When Lindsey Hunter took over the 13-28 last-in-the-West Phoenix Suns last week, the Suns management team of owner Robert Sarver, prez Lon Babby and GM Lance Blanks spoke of player development being a primary focus of Lindsey's over wins and losses.
Pressed by media for more details on which players to develop, Lon Babby said that player development should come from all players on the roster - veterans and young guys alike.
Those words did not resonate with fans or media.
Fans and media expected "player development" to mean playing time for younger guys who hadn't had much burn. They expected a revamped lineup and rotations that would, in effect, sacrifice wins in favor of unearthing potential for next season.
But in three games under Hunter, we have seen the same starting lineup and mostly the same substitution patterns that Alvin Gentry had employed.
Hunter did play Wesley Johnson 7 minutes and Luke Zeller for 2 minutes in his first game at the helm. But in the last 10 quarters, he's played the same 9-man rotation of veterans (sans injured Jermaine O'Neal) we have seen all season. No Kendall Marshall. No Diante Garrett.
Michael Beasley has emerged with 22 solid minutes per game after not getting as many as 22 minutes in 14 of the previous 16 games (before that, Beasley got 22+ in nearly all of the first 30 games).
Markieff Morris has gotten 20, 24 and 25 minutes per game after not getting as many as 24 in 17 of the previous 18 games (like Beasley, Morris used to get these kind of solid minutes earlier in the season before losing minutes recently).
But otherwise, the distribution of minutes have been just like his predecessor while the team has played inspired ball.
What Hunter has actually delivered is a team that executes crisper sets on both offense and defense, along with a consistent level of competitive effort from the guys, resulting in a somewhat exhilarating 2-1 record.
Or, exactly what Suns management wanted to see from day one this season. If the Suns continue to play at this level for the rest of the season, it's conceivable they could win more games than they lose.
The problem is that there are no second-half trophies in the NBA. Hunter was saddled with a 13-28 record that won't go away.
There will be no playoffs this season. The Suns would have to go 31-10 just to match the current projections for Houston and Utah. This team is not built to go 31-10, let alone overtake those teams.
Giving Hunter a winning second half record (say, 22-20) gets you just 35 wins and a pick in the 10-12 range. After consecutive seasons of the #13 pick, we all know there is a limited upside to a pick in that range.
So why win games now? Why make the effort to prove this roster CAN win a few more than they lose, when at this point it only reduces next season's chances for dramatic improvement by worsening the June draft pick?
The Suns need a high draft pick on this roster (not counting Beasley and Johnson) - someone who can carry this team going forward. A winning second-half record won't help in that regard.
The Suns need to spend the rest of this season evaluating their talent rather than playing the rotation most likely to win. Beasley and Morris are getting their burn, and their minutes may well expand further if they continue to play well. Wesley Johnson is an expiring contract that likely won't return in a prominent role no matter how much run he gets. Same with Luke Zeller.
But there are two other guys who deserve time as soon as possible.
The Suns front office needs to make room for rookie first-round pick Kendall Marshall and the surprising rookie combo guard Diante Garrett (15.1 points, 7.4 assists, 62% 3-pt shooting in D-League) in the rotation.
They have a long-term answer at point guard in Goran Dragic, but they need to know if his 2013-14 backup is already under contract.
To do that, you have find the available minutes. It does the Suns no long-term good to have Sebastian Telfair playing the backup point guard minutes ahead of Marshall and Garrett.
Removing Telfair from the equation without reducing Dragic's role gets you 14-16 minutes a night. Marshall and Garrett need more than that.
To that end, in order to play Garrett and/or Dragic at shooting guard for spot minutes while Marshall plays the point, a logjam needs to be cleared at shooting guard as well. Right now, P.J. Tucker (27), Shannon Brown (27) and Jared Dudley (27) get all those minutes, and they deserve them because they are the best players at that position on the current roster.
