Suns fans were steeling themselves for a long rebuild, but someone hit the fast-forward button. Armed with an absurd amount weaponry in the backcourt, the team is returning to its roots. How far can their guards take them?
After opting not to hitch their wagon to the troublesome knees of Amare Stoudemire in 2010, which was a sound long-term decision, the Suns majority owner Robert Sarver stubbornly refused to commit to rebuilding, even as the Suns quickly found themselves in the dreaded position of being neither competitive nor young. As the carousel of role players churned on -- Hakim Warrick, Shannon Brown, Michael Redd, Sebastian Telfair, Luis Scola -- the proud franchise became a flagship for middling talent and ill-advised management decisions.
It was only after the Suns bottomed out with 25 wins in 2012/13 -- their worst win total since their inaugural season in 1968/69 -- that they finally committed to rebuilding, hiring GM Ryan McDonough for the task. As irony would have it, the Suns stormed back and battled for a playoff spot until the last game of the season. Can they take the next step? Let's jump into the Madhouse and see how it looks.
Last Year's Record:
Channing Frye, Ish Smith, Leandro Barbosa, Dionte Christmas
Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Tolliver, T.J. Warren, Zoran Dragic, Tyler Ennis
What significant moves were made during the offseason?
The first domino of the Suns offseason fell when Channing Frye opted to leave the desert after four years of service, signing with Orlando for $32 million over four years on July 7. It was unclear exactly what the Suns were willing to pay the floor-stretching big man -- comments from Frye indicated that they were occupied with bigger fish at the time. This came as a bit of a surprise as analytics nerds everywhere were cognizant of how much smoother the Suns' offense ran with Frye on the floor.
Anthony Tolliver, another distance-shooting forward, was signed to a low-risk two-year contract in the chance that he can fill the void left by Frye.
The real curveball came when they agreed to terms with Isaiah Thomas in a sign-and-trade with the Kings, inking the high-scoring point guard to a cool four years, $27 million. Alex Oriakhi, a second-round pick in 2013 who had yet to play an NBA game, was sent back to the Kings. Despite rampant rumors of an Eric Bledsoe trade, the Suns insisted from the beginning that they wanted Thomas, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic to all share time in the backcourt.
True to their word, they finally signed Bledsoe to five years, $70 million after four months of stagnated negotiations that were reported to be completely broken on a few occasions. Bledsoe's impact on both ends of the court was vital to last year's team, which barely managed to stay afloat during his 32-game absence due to knee surgery.
As for the draft, by virtue of previous trades with Washington and Indiana, the Suns entered with three first-rounders that they didn't particularly need or want that badly. They took NC State's 6'8 scoring machine T.J. Warren with the 14th pick, Syracuse's floor general Tyler Ennis at 18, and Serbian G/F Bogdan Bogdanovic at 27. Bogdanovic will be staying overseas for at least the next two years.
Finally, Slovenian defensive-minded guard and brother to Goran, Zoran Dragic was signed just days before training camp, presumably to be held hostage when Goran's contract negotiations commence next summer.
What are their strengths?
Guards, baby. All those guards.
The pairing of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe was a revelation last season. Not only did they blow up the gaps in transition, but they also co-existed in halfcourt sets nicely and were demons in the passing lanes. The Suns were only an average team when either Dragic or Bledsoe was out of the lineup, so naturally they employed the services of Isaiah Thomas to keep the system intact at all times.
Had good window to watch Suns on floor at NAU today. Bledsoe's in tremendous shape. Isaiah Thomas will thrive here. Playoff team in West.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) October 3, 2014
Dragic and Bledsoe were already terrorizing teams on the break. Now Thomas will be rotating in to keep the attack fresh for 48 minutes. Yikes.
If that wasn't enough, Gerald Green will also be returning. He is coming off a career year in which he bombed 40% of his threes and was the team's second-leading scorer per 36 minutes. Aside from delivering ten 25+ point games (including 41 vs. the Thunder), he also did ridiculous things like this to always keep things interesting:
Markieff Morris emerged as the Suns' only semblance of a go-to scorer in the frontcourt, notching double-figures in scoring in 40 of the last 44 games of the season, and was a prime candidate for Sixth Man of the Year before
getting completely hosed losing out to Jamal Crawford. There have been early hints from the coaching staff that Tolliver might start at the 4 for continuity's sake, but that wouldn't portend to a lesser role for Markieff. They'll need his scoring ability in the frontcourt more than ever.
