It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith.
Here lies…LaMarcus Aldridge’s bridesmaids…err…the Phoenix Suns. Current record: 17-46. Projected finish (per FiveThirtyEight): 24-58.
Postmortem: The 2015-16 season couldn’t have gone much worse for Phoenix, and we all should’ve seen it coming. As soon as the front office broke its promise to the Morris twins and sent Marcus packing to clear cap space last summer, in a vain attempt to lure LaMarcus Aldridge, the writing was on the wall. You’ve heard of twins separated at birth, well the Morris twins were separated after legal car rental age; but it was no less traumatic. Ric Bucher wrote a fantastic piece about how close the Morrii are, while also revealing sketchy half-truths – if not outright lies – peddled by the Suns’ front office in that whole ordeal. So with step one completed on the quest for LaMarcus, the Suns quickly moved to step two – signing now 33-year old Tyson Chandler to a $52M contract. The idea here was that Chandler could convince Aldridge to join him in Phoenix. Depending on who you believe, it nearly worked. But it seems fairly certain the Suns were deluding themselves into ever thinking he’d choose them over the Spurs. So to recap, instead of entering the season with a pair of happy Morris twins, the Suns opted for one infuriated Morris and a new center (Chandler) with 13 years of low-post basketball mileage on his odometer. Obviously suboptimal. Now Kieff’s been traded to Washington at the deadline and Chandler has been a shell of himself due to injury and overall tread on his tires. WHO COULD HAVE FORESEEN THIS?!
Oh yea, and franchise point guard Eric Bledsoe blew out his knee in December after a promising start to the year, forcing him to miss the rest of the year. Treading water at the time, the Suns took a nosedive after losing Bledsoe. Subsequent injuries to Brandon Knight left Phoenix with maybe the most inexperienced backcourt in the league. They are 5-24 in calendar year 2016 including a 13-game losing streak. Coach Jeff Hornacek was mercifully fired on Feb. 1.
Low moments: A lot to sift through here. We’ve covered the Bledsoe injury and the failed attempt at Aldridge, so for Suns fans’ sake we won’t rehash. There were plenty of others. Maybe the most comical was clueless owner Robert Sarver’s rant on Millennials, where he blamed a whole generation’s sense of entitlement and inability to deal with adversity for Markieff Morris‘ drama-filled season. It’s a fascinating, clinically insane take; especially when the blame for most of the Suns’ issues reside in Sarver’s mirror. For a guy who has a vested interest in currying favor with 18-30 year old men, it was a curious decision. This came a week after GM Ryan McDonough and Sarver fired Hornacek’s top two assistants, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting, in an effort to shake things up. This was another massive blunder – who fires the assistants but keeps the head coach on a hot seat? All this meant was when they inevitably fired Hornacek a month later, there was no natural interim coach to take the reins. Instead inexperienced Earl Watson was selected for the role and has gone 3-11 since. Before Hornacek was fired, Morris threw a towel in his face on the bench, which was good for Vines, but not so much for the team. Morris later got into a shoving match with Archie Goodwin on the sideline.
On the court, the Suns have lost to a whopping 14 teams (half the league!) by 16 points or more, including a 23-point loss to the Kings, a 20-point loss to the Lakers and an 18-point loss to the Knicks – who will all also be featured in this Graveyard series. The absolute nadir, however? A 40-point loss to the Clippers (124-84) on Feb. 22 in which every player on the Clips’ active roster scored at least two points.
Bright spots: In Watson’s 3-11 tenure, they’ve actually managed to beat playoff-bound Memphis twice. They can hang their hat on figuring out the formula for beating Grit n Grind, I suppose. Though it was a lost season for Bledsoe, he was showing he can be a foundational star when healthy, averaging 20.4 points, 6.1 assists and 2 steals per game, while shooting 45%. He gives them hope to get back to competing for a playoff spot in the near future. Another ray of hope is rookie Devin Booker, taken with the 13th pick in last year’s draft. Just 19 years old, Booker has been compared to a young Klay Thompson with his shooting stroke and smooth approach on the wing. His defense isn’t there yet, but no one’s is at 19. Though they didn’t get much of a chance to play together this season, the Bledsoe-Booker backcourt is locked up through 2018-19. You could do a lot worse.
