Phoenix Suns – Off Season Report

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2015/2016 Record: 23-59 (14th in the Western Conference)

Ins:

Jared Dudley FA – 3yrs / $30mil
Leandro Barbosa FA – 2yrs / $8mil (Partial Guaranteed 2nd)
Dragan Bender DR – Pick #4
Marquese Chriss DR – Pick #8
Tyler Ulis  DR – Pick #34
Mike Moser FA – 1 yr /$543k (Non-Guaranteed)
Shaquille Harrison FA – 1 yr /$543k (Non-Guaranteed)
Derrick Jones FA – 1 yr /$543k (Non-Guaranteed)
Gracin Bakymanya FA – 1 yr /$543k (Non-Guaranteed)
Derek Cook Jnr FA – 1 yr /$543k (Non-Guaranteed)

Outs:

Mirza Teletovic FA – Bucks
Ronnie Price FA – Thunder
Chase Budinger FA – Nets
Jon Leuer FA – Pistons

Off Season Analysis:

The Phoenix Suns 2015/16 season was a train wreck from beginning to end. If it wasn’t for hitting late lottery gold in the form of Devin Booker, this past season would have been downright unwatchable. Facing a new season and yet another fresh start, perhaps the Suns have finally put together some pieces that will eventually end the current six year playoff drought. It won’t be next season though and fast-tracking the process will come down to having the courage to complete the Alley-Oop that the summer moves have thrown up. For Phoenix and it’s GM, Ryan McDonough, realistically the Suns could be 2 years away from being 2 years away. 

After guiding the Suns through the final 33 games of the year following Jeff Hornacek’s termination, Earl Watson found himself with the permanent gig. While the 9-24 record didn’t exactly speak volumes for his ability, he did quickly develop a rapport with the playing group and had them playing much harder than earlier in the season. As McDonough stated on The Vertical with Adrian Wojnarowski;

Whilst the coaching search (or lack there of) could be criticised, I am not one to do so. On one hand, Watson’s current skill base is perfect where he will be able to tap into his recent player development experience to mould the young core of the team. On the other hand, Watson is undeniably inexperienced as a Head Coach but made some positive moves to fill out his bench. Watson certainly strikes me as a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t really impress me.

Another thing that impressed me, was the creation and execution of a plan for the draft. Let’s face it, for a long time the NBA Draft and the Suns haven’t exactly always equalled great success. Which probably explains my shock that McDonough was able to convince his owner, Robert Sarver, that the right thing to do was add 3 more rookies. After the first three picks of the draft, Dragan Bender was the obvious choice from a need standpoint and he possibly has the most upside of any player in the lottery. Tick.

It was the Suns next move that was one out of the box. The storyline going into the night was that perhaps Phoenix were stuck on who they liked better of Bender and Marquese Chriss. So in a move that even this girl would be happy with, McDonough pulled the trigger on a deal with Sacramento for the number 8 pick that became Chriss. Big tick. Later in the night, the Suns managed to snag Tyler Ulis (little tick) with their remaining pick and that capped off a resounding ‘win’ for Phoenix.

But what was the cost?

While most NBA fans watched as Phoenix sent #13, #28, the draft rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic and a 2020 second rounder to the Kings, the reality is the Phoenix GM played a full hand of recently acquired assets in order to obtain Chriss. On the night, the picks became Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere but the assets used were what was given to the Suns for Isaiah Thomas, the Morris twins and Reggie Bullock as well as Bogdanovic. Phoenix and McD were obviously very keen on getting their man but that is A LOT of pressure to convey onto a rookie’s shoulders from a fanbase desperate for their fortunes to turn.

Then there is the obvious question; why take two PF’s with two top 10 picks in the same draft? On the surface, Chriss and Bender will not be able to play together and be fighting each other for minutes. Phoenix doesn’t see it that way. It is clear the coach sees a future where position is fluid and versatility is an advantage. Only time will tell but both Bender and Chriss look to have the skill-sets to play multiple positions and more importantly, together.

*Phoenix fans should be reading/watching everything from BSOTS if they aren’t already.

The failed LaMarcus Aldridge pursuit, subsequent losing season and more recent draft strategy meant Phoenix were not going to be big players in the silly season of July. Many of us fans expected to see Mirza Teletovic and Ronnie Price return, with perhaps a younger addition if the opportunity arose. Both Mirza and Ronnie took arguably better offers elsewhere and instead the Suns decided to bring back fan favourites; Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa for veteran leadership. These were a couple of feel good additions to the team that should not only be able to help contribute on the court but also in the locker room.

