As his career has moved along, Alex Len has failed to prove he can be a starting-caliber center in the NBA. Next season very well may be his last opportunity to do so.
With only three players on the roster capable of playing center, it is fair to say that the Suns are going to be strapped for options down low.
While Tyson Chandler and Alex Len have proven themselves to be useful in the paint, Alan Williams (and all 68 minutes of his NBA experience) is an unproven, to say the least. Beyond concerns about depth in the rotation, an injury at the position could become a full-on catastrophe.
There has been light chatter suggesting that, given his size and length, rookie Dragan Bender could spend a few minutes at the five spot. While this would be ideal, it is speculative to suggest he could even do so farther into his career as his frame fills out, let alone as a lanky rookie.
One realistic possibility would be to waive shooting guard John Jenkins and replace him with a big man. Jenkins’ contract will not be guaranteed until the beginning of the 2016-17 season, meaning he is expendable. Phoenix has money to sign a free agent with, and Jenkins could be valued by a team that would be willing to send away a center for the chance to free a spot for a new free agent.
These scenarios make plenty of sense, but there isn’t much credence to the notion that Suns management is actually planning anything of this sort. If Jenkins does stay put on the roster and his contract is guaranteed, what would that mean for the team’s rotation?
Chandler and Len were the primary big men in Phoenix during the 2015-16 season, while Jon Leuer also handled plenty of minutes at the five. With Leuer gone and nobody in to replace him, expect his minutes to be eaten up by Chandler and Len.
While Leuer is a useful player, this development is a very good thing for the Suns. While both Chandler and Len averaged about 24 minutes per game last season, they spent a shocking, almost atrocious amount of time playing alongside each other. This was largely a device to cover up the team’s defensive incompetence, but the tradeoff was a resulting lack of space on offense.
With the roster as it stands, it would be refreshing to see those guys divide time at center and not play a single minute next to each other. While this is a bit optimistic, it’s fair to think they will play next to each other significantly less in the 2016-17 season, particularly given the upgrades at the power forward position.
It would make sense for Len to move up to about 30 minutes per game as he enters the prime of his career, while Chandler goes down to 18.
This suggestion seems appropriate enough, but it creates a bit of awkward pressure for Len. The expectation has always been for him to become the center of the future in Phoenix, but his ascension has been slow. Chandler was a far superior player last season, meaning that giving some of his minutes to Len could actually be detrimental to success.
Len will have to take on a bigger role sooner or later, and it looks like the 2016-17 just may be the last year for him to prove that he is up to the task before Suns management explores new directions for the future.
Let’s compare some numbers, all provided by Basketball-Reference.com, except for ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistics.
|2015-16 Per Game Statistics
There is essentially no meaningful part of either player’s game in which Len is the better player. The main calling cry of his backers is that “he can shoot from mid-range!”. The problem, of course, is that he really shouldn’t be doing this. While he has certianly been willing to take jumpers, and has apparently been given the go-ahead to do so by his coaches, he has been awful on these attempts.
As shown by this shot chart from austinclemens.com, Len was deficient from all ranges last season, yet he took almost twice as many shots per game as Chandler did. A healthy rule of thumb is that, if a player can’t effectively score from anywhere on the court, it is best that they stick to shots near the basket. Len took this concept and threw it into the trash (he probably missed).
In the short term, it probably won’t be the end of the world for the Suns if Len can’t improve his offense next season. All it would mean is that there would be a mediocre-at-best center on the court for long stretches of time. A deficit for sure, but not a death sentence.
If this is what ends up happening, coach Earl Watson should understand the need to cut Len’s shot attempts in half. However, the real concern is that the almost-done-being-young center will need to turn the corner sooner or later if he is really going to be a reliable candidate for the starting center spot.
Perhaps he can finagle another season of hope out of his organization, perhaps even two, but that seems like daydreaming. The sober truth is that Len is going to need to show everybody that he’s made of more than what he’s shown thus far, or else his opportunities to do so will run out.