The Suns cannot get a proper gauge on Marshall or Garrett unless at least two of Tucker, Telfair, Dudley and Brown lose minutes. But that's not going to come from simple benching. All three of these guys play hard, and when you're in the throes of the game and you want to win, those three give you the best chance.
The only way to reduce their minutes is to remove two of them from the current roster via trade or release (or injury).
President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby certainly knows this. You can't just bench Tucker, Dudley, Brown or Telfair without hurting the morale of the team. Dudley is the best of the three, is under a good long-term contract, and wants to be part of the solution. Tucker has a partial guarantee on next season and is far outplaying his contract. The other two are (effectively) expiring contracts. But none are untouchable.
Lon Babby has to clear up the logjam at the guard position to give his younger players a chance to prove themselves.
The best option, of course, is a trade or two or three to bring back future assets. Dudley would get the most booty, while Telfair and Brown might add up to a couple second-rounders or could be salary-filler on a bigger acquisition.
If there's no trade to be had by the February 21 deadline, the Suns could release either or both of Brown and Telfair so they can sign with contenders.
Otherwise, the Suns waste an opportunity to see what Marshall and Garrett truly have to offer.
Although it is still way too early to know for sure when the Phoenix Suns will be picking or even what their needs will be by the time of the 2013 NBA Draft on June 27th, it's never too early to take a look at some of the players who could be realistic options at that time.
At the moment, there are several players slated to be lottery picks who the Suns could have interest in: Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel, Cody Zeller, Alex Poythress, and the list goes on. However, ESPN's Chad Ford recently wrote that out of all the players likely to declare for the coming draft, Ben McLemore could be the best fit for the Suns (ESPN Insider account required to read).
So who is Ben McLemore and what impact could he have for Phoenix? Let's take a closer look.
|2012 - Ben McLemore||16||30.8||5.5||10.9||50.3||1.9||4.3||43.5||3.6||4.1||87.7||1.4||4.0||5.4||2.1||1.8||1.3||0.9||1.8||16.4|
I think Ben McLemore would be a great fit for the Phoenix Suns. McLemore is a special talent who is likely to go very early in the up-coming draft. The Suns could definitely use his athleticism and shooting ability of offense, and help him continue to develop his awareness and understanding of the game to maximize his defensive talents as well.
Personally, I think McLemore is the best wing in college basketball right now, even over the much ballyhooed Shabazz Muhammad (though that is certainly subject to change as the college season progresses). Not only that, but I think his style of play fits the Suns better than Shabazz who is not as athletic, fast, or as accurate as a jump shooter.
Of course, there's still plenty of time to continue evaluating all of the players who will likely be within the Suns' reach on draft day, and there will certainly be risers and fallers as well. However, at the moment, McLemore seems to possess many of the skills that the Suns are in need of, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is one of the names they have high on their list when that day comes.
After the Suns got out to a quick 6-0 lead, Tony Parker asserted himself on offense to help the Spurs regain control with a 13-3 run of their own. Both teams settled into a rhythm at that point in what turned out to be an entertaining and well played quarter of competitive basketball. Tony Parker led the way with 10 points for the Spurs, while Marcin Gortat had seven points for the Suns. Score: 26-26.
The second quarter saw the Spurs trying to pull away and the Suns scrambling to keep up. The Suns vim and vivacity was tangible, but effort only goes so far. Michael Beasley continued his renascent play and scored 10 points in the quarter to keep the Suns close while the Spurs twice pushed their lead to seven. Neither team seemed very interested in playing much defense, which was reflected by gaudy shooting percentages from both teams. The pace was frenetic and the second quarter was a deluge of points as the Spurs outscored Phoenix 33-30. Halftime score: Spurs 59, Suns 56.
First half notable players:
Michael Beasley had 12 points, 4 rebounds and ZERO turnovers.
Jared Dudley had 12 points on 5-6 from the field and 2-3 from three point range.
Tony Parker scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting.
Stephen Jackson had 10 points and 4 rebounds with perfect shooting from the field and free throw line.
