It was just two years ago that the Phoenix Suns were the darlings of league. Slated for a rebuild amidst a lost season, the Suns morphed into the NBA’s version of Springtime for Hitler, blazing their way to a 48-win season that left them outside of one of the deepest Western Conference playoff fields in the history of the league. To continue with the sun related imagery, the future in Phoenix looked bright.
Then a disastrous offseason followed. The team jettisoned team-first glue guys like Ish Smith and Channing Frye for a shot-happy point guard in Isaiah Thomas and an incredibly unlikely opportunity to lure LeBron James. The Thomas move eventually alienated Goran Dragic and both point guards were traded at deadline amidst a disappointing season. After finishing 39-43 this past year, the Suns struck out again with their offseason maneuvering, watched one of the stars of their surprise run sulk and eventually leave town as the team collapsed toward the bottom of the West.
Now at 18-50 following a dismal 69-point effort against Utah, Phoenix is back where there started the Ryan McDonough era -- rebuilding. This circuitous route to taking them back to square one has obviously been quite unsettling for the team’s fanbase. The question now is, are the Suns in a better position to quickly move forward in their second attempt at a rebuild?
The Young and the Positionless
At first glance, Phoenix has a legitimately impressive collection of assets and young talent. Devin Booker, who isn’t even 20 yet, has put together a solid first campaign, averaging 17 points per 36 while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from 3. The rookie wing has certainly flashed the potential to be a scoring machine capable of getting points in a variety of actions from pick-and-rolls to catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Booker is joined by three other players -- Alex Len, TJ Warren and Archie Goodwin -- who are all 22 or younger. But unlike their rookie counterpart, no one in this trio seems destined to become an impactful player in large part due to their clashing combinations of size, approach and skillsets.
Len, in theory at least, is a 5 in today’s NBA. The Suns have been doing their part to turn him into a traditional center by force-feeding him in the post -- 29 percent of his overall touches have come on the block, per Synergy data -- routinely since the teardown began mid-season. Somewhat predictably, Len has struggled in these situations as his .745 points per possession mark ranks in the bottom of the league according to Synergy’s database.
While Len occasionally flashes potential in a lofted jump hook or silky turnaround jumper, there are far too many clunky positions in between to inspire too much hope. As Rudy Gobert showed, Len just doesn’t seem like a big man with an upside of a certified, low-post bucket getter who can still produce against elite defenders.
To be fair, Gobert has made plenty of good players around the league look silly this season and Len still is rather young. On top of that, post play is becoming increasingly nuanced and a lot of improvement will be linked to a combo of his personal work habits and the team’s in-game, developmental commitment (But if neither of those aforementioned things are very good, Len will not wind up being the next Kevin McHale).
There is some hope for Len as a roll man -- he’s long, moves well and can finish above the rim -- but it’s here where we start seeing his positional ambiguity. Len has fallen in love with shooting mid-range jumpers rather than simply crashing on top of the rim. Part of this is due to his current partnership with veteran Tyson Chandler in the frontcourt. After all, Chandler’s presence near the rim enables Len to hang out higher near the free throw line after screening. But Len has always seemed to flash a natural affinity toward mid-range jumpers.
Now on a team like the Spurs, who run an offense where their bigs hang out at the elbows while the ball moves side-to-side almost non-stop during each possession, Len could play center and fit right in. For a team like Phoenix, who currently employ ball-dominant guards looking to score themselves or make one-pass assists, Len is going to be a bit of an awkward fit, even if the team separates him from Chandler next season.
Goodwin and Warren are still mysteries, but for various reasons. Warren’s sophomore season has been cut short due to a broken foot, robbing the Suns of the opportunity to assess his game during their late season wins-purge. And while he’s shot the 3 well in a limited number of attempts -- 36.3 percent over 91 career attempts -- Warren’s size and shooting ability aren’t exactly on par with that of a true stretch 4. Instead, his game has resembled more of Antawn Jamison’s herky-jerky, opportunistic approach. These last few months would have been a great time for the Suns to dial in on Warren’s positional deployment, but now they will have to postpone that evaluation.
Goodwin, on the other hand, has had his chances both this season and years prior to make an impact. In perhaps overly simplistic terms, Goodwin’s tweener status is a result of being a ball-centric player who is not good enough with it nor overly helpful without it (He’s a career 22.6 percent 3-point shooter). Even during this horrific, tank-tastic stretch of basketball, Goodwin hasn’t even found a consistent role, averaging just 11.6 minutes per game over the Suns last five contests.
A troubling sign for most of these players is that their roles may be impeded if Phoenix brings back all its veterans still under contract. Len will be at the mercy of a new coaching staff’s use of Chandler and Goodwin will again be buried behind a rotation of Booker, Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. Warren may have the cleanest path to playing time at his preferred position, but it’s impossible to say what forward spot that is exactly. The role of these veterans brings us to the next topic…
The Aging Sheriff and Trigger-Happy Backcourt
It’s been sad to see Chandler finally begin to show his age, who just a couple years ago was warping opposing defenses with the mere threat of his ability to finish above the rim. But this season, Chandler’s field goal percentage has dipped to 55.6 percent, his lowest output in nearly a dozen years. At 33 years old and with three more years and almost $40 million left on his contract, it’s looking likely that Chandler continue his slow decline in the desert. After all, if the Suns vaunted training staff can’t squeeze more juice out of Chandler’s aging legs, there’s even less incentive for another team to bank on their medical staff to do so and look to acquire the veteran big man.
Assuming Chandler can’t be dealt, it will be interesting to see how Phoenix utilizes him going forward. Interim head coach Earl Watson has perhaps placated ego’s by continuing to start Chandler alongside Len, but given that duo’s atrocious output together -- -15.7 per 48 in 305 minutes, per NBA.com -- it’s definitely not something a new staff can seriously consider going forward. The obvious solution will be to ask Chandler to assume a backup role behind Len, but locker room dynamics are a tricky thing and making no-brainer decisions much harder to execute.
The same goes for another “veteran”, the 24-year-old Knight. Phoenix is the third team now dealing with the frustrations of having the shot-happy Knight on their roster. Instead of making strides the other direction, Knight is has actually upped his shot attempts per 36 minutes in his first full season with the Suns, though part of that rise is due to the dearth of options around him during the team’s post-trade deadline lottery spiral.
With the emergence of Booker, Knight’s presence on the Phoenix roster is rather tenuous. It’s hard to imagine the team actually trading him, however. Not only would such a openly acknowledge an under-fire McDonough’s past mistakes, but it’s hard to imagine the return value in a trade being anywhere near what Knight would produce for the Suns if he stayed, especially if the team was able to wedge him into a more suitable role.
The presence of Bledsoe only compounds the dilemma with Knight. Due to missing over half of two of the past three seasons, Bledsoe’s knee injuries have likely diminished his trade value considerably as well. And while the team has generally been significantly better with Bledsoe on the floor during his time in Phoenix, his game still doesn’t mesh with his scoring-centric backcourt mates. According to SportVU data, Bledsoe’s assist opportunities (which measures passes leading to potential assists) have improved each season, but only marginally -- from 11.1 in 2013-14 to just 12.8 this year before his most recent injury.
To a certain degree, what Phoenix does with these three veterans, in particular Knight and Bledsoe, will define the next path of their franchise. More importantly, however, any moves, or lack therefore, will also show us how much McDonough has learned from his previous decisions.
The Art of Team Building
The most common critique of the McDonough-era in Phoenix is one that has been bestowed on some of his other more analytics-based executives. That is, in a vacuum, McDonough has done a solid job of importing talent but a troublesome one understanding how it would work in concert with the rest of his roster. In general, he’s devalued a lot of culture (and human being) related concerns along with players whose roles as “glue guys” are troublesome to nail down due to the noise contained in most plus/minus, on/off court statistics.
Because again, the free agent deal that brought in Thomas was a massive upgrade over the incumbent backup point guard, Ish Smith. Letting Frye walk in favor of an expanded role for Markieff (and even Marcus) Morris was again, in a talent versus talent comparison, a sound decision. Bringing Knight in via trade was also a savvy move given his combination of age and production.
But as we have found it in today’s NBA, having five singularly productive entities on the basketball court doesn’t guarantee success. Teams need players willing accept roles and responsibilities that including moving the ball, make 3’s and even just exerting energy on the defensive end so a heavy-lifter on offense doesn’t get worn down. McDonough has largely ignored the values in these limited, but incredibly useful rotation cogs in search of players with more glistening resumes. And in particular, the inability to prioritize players whose natural inclination is to instinctively move the ball to an open teammate, has dogged a Suns team known for it’s stagnant ball movement.
Due to this disastrous season, McDonough has a chance to start fresh and re-evaluate what it takes to build a complete team, not just a roster dotted with players who possess great value in a vacuum. Phoenix has some intriguing young talent, assets to burn and even though their veterans under contract have issues, they still can provide (or be turned into) at least something of value. But as this forgotten year wraps up, Suns fans just need to hope that this next rebuild offers a steadier rise toward the top than the last one.