They’ve gotten a chance to give Alex Len a long, hard look. The 5th overall pick in the 2013 draft has had some moments and could be a part of the team’s new core if he develops. He’s a 22-year old 7-footer who recently had a 19 point, 16 rebound, 6 assist game. Goodwin, 21, has also played well in his expanded role with Bledsoe and Knight out.
Assets: As much as this season has been a nightmare, the Suns’ cupboard is not bare. The Brandon Knight trade hasn’t worked out. I like Knight but it seems he may be better suited as a second unit scorer. If the Suns can keep him happy backing up Bledsoe and sharing the floor with Bledsoe and Booker in small lineups that seems optimal. The downside is you didn’t guarantee Knight $70M through 2020 to be a role player. As the cap rises, his contract shouldn’t be as much of an albatross however, and he could be a trade chip. Here’s how I’d rank Phoenix’s assets going forward:
- Booker – Young, and on a dirt-cheap rookie contract for three more years.
- Bledsoe – Can be a franchise player if he can stay healthy. You need a great point guard to compete in the West.
- 2016 first round pick – Top 5, real chance at top 3
- Len – Promising big man on a rookie deal through next season
- Washington’s 2016 1st round pick – acquired in the Markieff Morris trade, it’s top-9 protected but could be a late lottery pick if the Wiz barely miss the playoffs.
- Knight – On the books through 2020. Awkward fit with Bledsoe, could be a trade piece.
- Goodwin – 9.4 points in 21 minutes per game, he’s gone off for seven 20-point games since his role expanded. On a small deal through next season.
- Cleveland’s 2016 1st round pick – Will be at the end of the 1st round of what’s supposedly a weak draft, but 1st round picks are gold these days and the Suns have three of them in 2016. They can use them in trades or to draft cheap assets.
- T.J. Warren – He broke his foot in January, a real shame since this dumpster fire season could have been good for showcasing what they have with him, as they’ve been able to do with Goodwin and Len. Warren has always been high upside, and his shooting numbers improved this year. He’s on a rookie deal through 2017-18.
- Miami’s 2018 1st round pick – top-7 protected
- Chandler – In the twilight of his career and, expensive, he will be tough to unload.
- P.J. Tucker – Eh. He’s 30 and a role player at this point. OK contract.
Free Agency prospects: First things first, they need to figure out who’s going to coach this young group that figures to only get younger with three upcoming draft picks. Earl Watson is widely respected in the league, but it’s doubtful he’s the long-term answer at this point. Big name coaching prospects may be leery of the Suns situation, second only to the Kings in front office turmoil; and friction with past head coaches is unsettling.
The Suns will have money to spend. Currently on the hook for just $67M in player salaries for next year when the cap could be as high as $92M, they can sign a big free agent or a couple medium-sized ones to bolster the roster. Expect McDonough and Sarver to pull out all the stops to get someone. But again, the team has a stain on its reputation, as Goran Dragic, Morris and Isaiah Thomas couldn’t get out of the desert fast enough in just the past two seasons. NBA players talk and this will factor in to any free agent’s decision to come to Phoenix.
Kevin Durant and LeBron James are off the table; they’re not coming to Phoenix. DeMar DeRozan would have to share minutes with a crowded backcourt and take away from Booker’s development, so he’s not a fit. Andre Drummond would be an interesting target. He couldn’t share the floor with Greg Monroe, but Len is a different breed of big man. I don’t see him leaving Detroit, though. I’m sure they would look at Al Horford, Harrison Barnes, Hassan Whiteside and Chandler Parsons, all fairly good fits for this team.
Resurrection scale: 65% (The Body’s Still Warm). As bad as things have gone, they have assets, money and some young talent. If they nail the Draft and free agency, hire a decent coach and keep Sarver away from reporters they should be back in the playoff mix in two years max.