Jared Dudley was a catalyst for the Suns in the third quarter as the Suns sent a resounding message to the Spurs that they weren't going away. Both teams continued to lob salvos at each other and the Suns finished the period ahead in the haymakers department. Speaking of haymakers, Shannon Brown landed one on Manu Ginobili and was ejected from the game with a flagrant two. After the dust cleared the Suns went into the final period on top by one. Score: Suns 82, Spurs 81.
Too much Tony Parker. Parker ignited a 10-0 Spurs run that gave them a 96-88 lead with 5:41 remaining. The Suns couldn't stop the bleeding. Parker finished with 11 in the quarter and earned the official title of "Suns Killer" for the night. Michael Beasley finished a superb game with 11 of his own in the period as he tried valiantly to keep the Suns close. On the road. Against the Spurs. Even without Duncan a tall task. The Suns played well, but still fell. Final score: Spurs 108, Suns 99.
Player of the Game:
Tony Parker. Tony Parker. Tony Parker.
He went for 31 points, and nearly every one of them seemed to be impactful. Throw in the fact that he did it on 13-17 shooting while dishing seven assists and this was one of the better overall performances we've witnessed against the Suns this season.
Comments of the Game:
The Spurs honestly have so many role players around Manu and Parker right now.
They just pass well, pretty much do drive and kick like old Suns and shoot a lot of 3's. That's why they're winning so many games, they have good shooters, but in the playoffs they won't survive.
The air must be fouling Ginobili because I saw no contact.
This is a pretty fun game.
These are the ones I don't mind watching a losing season of.
I like how we are playing, but seriously guys, losing draft position at this juncture would be crazy foolish.
Lindsey Hunter: "This coaching thing is easy..."
Beasley's putting on his best Ancient Egyptian princess look.
That awkward moment when Shannon Brown leaving the game (being ejected) might actually help your team.
Parker is only 4 years older than Dragic, but this is his 12th season.
This is Goran's 5th. How crazy is that?
I'm digging that jump pass by Dragic.
First class ticket to turning the ball over.
There must have been a croissant at the top of the rim for Diaw to jump like that.
And the dead coach ball has run out of air.
No more bouncing. Get ready for a brutal 15 game stretch my friends.
The Suns maintained their recent intensity and improved play by keeping pace with a Spurs team that was 19-2 at home this season coming into the game. Duncan may have been out, but this was a pitfall game for the Suns and they acquitted themselves admirably.
The Suns have won with a more plodding style recently, but tonight showed the versatility to play at a more frenzied pace and stay in a game dominated by offense. Not only that, but they kept it entertaining in a season with plenty of forgettable performances.
Coincidence or not, Michael Beasley has been a startlingly different player since the coaching change. It may be time to experiment with a return to the starting lineup if this trend continues as he has been the team's best scorer, and at times the best player, over the last three games. 25 points (on 11-16 shooting) and six boards qualifies as outstanding.
Jared Dudley also lit it up. His 10-12 night was spectacular, but in a weird way sort of ho-hum as Beasley and Parker also turned in astounding performances. 23 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists is still a great game, though, even if he did get outshined.
Even though the Suns performed admirably, they allowed the Spurs to impose their pace and style on them. It can be advantageous to be malleable enough to compete in different types of games, but typically when you play to another team's strengths it doesn't promote beneficial results.
Shannon Brown's flagrant two on Manu Ginobili at the end of the third quarter. Was it the most violent or blatant flagrant foul? No. But at a pivotal point in the game that type of play is foolish. The excitement and energy of the game apparently got the best of Brown. Play with emotion, but don't let your emotions play with you.
The Suns played their second straight game against a very good team that was missing a star player. The first time they pulled it off. The second they ran out of gas.
The team has put on a brave face since the tumultuous coaching change, but tonight may have been the beginning of the end of that stage. The Suns upcoming schedule is parlous and unforgiving.
Continue to expect the Suns to play with a "no quit" attitude.
Just don't expect many more wins.