The Phoenix Suns came into Dallas on Wednesday for their final game of the preseason on the second night of a back-to-back. They were playing a Mavericks team that has been rolling out skeleton units without four of their five projected starters and haven't not won a game in the preseason. Needless to say, it was not exactly a thrilling display of professional basketball. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more ugly jumpers fired up over the course of a 48-minute game - the two teams combined for at least half-a-dozen airballs and another half-dozen that hit nothing but the backboard.
Nevertheless, there’s always stuff you can take away from watching an NBA team live, especially one you haven’t seen in six months.
- The first thing that jumps out when watching the Suns is their three-point shooting - is this team going to be able to spread the floor enough? The Mavs went into a zone early in the first quarter and I would not be surprised if they try that tactic when the two teams face each other on Opening Night. There are a lot of players you can shrink the floor against Phoenix, especially in their starting unit. None of them are bad shooters but none of them really scare you from the perimeter either.
Here are their three-point numbers from last season - Eric Bledsoe (32.4% on 3.4 3PA’s), Brandon Knight (38.9% on 5.1 but only 31.3% on 6.1 in Phoenix), PJ Tucker (34.5% on 3.1) and Markieff Morris (31.8% on 2.2). Bledsoe, Knight and Morris are all guys more comfortable attacking off the dribble and playing in the mid-range than firing away from deep. Tucker was pump-faking a lot on Wednesday and he has to be ready to catch-and-fire when he is in there.
- When the Suns came out of nowhere and shocked the league two seasons ago, they were a floor spacing machine that stretched defenses out to their breaking point and then shredded them. They had Goran Dragic, Channing Frye and Gerald Green just stroking from 3 and they played absolutely beautiful basketball. This group is going to have to grind out offense in the halfcourt, play defense to offense and get out and run as much as possible, where they can take advantage of their athleticism and minimize some of their outside shooting issues. They went from 8th in the league in 3P% in 2014 to 21st in 2015 and it’s hard to see much optimism for improvement in that area in 2016. Jeff Hornacek talked about Bledsoe and Knight playing the drive-and-kick game to generate more 3’s this season but that still depends on having guys who can hit open 3’s.
- The guy I’m really watching in that department is Markieff Morris. When he’s hitting 3’s, they are going to be a pretty good team. When he’s not, they are going to have a difficult time scoring points in the halfcourt. They aren’t getting it from the center position, we already know what PJ Tucker is going to be and their guards are slashers who are going to have the ball in their hands a lot. Morris is a guy whose three-point shooting percentages have gone down in each of his four seasons in the league. If he can get back to 35-36%, where he was as a rookie, it will make life a lot easier for everyone else.
- If you want to know why Morris is upset with the Suns, take a look at the contract that Tristan Thompson just got from the Cavs. In what universe does it make sense that Markieff is getting four years at $32 million and Tristan is getting five years at $82 million? He took a massive discount in order to play with his twin brother in Phoenix and the Suns rewarded that sacrifice by moving Marcus in a salary dump in order to free up the space to pursue a guy who would take Markieff’s spot in the starting line-up. Overheard in the Phoenix locker room: “Tristan got 82? I got to sign with Klutch [the management group that represents Thompson and Eric Bledsoe]. Klutch stay winning.”
- There’s also going to be a ton of pressure on Tucker. That’s the swing spot in the starting line-up - whoever is playing there is not getting the ball in their hands, has to be able to knock down 3’s and has to defend a ton of different guys on the perimeter playing next to two PG’s in Bledsoe and Knight. It’s going to be hard for Hornacek to bench any of the other starters but the SF spot could be up for grabs if things don’t go according to plan in Phoenix. The problem is there really aren’t a ton of other 3-and-D options off the bench. Tucker is a really stocky 30-year old so it will be interesting to see how his foot speed hold up over the course of the season. A guy like Trevor Ariza would make the Suns a lot better.
