Ebb and Flow - The Suns Regular Season of 2015-2016
The Suns honored one of their most iconic players of all time early in the season by inducting Steve Nash into the Suns Ring of Honor. Luckily, my girlfriend and I got to attend the game. I won't get into his accolades, because quite frankly we have Wikipedia for that and I'm pretty sure most fans are aware of the greatness that is Steve Nash. I grew up completely disinterested in sports. Talking baseball to me is the equivalent of talking to me about life insurance. A couple of nods and smiles is all you're getting as I slowly walk backwards out of the room. I can hang somewhat when it comes to football talk, but I'll be real - I wanted Carolina to win this last super bowl because I fucks' wit those colors and my default team, Cardinals, were already out. Zero understanding of soccer. Fuck off with golf. Basketball though? You wanna have a talk about some shit? Grab a chair, you're mine for the next seven hours.
And the playoff runs of 2010 cemented this. After over hearing bits and pieces about the Suns all season from my friends, I decided one night to watch a game. It was the opening game to the Western Conference Finals. This is where I first developed my bitterness toward Kobe. It is also when I developed my appreciation, from a competitor standpoint, for him. I'll get back to this in a later article though. Suns eventually lost in six games. This is when I first understood what its like to be a fan of a team. A real fan. The surge of adrenaline during the last 45 seconds. Standing five inches from the TV with your fist clenched in the air for I forget how long. The inevitable waves of emotion following a loss. Disbelief, anger, rage, sorrow, emptiness, calm. The upswing of endorphins following your team rebounding and getting the "W" two nights later. The bitterness of knowing the season is over. The highs and lows are gut wrenching. I didn't understand why I gave a shit, or why I continued to watch the Lakers go on to win it all. But I did, and I spent that off season delving into the history of the Suns, figuring out the draft, figuring out the rules, reading about the other teams, and learning who the fuck this Nash guy was.
Quite simply, Nash is an example of excellence and heart. His talent helped me to understand the intricacies of the game. His heart helped me understand the passion behind the game. And it means more to me than just having a spectacle to watch and enjoy. It broaden my horizons, so to say, and helped me to appreciate something that I could never see any merit to giving a shit about before. I think that's good for people. Anything that aids in understanding only helps to strengthen other facets of our lives. My only wish is that I had watched his moments of glory with the Suns live instead of mostly through old YouTube clips. That's ok though. Different paths, same destination. I'm just glad I got to see one of my idols get the respect he deserves in an arena full of memories he helped create, with my girlfriend and bunch of other fans, many of who probably felt the same. We want Steve, we want Steve.
You'd think he would have learned from Busta Rhymes. Why cut off that luxurious mane? Come on dawg.
The off season started off hot. Knight was resigned quickly and quietly. Suns were in hot pursuit of LaMarcus Alridge. After free agent strike outs in the previous off seasons, most of the fan base including me thought it was a long shot. All of a sudden, news broke out that the Suns had signed former defensive player of the year and NBA champion Tyson Chandler, who was walking into a meeting with Aldridge alongside the Suns' GM, Bledsoe, and Knight. The meeting went well enough that it was reported Aldridge was leaning toward the Suns. Suns proceeded to clear cap space by trading off Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, and other filler. This would come back to haunt them, but was not a bad move in retrospect. I was already setting up my NBA 2K16 roster to match what looked like was going to be the best Suns team in the past five years when I found out the news.
Aldridge ended up with the Spurs. And we ended up with a disgruntled Markieff Morris, one of my favorite players for the Suns over the last few years mind you, and an angry mob of spurned ex-Suns players who bad mouthed the team the majority of the season. The 2015-2016 squad still looked promising. Things just weren't clicking though, and after a legit showing in the beginning from our backcourt of Bledsoe and Knight, injuries and locker room drama took over. Bledsoe went down, followed by various injuries to Knight, Chandler, Price, Warren, and others. The Morris twins continued to be a dark cloud over the organization with their impending assault case, Markieff's lackadaisical performances, and Marcus' bitchy tweets. Jeff Hornacek got canned, and the only thing that stopped the organization from spreading their legs and throwing out free tickets from the rafters was the emergence of the Suns hopeful future star, Devin Booker.