Perhaps most importantly, the coaching staff will also be returning, led by Jeff Hornacek and featuring defensive guru Mike Longabardi. Hornacek finished second to the magnanimous Gregg Popovich in Coach of the Year voting, immediately showing a penchant for getting the most from his players and reinstating the Suns' traditional up-tempo attack. He made it clear during training camp that he expects the tempo to increase, and he has a deeper rotation to play with this time around. The Suns were 8th in pace last year -- expect them to be at or near the top in 2014/15.
What are their biggest weaknesses?
This is the Phoenix Suns we're talking about here, so naturally they're a bit thin up front and tad suspect on defense. The departure of Frye left a hole at the center position, where he spent a good deal of time last season, and the Suns opted to turn to their incumbent young guns, Miles Plumlee and Alex Len, to step up and man the 5.
While Plumlee impressed in what was essentially his rookie season (he played only 55 minutes with Indiana in 2012/13), he still has some glaring holes in his game and might be best used as an energy player off the bench. Len has oodles of potential but has yet to prove he can stay healthy, as he found a way to fracture the same finger twice before preseason even started.
Currently, both Plumlee and Len present more questions than answers.
As for the defense, the bane of the Suns' existence in 2013/14 was the obscene boatload of points surrendered in the paint. 45.5 per game, to be exact -- 5th worst in the NBA. This wasn't helped by their defensive rebounding percentage of .737 (9th worst), and it all led to their FT/FGA-allowed rate of .237 (4th worst). These are the kind of stats that separate playoff teams from lottery players, and the Suns showed poorly in all of them.
They'll need healthy, productive seasons from their key defensive cogs -- Bledsoe, Plumlee and P.J. Tucker -- if they want to approach respectability on defense. Some contribution from Len would be a hell of a bonus at this point, but don't be surprised if the young Ukranian can have an impact season. Before re-fracturing his pinky finger, he was the talk of training camp.
The greatest internal improvement for the #Suns might be seen at center with Miles Plumlee and Alex Len. http://t.co/yjtXy6nhpG
— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) October 1, 2014
Tucker, Plumlee, even GM Ryan McDonough all agree: Alex Len's improvement is what jumps out early in #SunsCamp http://t.co/STq9ZmUnus
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) October 2, 2014
Attempting to replace Frye's adequate interior defense organically was quite a gamble by a front office that is itching to make the playoffs. If the 21-year-old Len can have a breakout year, they'll look all the smarter for it.
What are the goals for the Suns?
Obviously they want to make the playoffs. They only came up short last spring due to a historically competitive year in the West, so attempting to conquer that demon should go without saying. The franchise is currently entrenched in its longest playoff drought since 1975. The fans are ready, the players are ready, nothing else matters.
Ryan McDonough didn't come to town to battle for 8-seeds. He and the rest of the front office have been adamant about not sacrificing the future for the present, and they put this theory in practice when they stood pat at last February's trading deadline, despite having the massive, insured expiring contract of Emeka Okafor as bait.
The West will be insanely competitive again, and Anthony Davis just might have something to say about who sneaks into the playoffs should a spot come available. While another year sans-playoffs will surely bum out the fans, the goal in Phoenix is to build a championship contender. With a treasure chest of assets in their arsenal, the Suns have the ammo to make this happen -- especially if they strike gold on their top-5 protected Lakers' pick.
As frighteningly thin as the frontcourt appears to be, the ridiculous backcourt rotation and up-tempo attack might just blow enough teams off the floor that it won't even matter. The loss of Frye presents questions in the halfcourt sets, but with a roster full of players capable of creating their own offense they should at least break even.
They should be a safe bet for 45 wins, but out West that only means a 14th lotto pick. On the other hand, who can say what 82 games worth of Hornacek's dual-PG system will yield?
One thing that is certain: Phoenix Suns basketball is back.
Try to enjoy yourself.