- The other big question about the Phoenix roster is the fit between Knight and Bledsoe. It’s going to be a tough grind on defense. Bledsoe is probably better suited to sliding over and guarding SG’s but you really want him matching up with guys like Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and Chris Paul on a nightly basis out West. Can Knight hold up against the top PG’s or do you have to play him at a huge size disadvantage against SG’s? That doesn’t even get into the issue of how they coexist on offense since both want the ball in their hands. I’d assume the Suns will have one or the other on the floor for all 48 minutes and give both plenty of chances to run the show. They only played nine games together last season so you don’t want to jump to any conclusions but it doesn’t seem to be as easy a fit as the one between Bledsoe and Dragic.
- Tyson Chandler was the big addition in the offseason and he should be a big help when it comes to being a defensive anchor and being the QB of the defense - Hornacek talked a lot about how much Chandler communicates when he is on the floor. He was 5th in the NBA last season in DRPM and there wasn’t exactly a ton of stoppers in front of him in Dallas. The Mavs (106.7) were right behind the Suns (106.2) in terms of defensive rating last season, which is kind of crazy considering the differences in athleticism on those two rosters. If Chandler can get Phoenix closer to the Top 10 in defense, that could end up being the difference in terms of making the playoffs because it will also help their offense by getting them more run-outs and easy baskets in transition.
- The guy whose going to be most impacted by Chandler’s arrival is Alex Len. On one hand, it’s a great chance for a 22-year-old center to get a veteran mentor who can show him the ropes around the league. There wasn’t too much Miles “Plumdog” Plumlee could teach Len and he beat him out pretty quickly last season when he got healthy.
“Tyson is always talking to Len when he’s out there,” said Hornacek. “He’s showing him all the veteran tricks and he’ll let him know if he makes a nice move when they are running down the floor.”
On the other hand, though, the best way for a young player to learn is to get out there and play and Len could really see his playing time squeezed this season.
- Tyson played 30 minutes per game last season for Dallas and he just signed a max contract so the Suns are going to play him as much as possible. I asked Hornacek whether they would try much two center line-ups and he downplayed the idea except for very specific match-ups, which makes sense for a team with as many spacing issues as Phoenix. Then the real problem for Len becomes whether they want a different look from the center position when Chandler isn’t in. If Markieff spends some time at the 5 or they try to play some max spacing units with Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer, Len is going to be the odd man out.
- The big thing for Len is going to be defense because if he’s not playing much defense they might as well just go with more shooting. That was the disappointing part about the way the way he played on Wednesday. The Mavs were ruthlessly attacking him in the two-man game and going right at the rim and challenging him every time down the floor. I know he’s capable of playing defense - he’s very long and athletic and he had a solid 2.16 DRPM last season, which is pretty impressive for a 21-year old C who was basically a rookie. However, if there are nights this season where he’s a step slow or is checked out mentally on that side of the floor, he’s going to find himself on the bench real fast.
- I’m still a big Len fan but it could be a long, long time before people around the league catch up to how much talent this guy has. The Suns are slow-playing the hell out of his career, which is fairly understandable considering they are dealing with a young, fragile and growing C with a ton of upside potential. He will still only be 26 when Tyson’s deal comes up and that’s when he could end up stepping into the starting C spot in Phoenix. There’s no real rush - it doesn’t matter what the outside perception of the guy you picked if you don’t plan on trading him. The way free agency is set up, a smart team can draft a guy over a 7-10 year timetable and take the long road when it comes to developing him. What Len misses is not building a rep and getting a ton of minutes early in his career he should make up for when it comes to learning from an established vet like Chandler on and off the court.
- The good news for Len is that his offensive game is starting to come around. He has soft touch on his jumper, he can take opposing C’s off the dribble and get to the rim in one step and he absolutely demolished Samuel Mejri in the post (for whatever that’s worth - with Bernard “Sarge” James and now Mejri, the Mavs apparently have the market cornered on 29-year-old project centers). Len has a 7’3.5 wingspan and soft hands and he is very coordinated. He’s still pretty lean and he should be able to put on 15+ more pounds without affecting his mobility as he moves deeper into his 20’s. When that happens and he fully grows into his body, he should be a real problem. The per-36 minute numbers between Len and Nerlens Noel are closer than you might think given their respective reputations on Twitter.