I really did not expect the season to be ending the way it is at the moment of writing this. Like sure, we're up by 10 close to the end of the 3rd against the Clippers. Goodwin with a couple good moves against the matador defense being played by the Clippers bench and 3rd string players. Suns aren't that much better on that end either. Booker having an off game offensively, but at the same time the kid has to be tired after the performance he's put on this season. Alan Williams is playing solid across the board. Three blocks to go along with a double double. He's one of those feel good stories having played for North High School, my former school, and had won Arizona State Player of the Year averaging 22.1 pts, 16.2 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks. Went undrafted in 2015, bounced around between a few NBA Summer League teams, and netted a contract in China before being signed by the Suns part way through the season. What a feeling it has to be to end up playing for your home town team. Definition of a feel good story. In less than three minutes though, this feel good effort will cap off a disappointing season. This "W" will leave us at 23-59. Second worst in the Western Conference, fourth worst in the league. Bledsoe, Knight and Warren watch injured from the bench with Tyson Chandler and Devin Booker next to them, both most likely being held out of the majority of the game to prevent unnecessary injuries. The Suns' season is over.
The flow always follows the ebb though. The Suns are going into this off season armed with three first round draft picks, an extremely talented young player in Devin Booker, two solid young potential starters in TJ Warren and Alex Len, a hopefully healthy Eric Bledsoe who will be coming off one of his most impressive seasons, a talented albeit questionable player in Brandon Knight, experienced vets in Tyson Chandler, Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic, and PJ Tucker, and a plethora of quality roleplayers and prospects in Jon Leuer, John Jenkins, Alan Williams, Archie Goodwin, Chase Budinger, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. So where does the team go from here?
The War Room
First step? Figure out what direction you're going. Ever since the surprising 2013-2014 season, we've been that wishy-washy asshole that can't figure out if they want to shit, or get off the pot. We're lucky enough that what Suns GM Ryan McDonough lacks in player relations, he makes up for in player acquisition. We have the young talent, and we have the vet presence. My preference? Aim for building around Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len, and TJ Warren with the goal of bringing in young talent within that 18-25 age bracket. Rip off the Band-Aid along with those bullshit Elton John-like rose tinted glasses that fool you into thinking we could claw into the 8th seed of the playoffs. You don't have the coaching foundation for it yet, which brings me to the next step.
Select the coach that represents your direction. The Kings grasped desperately for George Karl thinking an old school veteran coach would bring together their mix-matched talent and toxic locker room. He's getting fired, reportedly. The Thunder essentially swapped a coach that lacked X's & O's understanding but was respected by the locker room, Scott Brooks, with a coach that wasn't respected and still couldn't draw up a fucking play other than "let Westbrook and Durant figure it out." His job outlook looks bleak. The Wizards head coach is on his way out after failing to adjust with the most injured roster in the league. The Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau in an attempt to do a soft rebuild (sound familiar?) and replaced him with an unproven NCAA coach by the name of Fred Hoiberg. Led to a wah-wah-wahhhh season where they'll be watching the playoffs instead of being in them, like the Suns.
On the flip side, Rick Carlisle has done great things with the Dallas Mavericks and has secured a spot once again in the playoffs with a vintage Dirk Nowitzki and an assortment of overrated and/or underappreciated role players. Brad Stevens of the Celtics has propelled his team in a monumental way to the playoffs. They don't have the option to rest on a super star. They just fucking play correctly, and believe me it stems from both of the coaches. Celtics in particular are rebuilding correctly by bringing in talented role players and prospects while also stock piling draft picks, and drafting intelligently. Suns aren't that far off from that method, which shouldn't come as a surprise since Ryan McDonough learned under Danny Ainge, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics.
My ideal start to the 2016-2017 season? Either keep Earl Watson as the main coach, who the players have responded well to, or go for a coach that has been an assistant and/or learned under the greats. You either want a young coach with potential to grow with the team, or you want a coach that has been groomed, I.E. what the Hawks have under Mike Budenholzer (Popovich), or what the Celtics have under Brad Stevens, a young coach with a good approach to the game.
