nets and now the Orlando Magic as examples of teams who decided that losing a lot of games for higher draft picks would be a good thing.
Of those teams listed, only a third of them have pulled themselves out of the muck and mire (Miami, OKC, Memphis, LAC) to contend again. And yet those "winners" sucked for more than 30 years combined before doing it. And those are the "winners" of this tactic! It's possible that the Brooklyn Nets will join those four as "winners", but if you include them the number of years of suck rises into the 40s.
So instead of stinking, the Suns suffered through two seasons of contending for, but falling short of, the playoffs. Each year, Suns fans were able to scoreboard watch all the way until the end of the regular season. Each year, Suns fans could root for a team that played better in the second half than the first, showing us they deserved to make the playoffs as much as any other bubble team.
Then we finally entered the summer of 2012. The Suns were set up with one middling draft pick (#13 overall) and nearly $20 million in cap space that ballooned to more than $25 million after using then amnesty clause on SF Josh Childress. All but six rotation players were free agents.
As discussed above, the Suns decided to use that money to replace nearly every free agent with someone new (the lone exception being Shannon Brown).
"There's no one on this team now that we didn't choose to have on this team," Babby said, in a telling statement.
True enough. Every single player on the current roster was signed or acquired via trade by Babby, including lone holdover Jared Dudley who was given a 5-year extension in the fall of 2010.
But are they any better than the team that finished 10th in the West the past two seasons? The Suns shooed 2012 all-star, and former 2-time MVP, Steve Nash out the door along with their best perimeter defender Grant Hill. Those two combined to give the Suns leadership the past two seasons that helped the team improve throughout the season.
Yet those two were both in their late 30s and both showed wear and tear at the end of each season, just when the Suns needed them at the top of their game to make the playoffs. As Babby repeats in a sage analogy, "It was like watching the sands in the hourglass." There was a lot more sand at the bottom than at the top, he said.
"Now, we've turned it over," he continued. "We don't know what that means yet in terms of wins, but no question we are more talented now than we were a year ago."
More talented? In terms current career trajectory and future potential, I have to agree.
Goran Dragic showed us on Friday night against the Trailblazers that the spring of 2012 was no abberation. He has elevated his game to clear starting-quality status, and maybe even all-star consideration. He can see the floor, push the pace, score in a variety of ways, draw (bait) the defense and find the open man. He can play defense, and even rebound a little too.
Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson have more current talent and future potential than Hill and Childress. That does not mean either player will produce at a higher rate in 2012-13 than the other two would have. We don't know that yet. But we do know they can produce, as they've shown in the first two preseason games.
And while they don't have future potential, Scola and O'Neal should be collectively more productive this season than Warrick and Lopez would have been for the Suns.
But best of all, no matter what happens this season the Suns have options. Next summer, they once again have a boatload of cap space available (up to $15 million), while only sacrificing the services of Johnson to get there. In addition, they have potentially three first-round draft picks in 2013 and a total of six first-rounders in the next three seasons to add to the young core.
If we Suns fans are lucky, this new team will catch fire and contend for a playoff seed this season. Certainly, if Friday night's offense shows up and the defense improves under the tutelage of Elston Turner, the Suns can surprise some people.
If we Suns fans are lucky, the front office won't have to do a complete "reboot" on the roster next summer. Instead, they can spend their cap space and draft picks to supplement an exciting young core.
But even if the bottom drops out, Suns fans might consider themselves lucky as well. With the entire front office and coaching staff on the final year of their contracts, owner Robert Sarver really can hit the "reboot" button next summer. He can bring a whole new cadre of front office people and coaches if he wants, and the next group doesn't even have to swallow the poison pill of ousting TwoTime.
Either way, the Sun is Brighter now than it was a year ago.
The Suns, and especially the starters who looked like five fingers on a hand, appeared much more acclimated to their new surroundings than the visitors from Portland. It's only one game, and preseason at that, but I think it portends propitiously that Phoenix's learning curve appears to be well ahead of a team that some believed would be an adversary for positioning in the Western Conference this season. Here are some of my takeaways from the game.
Dragic was devastatingly dynamic. He was making lightning quick, crisp cuts to the basket and setting up his teammates for easy looks while displaying an arsenal of wrap around and behind the back passes. His ball handling was seamless and he gave Lillard a crash course on what to expect in this league. One particular play where Goran drove on the right side, shielded the defender and dished to Solomon Jones for an easy layup was such a quintessential example of orchestrating the offense that Dragic should have gotten an assist AND two points. He was so good at times I almost felt he was showing off.
