A few weeks back, I wrote about the defensive woes that will plague the Suns in the 2016-17 season. In that article, I mentioned that the Suns should be able to compete for one of the last playoff spots in the West.
Alas, that is not a popular opinion. ESPN projected the Suns to finish 14th in the Western Conference, ahead of only the Lakers, and bettors feel similarly. Per vegasinsider.com, the Suns tie with the Nets as the least likely team to win a championship next season, at 1250 to 1 (the worst odds among the remaining 28 teams is 500 to 1).
With that in mind, I’ve enlisted Kevin Nye to explain to me why my vision for the Suns’ upcoming season is seen as far gone in the popular domain.
Kevin, what’s your take? What will prevent the Suns from being a competitive team next season?
Noel, you seem like a nice enough person, and I actually like the Suns, but what will prevent them from being competitive next season? Everything. The Suns won 23 games last year. In hopes of building on that, they signed a 31-year-old swingman who has averaged double-figures three times in his career and a 33-year-old guard whose only season as a most-of-the-time starter in the NBA was 13 years ago.
These are the incoming players who are going to boost this team into contention in the west? I'll admit that the new guys might be just as good as the players they're replacing - Teletovic, Budinger, and Leuer aren’t exactly All-Stars - but that doesn't strike me as something that takes a team from 23 wins to 43 wins. It pains me to say this because I actually do like Phoenix, but there are just too many variables at play here. Eric Bledsoe could be outstanding but he’s coming off his 2nd knee surgery in three years.
Brandon Knight's contract from last year seems in line with what's going on in the rest of the league, but he's had injury problems too. The four highest-paid guys are Knight, Bledsoe, Dudley, and Dinosaur Tyson Chandler.
I just don't see those four + Booker (who will be a beast in two years and is clearly talented now) competing in the west. I hope you can convince me otherwise, but I just don't see a team that's winning more than 35-37 games.
Those are all good points, Kevin. I’ll start with the offseason moves. It’s true that Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa are not the home run free agents that fans in Phoenix were likely hoping for, but that’s only part of why they were brought in [I’m going to use this sentence to link to an article I wrote about the Dudley/Barbosa homecoming].
These are two players that love being Suns. They bring with them the double whammy of veteran experience (including championship experience for Barbosa) and history with the team. For a squad full of under-25 talent, that will make a difference. Dudley, in particular, has value, not only as a mentor to rookie forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, but as a presumptive starter until one or both of the prospects are ready for serious minutes.
Dudley’s perimeter defense and range make him a useful small-ball power forward, and he can default to a role as a balanced small forward the rest of the time. Dudley is better than Teletovic and Leuer on both sides of the court, and his ability to play three different positions gives the team more flexibility as young players establish themselves and coach Earl Watson figures out who will be playing how many minutes. You mention that there are a lot of variables at play that could work against the Suns.
Between the injury risks present with Bledsoe and Knight, the lack of a proven star player, or the youth of the roster, what do you think is most likely to deter the team from playoff contention?
You’re right, Jared Dudley is better than Teletovic or Leuer, but he's not going to set the league on fire. And one time when he was in college he tossed a headband into the stands during the NCAA tournament and a friend of mine caught it.
It weighed like three pounds because of all the sweat. It was disgusting and awesome. So if you want me to love Dudley, I can be convinced. Anyway, I think the biggest issue is the youth of the roster, but all of those things work together in a way. Barbosa, Dudley, and Chandler are definitely guys who are good for a team both on and off the court, but those young guys who are going to be stealing playing time are going through a lot of adjustments.
It's not just that new veterans are stepping in with these young guys, it's that these young guys haven't played much together (due to aforementioned injuries) and are now going to integrate themselves, the vets, and the relatively new coach in Earl Watson. It's a lot to juggle. To your point about Dudley holding down a position until one of those draft picks is ready to fill in, I don't have a lot of faith that either of them will be ready to fill in with any kind of effectiveness.
I was on the record (on Twitter, anyway) that I don't expect Bender to be useful this year and I just don't really know anything about Marquese Chriss, which seems like bad news for a top 10 pick. My theory is that the young roster doesn't have enough of a star player to battle teams like Portland, Memphis, Minnesota, or New Orleans - the teams that I imagine being in the 6-9 seed out west. I know teams don't necessarily ?_need_? a star player, but I think maybe Eric Bledsoe isn't up there with the Dame Lillard/Kyrie Irving point guard echelon to carry the Suns through tight games.
Earl Watson may be able to cover for that with great game-planning and a tremendous system, but usually those are things that take time to perfect. Even though a rookie coach just won the NBA Finals, I'm still suspicious of rookie coaches being effective. I mean, it's hard not to win with LeBron James on your team. For as exciting as the T'Wolves were last year, they still only won 29 games, you know?
It’s true that both Bender and Chriss are not expected to be fully functional players right away, but if even one of them can establish himself as a rotation-caliber player by the midpoint of the season, doors will open for the Suns. Both have their known skills and their question marks.
Bender’s floor-spacing abilities as a forward are valuable—it’s not a secret that he has a quality jump shot. The questions for him are whether he can produce offensively beyond catching and shooting, and whether his height and length will translate into solid defense in the paint. Chriss, on the other hand, is considered a phenomenal athlete that could someday become one of the elite defensive forwards in the league.
If he can prove that his jump shot is legitimate (he hit 35 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman at Washington), he can be a useful two-way player. As is often the case with rookies, both players are likely to struggle in the season’s opening months.
However, a second-half surge for one of the young guys could allow the team to run with at least one floor-spacing two-way forward at all times (along with Dudley), and then some bonus minutes with them playing together. If both rookies have good seasons (admittedly, I would not wager on this much), the team could easily find itself in an envied position, both in the short and long-term.
You mentioned that Bledsoe is not really a top-tier point guard. While I think this is fair, I’m interested in hearing which players you think are fair comparisons for him, speaking strictly in terms of impact on the court.
I think I can sum up my point of view real easily: We're each using a whole lot of the word "if." With so many question marks, I just don't think a 20 win jump is plausible, and I think 40 wins is the win total for a real shot at contention.
As I mentioned, I think they'll be better than last year, but I think a lot of the teams around them are either improving or very good to begin with. As for Bledsoe, watching a good Eric Bledsoe game is a bit like watching a Gilbert Arenas game 10 years ago. Ability to get hot, not quite a pass-happy guard but is a surprisingly talented passer, and it looks like he's shaping himself into a decent shooter.
I mean, Gilbert was an awesome shooter when he got hot, but who knows? Maybe Bledsoe takes that next step and becomes an outright stud.
While Arenas was undoubtedly better than Bledsoe at by age 27, I do understand what you’re getting at. Bledsoe is a point guard that can affect a game in many ways and take over from time to time, which is only part of why I think an improvement of 17 or more wins is fair to expect. It’s true that Bledsoe missed most of last season because of a torn meniscus in his left knee, but there is reason to expect this shouldn’t hold him back. He has torn his right meniscus once in 2011 and another time in 2014, and came back to play 76 and 81 games in the following seasons (respectively).
Considering he’ll have had almost a full season to recover, I do expect him to be present for at least most of the season. Assuming Bledsoe looks alright to the famously effective training staff in Phoenix, the door is open for the Suns to explore trades for Knight (a scenario that has been making its round on the rumor mill for a while now). After a little time goes by, he could potentially be flipped for a power forward/center, or a combo guard that is comfortable off-ball, or a floor-spacing swingman, or a floor-spacing forward, or whatever the heck management decides would improve the team most.
Knight is a talented player, but with the emergence of Booker as a legitimate scoring talent, another ball-dominant scoring guard is a redundant type of player for Phoenix, making Knight expendable, which conveniently leads me to my final, and most important, point: Devin Freaking Booker. I wrote a thorough profile on him recently, and my conclusion was this: his upside is James Harden, a reasonable expectation would be Khris Middleton, and his floor is Bradley Beal.
It’s true that he will only be 20 years old during his sophomore season, but what a 20-year-old he will be. By the end of last season, he looked like a player capable of actually leading an offense. If he has improved his defense or his ability to shoot off the dribble this offseason, he will compete for top dog status in Phoenix. If he improves on both of those areas, he will compete for star status in the league. He is that good. Between these factors (not to mention significant improvements at the forward position), I think 40 wins is a reasonable expectation. If the team overperforms, things will be looking sunny in Phoenix (sorry, I had to say it).
If the team underperforms, they will be looking at another high lottery pick. I’d bet on the over for this team. Any final thoughts, Kevin? You’ve made some very relevant points thus far, you certainly deserve the chance to close with a few more.
My closing thoughts are that yes, if absolutely everything breaks right the Suns could be a playoff team. Maybe Alex Len turns it up another notch and Booker improves on the typical young guy things (defense, mainly), and maybe the veterans don't lose a step anywhere. It's a lot of maybes, but crazier things have happened. I doubt the Suns will get all of those breaks, but it would be a whole lot of fun if they did.