Next step? Well, this goes hand in hand with the direction of your team. If we end up with the 3rd or 4th draft pick like we expect to, do we trade it in a package for a disgruntled super star? How many of those are really out there right now that would be attainable without gutting the current team? We don't want to end up like the Knicks when they nabbed Melo. I like DeMarcus Cousins, and it's likely he will be traded soon after the Kings have had to fire what feels like the 70th coach since they've drafted him. What would they want for him though? Knowing the Kings organization, probably too much. And Cousins has just enjoyed his first 30+ win season since coming into the league. For a dominant center like himself, it's a little disconcerting. Anthony Davis? Pelicans say good fucking luck. Horford? Not enough to get over the hump. Needs to be paired with an actual star. Kevin Durant? I think we've learned our lesson after going all in for LeBron and Melo a few years back. They ain't coming here. Harden? Not a fan, and I think Houston is pathetic enough to cling to him after they most likely try to ship Howard out with a fond farewell gift back full of condoms and old Houston playoff T-shirts that Ethiopia didn't want.
No, what we need to do is draft intelligently (which we have for the most part under McDonough), consolidate our guard positions, divide the minutes at our center position, develop our youth, and sign free agents that make sense for the team looking a few years into the future.
This'll be short. I'm not a draft expert, and I do not follow college basketball. What I do know is that our GM is a former talent scout, and has thus far drafted some potential gems. McDonough is particularly sharp at drafting in the mid teens range as well as in the later parts of the draft. We will most likely have the 4th pick, the Wizard's pick at 13, and Cleveland's at 28. That's a pretty sweet spread and could even be consolidated into trading up if deemed rewarding enough. Even with all of the hype around Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, I just keep coming back to the realization that the draft is often a crap shoot. But with the potential I see in our youth with Devin Booker, TJ Warren, Alex Len, and the occasional sparks from Archie Goodwin, I have confidence that McDonough will hit a home run here. Speaking of the youth movement...
Develop the Youngins
Devin Booker is a no brainer here. He needs to start next season. He won't have to be the main scorer/playmaker with the return of Bledsoe either. Bledsoe should be able to draw enough pressure to be able to kick the ball back out to Booker, I.E. the knockdown shooter we have been lacking (Knight doesn't count, too inconsistent.) Booker can focus more on scoring with his ridiculously impressive shooting and unexpectedly agile drives to the basket. Expect the kid to blossom and become the face of the franchise before he can even legally buy a drink.
TJ Warren no doubt has been laying in the cut waiting for his opportunity. He was the Devin Booker for us before Book was. There's a reason he has the name "Tony Buckets." Beautiful mid-range and around the basket game with one of the most developed floaters I've ever seen, and has even improved his 3-point shooting to the point players have to honor him out past the arc. He cleans up a lot of plays that weren't meant for him with his offensive rebounding, and we've seen him many times get away from his defender with enough time to slash to the basket and get an easy pass from Bledsoe. I could see Alex Len, with his improved passing in the post, find Warren on these cuts after posting Len up. It is my opinion that as long as Warren continues to work on his defense and shows effort, he should be our starting SF going forward and could even play some PF during small ball stints.
Alex Len is the one I want to succeed the most. As our 5th pick in 2013, he has rebounded from an injury plagued first year and has clearly put in the effort in the weight room. Dude is huge. His defensive impact took a step back this season though, largely in my opinion to him over thinking and also trying to focus more on the offensive end. I like that Watson has given him confidence to take shots. His mid range 13-15 footer is becoming solid. His rebounding is legit, and his fundamentals when going up to contest shots are very good for his age. He has played out of position in the second half of this season with Watson experimenting with Len at PF and Chandler at center. This is another reason why I suspect his defense has suffered a bit at attempting to guard quicker power forwards even though Len is quite agile for his size. I expect him to spend a lot of time with Tyson Chandler in the off season and hopefully, he earns the starting position. The key will be for him to understand how important his role as a defensive player will be for us moving forward and that as long as he stays consistent on that end, he will get his offensive touches.
Archie Goodwin has, once again, been left in a curious predicament when it comes to minutes. Thank Devin Booker for that now, before that thank Knight, Isaiah Thomas, Dragic, Bledsoe, Ronnie Price, Ish Smith...am I forgetting anyone? Always a bridesmaid never a bride doesn't do it justice. Dudes been a wedding guest, sitting deep in the back row. If he doesn't pan out, the good news is that he was a very late draft pick. I want him to succeed though, but just as the team has to uphold their end by giving him time to develop on the court, he has to make them want to do so. It is hard to tell when a player looks lost on the court because they are nervous, or if they just are not ready. He still plays with his head down, which limits his ability to play as a point guard. His shot can still be too inconsistent, which limits his ability to play shooting guard. Excellent driver, and extremely long and athletic. I sadly feel that he is one of those players that will break out on another team and most likely needs a change of scenery. Mentally, I just don't feel he is as sharp as Booker and his lack of effort on the defensive end at times will always mean that a vet like Ronnie Price will constantly be stealing his playing time away. With the rumors that Bogdan Bogdanovic will be coming over next season, and that it is still unsure whether he would play for us as a guard or SF, Goodwin's window could be closing very soon.
Trades, Free Agents, and Minutes. Oh My.
Should we do what I mentioned above and focus on developing our youth into a strong core moving forward, that will leave some of our players in precarious situations. Brandon Knight has had some seriously entertaining games this season and was at one point looking like a key part to a very dynamic backcourt next to Bledsoe. Bledsoe, despite his injuries, has grown into a very intelligent and star-lite player. Knight has not really progressed that much in any of his seasons, and just can't be relied upon when it comes to play making or shot selection. He might be best suited for a 6th man role before Bledsoe and Booker, with Goodwin soaking up the rest of the minutes. There are a lot of "what ifs" here though. Can Bledsoe stay healthy? If not, do we try to trade him and slide Knight into his spot? Do we ship out Knight, take one last gamble on Goodwin, and run with Bledsoe, Booker, Goodwin, and a free agent guard?
Tyson Chandler seems to have been a positive influence in the locker room for this team. Booker, Len, Bledsoe, and Tucker have all had high praises for him. His age appears to be catching up with him though. My wishes by next season would be for Chandler, should he not be traded, be the back up to Alex Len. It allows Chandler to lead the bench, and for him to rest his body more. Len will have the confidence boost of starting. Adjust the minutes for each depending on back to back's and what not as the season progresses. Same deal here with TJ Warren and PJ Tucker. After another full off season of PJ mentoring TJ, I'd love to see TJ Warren take that starting spot. Tucker is starting to out grow his usefulness for this rebuilding team. One thing about Tucker though is that his hustle is contagious for our team and he has been nothing but positive and supporting of the organization. I'd like to keep him around, but just lessen his role a little by have him coming off the bench where his hustle could really shine. This is assuming, of course, that TJ Warren absorbs some of that spirit and fight.
Our biggest hole right now is at the power forward position. I suspect we try to find our future one in this years draft, but who knows when that player will be ready. With that being said, we have Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer filling in the gaps. Both will be free agents and needing to be resigned if we want to retain them. Teletovic has played his dick off in the second half of the season and has shown to be a relentless psychopath on the offensive end, gunning whenever given the opportunity and hasn't been too bad on the rebounding end. Jon Leuer, while still a good enough three point shooter, is much more balanced in his overall game. When you compare the per 36 stats for both of them, you find that Leuer is a better rebounder, better at driving to the basket, and better at dishing out assists. Teletovic is a .400% or so three point shooter, and has a very underrated post up game but is not as athletic as Leuer and can not guard the position as well - hence his usefulness of coming off the bench. It's tough, but with the rise in the cap estimated to be at $92 million, it couldn't hurt to sign both to reasonable contracts if for no other reason to lock up a trade asset for later on until we have our power forward of the future.
Are You Done Yet?
I'll end this summary with this: The Suns haven't made the playoffs in six years. That blows, and while this new organization of the last few years has struck gold at times, they also need to learn the value in player relations. Players can be whiny and you will always end up with backlash in trades or signings, but you can't have a running theme of players being told one thing, and then you do another. It is a business, but you also want to hold a little integrity. Thankfully with all of the recent media turmoil, we still have our promising youth and we still have our draft picks. People forget things quickly, especially when a team starts winning. As long as we play it smart, continue to evolve along the trajectories of the league, and refuse to rest on our laurels, we'll be ok. Or we'll suck - there's always a bandwagon to hop on to!
Hah...yeah right, go Suns. PHX, bitch.