- The other young guy I love off their bench is TJ Warren. He’s the Suns leading scorer in the preseason, which is what you would expect from a guy who rolls out of bed and gets numbers in just about any situation. The problem is he’s another guy who can’t shoot 3’s - he only took one 3 on Wednesday, a corner 3 he airballed by about 2 feet, and he’s 1-10 from 3 in the preseason. The Suns need a lot of 3-point shooting off their bench and they aren’t getting it from TJ Warren. That’s why Mirza Teletovic could be absolutely crucial to what they do this season. He’s their one pure shooter on this roster. They went with the Mirza + Leuer frontcourt combo in the fourth quarter and while it’s hard to see how those guys stop anyone they might need to give that duo some minutes just to open up the floor for everyone else.
- Archie Goodwin has the same problem as Warren and he could end up squeezed for minutes this season, which could mean the end of the road for him in Phoenix. He has a lot of talent but the Suns need three-point shooting and that’s not his game - he’s 2-6 from deep in the preseason and he’s a career 22.1% from 3 (17-71) in the NBA. What young guys have to understand is that time with the ball in your hands is a huge privilege in the NBA and very, very few guys get to hold the ball much early in their careers. Unless you are drafted high in the lottery, you are going to come into a situation where you have to play off the ball and earn your way into the rotation, which means you have to be able to knock down open 3’s. If you can’t do that then you aren’t getting minutes and it doesn’t matter what else you can do. Goodwin will get another shot in the league if it doesn’t work out with the Suns but it’s not like there are many teams out there dying to give a guy like that the ball for 20+ minutes a night.
- Devin Booker is crazy young (he turns 19 on October 30) and it’s not clear what else he can do besides shoot 3’s but the Suns might have no choice but to go to him pretty early in his NBA career. He got to go up against his worst case scenario on Wednesday - John Jenkins, a pure shooter out of Vanderbilt who looks like he earned his way onto the roster in Dallas after three seasons in Atlanta where he barely got off the bench. Can Booker get by guys when they press up on him? Can he learn the rotations, know the scouting report and not get destroyed on the other side of the ball? Phoenix could really use him if that’s the case.
Talent isn’t the issue for the Suns. It’s whether Hornacek can find the right combinations of players to field line-ups that spread the floor and play defense. Even if he sticks with the starters, I expect him to do a lot of mixing and matching over the course of the game. This is a group that could really use one or two 3-and-D specialists at the 2-4 positions. They have everything else necessary to be a playoff team out West.
As long as they stay healthy, I expect them to be in the mix all season especially since the bottom of the playoff picture out West might be a little softer than it has been in recent seasons. Dallas and Portland are taking significant steps back, New Orleans can’t stay healthy and there are still some questions that Utah needs to answer, especially without Dante Exum. I think Sacramento will be in that mix as well and I could see 7-12 being more jumbled than people expect.
From a long-term perspective, I love Bledsoe, Len and Warren as building blocks while Morris and Chandler have the chance to be one of the better frontcourt duos in the Western Conference this season. From there, it’s whether Knight can fit in, whether Goodwin can find a shot and whether Booker can diversify his game. I wonder if they will end up regretting giving up that Lakers' pick in 2016 because they have a lot riding on Knight in terms of the long-term upside of the franchise.
This is going to be a big year for Phoenix because they are in a market that has always been able to attract free agents and they will have a ton of cap space next summer. If they can get into the playoffs and look like a team on the rise ala the Milwaukee Bucks last season, they might be able to add a few young free agents who could significantly raise the long-term ceiling of the franchise. They could also end up being very active in the trade market because they have a lot of interesting young pieces on moveable salaries and the current mix they have assembled may not be able to live up to the sum of its parts. The Suns have been a very aggressive team under Ryan McDonough and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon.