In a city where residents pay only 0.8 percent to the government on their homes, the 2015-16 season sure was taxing for fans of the Phoenix Suns (please hold your applause until the end of the article).
Things were looking up for the Suns just a year ago. The team sported a young roster led by point guard Eric Bledsoe and power forward Markieff Morris, both blossoming stars in the league. The team had acquired young scoring dynamo Brandon Knight in a trade mid-season, and had just gotten prospects TJ Warren and Alex Len through their first and second seasons (respectively). The team had a bevy of future draft picks and ample cap space to pursue the league’s top free agent, LaMarcus Aldridge. With Jeff Hornacek only one year removed from placing second in NBA Coach of the Year voting, the future was looking bright for the Suns.
Fast forward to this offseason, and the perception has changed drastically. The team whiffed on Aldridge, losing out to the ineffably, borderline emasculatingly dominant Western conference powerhouse San Antonio Spurs. Morris was traded after months of tension resulting from his twin, Marcus, being traded to the Detroit Pistons. Before sending Markieff to the Wizards, the front office looked to smooth things over with the young power forward, which played no small part in the mid-season firing of Hornacek. Bledsoe and Knight both missed significant parts of the 2015-16 season due to injury, and now the most exciting draft picks held by the team are its own.
Though perhaps discombobulated, the league’s latest victims of Murphy’s law have taken preliminary steps towards getting back on the path to success, starting with the addition of two promising prospects through the draft, forwards Marqueese Chris and Dragan Bender. With youngsters in tow, the Suns were tasked with adding veteran leaders to anchor the locker room. By signing guard Leandro Barbosa and forward Jared Dudley, the team succeeded.
Both are former Suns; Barbosa spent the first 7 years of his career in Phoenix before requesting a trade due to his diminished playing time. He also returned for the 2013-14 season. Dudley spent four and a half years in an orange jersey before asking to be traded in order to get the chance to play for a contender while helping the Suns get the rebuilding process underway.
After playing for a different team in each of the past three seasons, Dudley sees his return as an ideal homecoming. In his opening press conference, he said “I say this (Phoenix) is home. I’m from San Diego, but I spent five years here, it’s where I really grew up… It’s just a perfect fit.”
Dudley understands that his biggest responsibility will be grooming the prospects that will eventually take minutes away from him, and he is ready to embrace that role. He played for the Wizards last season, a young team in their own right, but the Suns squad he’s signed up for next year is a step or two farther behind in their progression. This is fine with him.
“I embrace it in the sense that they’re going to take over eventually. For me… it’s an everyday process to help them get better and I’m excited about that.”
After being actively pursued by Utah (one of the most intriguing up-and-coming teams in the league) and Brooklyn, not to mention being rumored as a fit on teams all over the league, it should inspire hope for Suns fans to see that Dudley preferred to come be a mentor in Phoenix. If the team was looking for a leader, it can’t go wrong with one that so clearly loves being a Sun.
The irony of these signings for Phoenix is that Dudley left to play on a contender, while Barbosa was seeking improved minutes. Upon returning, Dudley will likely be the team’s starting power forward, while Barbosa is the one that brings championship experience, winning a ring with the Golden State Warriors in 2014-15 before returning to the Finals last season. His return to the Suns will come after a second Olympic stint for his home country, Brazil.
Homecomings are always nice for fans, and the Suns could certainly use a PR boost following the unrest of last season, but these signings will also benefit the team on the court.
Dudley is a natural fit, as his 3-and-D style will help the Suns rectify one of the league’s worst defenses last season while also helping the team establish a pace-and-space style. The hope is that one day Bender will be an elite sharpshooting forward while Chriss can be the team’s go-to defensive forward, but in the meantime Dudley offers them a healthy dose of both traits.
Dudley is not perfect on either side of the court—defensively, he is woefully outmatched in the paint, struggling mightily to get rebounds and defend bigger, stronger forwards. On the offensive end, he spaces the floor but will not create his own shot. Per NBA.com, a whopping 92.7 percent of Dudley’s shots last season were assisted.
He’s not a scorer, he’s a floor spacer that is on the court to make life easier for the team’s true scorers. Defensively, he’s not a true power forward. Instead, he’s a player that can limit opposing stretch fours. He will not be an impact player on the court, but rather a reliable two-way option that can provide an example for the young players that could someday play with a similar style at a higher level. It doesn’t sound flashy, but it’s the perfect prescription for a rebuilding franchise.
Barbosa will serve a very different role off the bench. His three-point shooting is uninspiring, but the Suns would be wise to take a page out of the Warriors book from last season. Rather than cover up Barbosa’s shooting by putting him on the floor with elite spacers like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State opted to play the Brazilian Blur next to sturdy defenders that can make plays in transition.
Though Barbosa did handle plenty of minutes next to shooting savants Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, that can be attributed to the fact that those players were on the court whenever possible. Put another way, every player on the Warriors spent considerable time next to Curry and Thompson. The fact that neither shows up in Barbosa's top four most common lineup combinations is a testament to the style of play he specialized in last season.
Per NBA.com’s Play Type statistics, Barbosa executed 27.3 percent of his plays in transition (the term “execute” meaning he shot the ball, passed it, or turned it over). His 1.22 points per possession in transition were solid, as was his 52 percent shooting between 16 and 24 feet of the hoop.
In short, Barbosa logged minutes with defensive-oriented lineups while the Warriors’ stars rested, sprinting up the court in transition in the hopes of securing an easy basket. If that didn’t work out, he could be trusted if the team had to settle on an unsavory mid-range shot. Considering Phoenix’s surfeit of guards, it would be wise to bring Barbosa off the bench for a similar role.
It’s fun to daydream about how the Suns will utilize their newest members on the court, but the truth is that is only a small part of why they were both brought on board. Dudley signed a reasonable 3-year contract worth $30 million, while Barbosa will sign for a low $8 million over 2 years once the Olympics are over.
There’s a good chance that a bit of patience could have landed either player bigger contracts, particularly Dudley. They aren’t in it for that. They aren’t coming to Phoenix to win championships, either. They’re returning because they want to come to a city that they are familiar with, one that they love, and one that gives them a chance to be part of a new beginning for an organization that is special to each of them.
Waking up from a nightmarish season, things are starting to look better for the Phoenix Suns. It’s true that this was the tune being sung last offseason, but for fans that know how wrong things can go in just one year, it is at least nice to know that the right guys were brought in this time.