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basketballreference.com

The comparison of Dudley and Teletovic is interesting, purely because they took identical deals this summer (3 years/$30mil). Looking at per 36 minute stats, quite a few things are clear. Dudley is definitely more equipped to start and can do so acting as a “glue guy” within the first unit. He shoots great percentages on low shots, can move the ball to make the right pass and provides much better defence at 2 positions for the Suns. I was very keen to have Mirza back on the team but the feel good story of Dudley returning along with his locker room presence and on-court contribution, I think means the Suns wound up with the better choice.

With the roster pretty much set, perhaps the biggest short term question remaining is what Earl Watson is going to do with Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker. First of all, let me put to bed any “Bledsoe versus Knight as the starting PG” discussion. Although injury prone, when on the court Bledsoe is a near All-Star calibre player. Before going down last season, he was in pretty good company with 20+ points and 6+ assists. So with Bledsoe as your lock at PG, who starts with him and who leads the second unit?

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nba.com

I am in the start Booker and make Knight 6th man camp. However, my reasons are perhaps less to do with the usual ‘Booker is better than Knight’ conversation and more to do with how Booker is best utilised. Not to mention the freedom that a 6th man role could give Knight to empower him back to his own almost All-Star form from Milwaukee.

Booker’s fit with Bledsoe comes down to 4 main points;

1. Defence – It is no secret Booker has a lot of work to do here. Among SG’s he was 3rd last in Defensive Real Plus Minus (-3.87). Bledsoe can help hide his weaknesses on this side of the floor and guard opposing 2’s when needed.

2. Rebounding – Bledsoe is also a very good rebounder for his size/position and can again cover for Booker’s deficiency in this area, as a backcourt unit. Despite being 6’6″, Booker only averages 3.1 boards per 36.

3. Usage Rate – Whilst watching other parts of his game grow in the later part of the season was fun, it’s safe to say the higher usage rate (26% post All-Star) was a factor in other stats dipping. With a healthy roster and by Bledsoe’s side, all of Booker’s key stats will improve when he is much closer to the 20% pre All-Star usage he had in 15/16.

4. Deep threat – As an extension to the above, there is no denying Booker’s greatest NBA ready skill right now is shooting. He shot 40.4% on catch and shoot 3’s last season and fits Bledsoe perfectly in that role within the first unit.

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Booker 15/16 stats adjusted to per 36 minutes.

Longer term, the front office needs to commit wholeheartedly to the recent direction of this franchise. Robert Sarver must give his GM the power to overhaul this team and not be blinded by a fight for a lowly playoff seed. There is essentially two teams within one in Phoenix at the moment. You have the possible misfits in Chandler, Tucker and Knight versus Bledsoe and the kids. Which way do the Suns go?

Whilst Chandler and Knight are contracted long term, Tucker is a free agent next season who will start this season under an injury cloud. TJ Warren is returning from an injury of his own, Archie Goodwin and Alex Len have their rookie extension deadlines coming up and strangely all could be overtaken by more youth. Some of the veterans will find a healthy place within the team and the right ones should be kept around. However with an exciting crop of rookies joining Booker, McDonough should look at any trades that provide further assets for the future. Phoenix is already asset rich and armed with up to $42 million in cap space next summer.

For me, this upcoming season is make or break for the Phoenix Suns. It has very little to do with the win/loss column and much more to do with the choices the front office makes for the make up of the team. The focus of this season ought to be developing the young core and continuing to create a culture of playing hard for the city of Phoenix. I am all for keeping some of the vets around but it should not be at the expense of the development of the next generation of this team.

Grade: B+

2016/17 Prediction: 32-50

League Pass Meter: 5/10

I don’t expect anyone but Suns fans tuning into Phoenix games on League Pass. But there is Devin Booker, who is worth watching on his own and the kids are going to make some nights fun. Other nights will be unwatchable.

Depth Chart:

PG: Bledsoe Knight Ulis Harrison**
SG: Booker Barbosa Goodwin Jenkins*
SF: Tucker Warren  Jones**  Cook Jnr**
PF: Dudley Bender Chriss  Moser**
C: Chandler Len Williams  Bakumanya**

*Salary guarantees 23rd Oct, 2016.
** Salary likely guarantees 10th Jan, 2017.

Salary Cap Situation:

2016/17 salaries: $79,850,022 (under the salary floor)
2017/18 salaries: $59,616,599

Max room: $42.3mil
Min room: $21mil

Future Assets:

Incoming:
2018 1st (Heat, Protected 1-7)
2021 1st (Heat, Unprotected)

Outgoing:
No picks outgoing

2016/17 Questions:

Will Alex Len take the starting C job and make Chandler expendable?

Can Watson balance the backcourt and get Knight to accept a 6th man role?

Does Devin Booker continue his climb and become a future star of the league?

Can Eric Bledsoe stay healthy and push for All-Star Selection?

Who wins the initial battle for minutes between Bender & Chriss?

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