Last spring, during pre-draft workouts, Phoenix Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough described the ideal NBA roster from his point of view. He said you need a couple of stars and some developing youth, but the core of the team should be in their mid-20s just entering their primes and already contributing to a winning culture.
It's not rocket science, to be sure. Everyone wants that model. The trick is executing that plan. The Phoenix Suns roster in 2014-15 appears to mirror that makeup though one of the stars (Eric Bledsoe) is still in contract limbo and none have made an All-Star team yet. Another quality season should rectify that shortcoming.
The Phoenix Suns stars are guards Goran Dragic, third team All-NBA last season, and Eric Bledsoe. Both were highly productive in the 2013-14 season, putting up 38 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds and nearly three steals per game between them while keying the perimeter of a top-10 defense as the Suns produced a 23-11 when they started together in the back court.
When only one of the two played, the Suns were a lottery team not quite ready to make the playoffs. Maybe their new third best player, guard Isaiah Thomas, can help the team through injuries to remain at a playoff level. That's the ideal plan of the Suns front office - to mitigate that risk of injury by slotting in a player nearly their equal.
Every team really needs that experienced, sage presence in the locker room that helps young players level off the emotions, not getting too high off a win or too low off a loss. Last year, that was P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye. Frye left for Orlando to be that voice in their locker room, hoping to propel the Magic's uber-athletic youth into a winning culture.
Filling that bill in 2014-15 will still be P.J. Tucker, who just signed a three-year contract this summer and will want to erase the bad juju he rubbed all over himself this summer by getting an extreme DUI. Last year, Tucker emerged as the team's locker room lightning rod. He helped instill a team wide belief in hard work and sacrifice by being a leader on the court as well as a rallying influence in the locker room and time out huddles. Coach Hornacek often described P.J. as the most outspoken leader among the players last year.
Tucker will miss the first three games of the season due to suspension, as league punishment from the DUI, but his locker room presence will still be felt by the young team.
Generally, the NBA is full of young players. The magic line between 'young' and 'mid-career' appears to be one's 25th birthday. You can quibble the cutoff there and find examples that don't match the profile (Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker), but generally if you're not a major rotation player by 25 you are unlikely to become one later in your career.
Players who are 24 or younger are often given the 'youth pass', meaning value is measured in progress rather than productivity.
Our own East Bay Ray will give an in-depth preview of the kids next month after they've had a chance in preseason games to show what they can bring to the team this season. It was last year that we saw 25 year old Miles Plumlee and 23 year old Eric Bledsoe show the NBA that they really are starting quality NBA players, while the Morris brothers (24) showed they are strong, productive NBA rotation players.
This year, the only under-25 players expected to be in the rotation are Eric Bledsoe (24), assuming he is not traded in the next week, and Alex Len (21).
ESPN's Amin Elhassan ranked the Suns' under-25 youth at 16th overall in the NBA for the 2014-15 season.
Given the context of the ESPN article (including only players under 25), I wholly agree with that ranking. A year from now, the Suns could shoot up that chart but the youngest players will have to develop for that to happen.
In their prime
Here is the Suns bread and butter. Your mid-career players have to be the backbone of your rotation to succeed in the NBA.
Three of the Suns nine major rotation players will be exactly 25 years old this season and none are older than 29. If the Suns add Zoran Dragic, there's another 25 year old in the mix, though he may not make the rotation. If you compiled an under-26 league, the Suns would be one of the top teams.
Beyond the aforementioned youths and stars, the other rotation players in their primes are Tucker (29), Gerald Green (28), Anthony Tolliver (27) and Miles Plumlee (26), Isaiah Thomas (25), Markieff Morris (25) and Marcus Morris (25). Goran Dragic is 28 and Eric Bledsoe is 24. Every player has several years of good play ahead of them in the NBA, as well as a chance to improve their games even more.
While not everyone will remain a Phoenix Sun in future years, the future looks bright in the Valley of the Sun.