"I know the offense, I already played that offense when I was here," said Goran after the game. "We have a lot of new players so we have to adjust and we have to give it some time, but I think it is going well."
I would say that's pretty modest based on the play against Portland.
The Suns defense on Aldridge was stifling. The Suns used a mixture of double teams and straight up defense and largely nullified Portland's best player. Aldridge was 4-13 from the field and struggled to get good positioning on the block. He was noticeably frustrated at times and it obviously got to his head when he began complaining to the referees about being
harassed and well defended fouled by the Suns. After holding DeMarcus Cousins to three baskets in the paint on Wednesday, Aldridge managed only two. That's pretty parsimonious considering the level of the competition.
Other areas of the defense were more porous. Transition defense was sluggish at times and led to some easy opportunities. Rotations were slow and the Suns were hurt by Blazer cuts to the basket.
"Offensive rebounding is still a huge concern, as is the dribble penetration," said Gentry. "We're going to have to do a better job at keeping the ball out of the paint."
I'm not overly concerned with the defensive deficiencies at this point. Many of the failings appeared to be the result of poor communication and ignorance of responsibilities. Practice will help that. What does worry me is the rebounding disparity, especially on the offensive glass. The Blazers were +8 in that category, as the Suns were bullied by rookie Meyers Leonard who grabbed seven of his own (in my opinion Leonard was the most impressive player on the floor for Portland). The Suns don't possess great size and length up front so it will be interesting whether they can instill team rebounding techniques or if these woes become pervasive.
I will be using the Beasley/Johnson shot selection tracker to monitor these players until they show that my reason for concern is unfounded. After the first game saw the dynamic duo take 21 of 24 shots from 18 feet or further from the basket, in game two it was 12 of 15. Compare that to the less athletically gifted Dudley who took four of his seven shots in the paint. That's 33 of 39 on the year. 85%. Once again, I'm talking about selection not volume.
When I asked head coach Alvin Gentry about the Beasley/Johnson shot selection against the Kings before the game he told me that he had no problem with the shots they took. "Shoot a shot that's available to you," Gentry remarked. Gentry is actually encouraging Beasley to take more shots.
However, after the game Micheal Beasley remarked, "I do like working on my post game (Beasley was working on low post moves before the game). Right now I'm just trying to learn every play from two or three different positions, but that is something I want to improve on this year is my post game."
My personal thoughts are that I'd like to see Beasley taking more shots and I'd like those shots to come closer to the basket. If he's already taking seven or eight from outside, all he has to do is match that from inside and he will be where Gentry wants him on attempts and he should get to the line more too.
The tracker will continue to monitor this situation.
Luke Zeller, Ike Diogu and Solomon Jones
The players auditioning for roster spots were impressive in the game. Gentry seemed to agree. When asked about what he was seeing from the training camp invites Gentry responded, "I think they've done a good job in practice. The thing that's encouraging, or discouraging (that they were outplaying regulars), is that they dominated practice today (Friday). I wanted to get them some minutes on the floor. They did a good job. They executed pretty well and took advantage of the minutes they got."
Morris followed up a 16 point seven rebound effort in the first preseason game with 14 and five against Portland. His assertiveness from the summer league seems to have carried over into the preseason. On Friday night the fouls did too. Markieff's minutes were limited in the game due to the fact that he picked up four quick fouls in the first 3:47 he was on the court. Morris has shown me enough that I wouldn't be surprised if he led the team in scoring and rebounding off the bench this season. I can envision him as an anchor for that unit, but he won't be able to provide stability if he continues to be plagued by fouls. He needs to be more attentive and know when to initiate or shy away from contact. He was wearing out the referees whistle in his sparse first half minutes.
When asked about what he needs to improve Markieff replied, "Staying consistent, playing hard and being a team player." Those are all good goals, Markieff, but don't forget about staying out of foul trouble. That's important too.
Morris also responded to a question about him attacking the basket during the game by saying, "We have a lot of jump shooters. We need to get to the foul line. We can't bail teams out with jump shots."
So Gentry wants more threes, but Morris wants to attack the basket. Beasley needs to shoot more jump shots, but so far that's all he's taking. Meanwhile he's practicing post moves before the game. The mantra is always take the shot that's available, but 18-22 foot jumpers seem to be available with alarming frequency. The preseason is a felicitous time to iron out all these issues. I can't wait to see what the next game brings.