The Phoenix Suns have played two games since returning from the All-Star break.
They’ve had chances to win both games, but fell short each time.
But for a young, last-place team, the final stretch of the 2016-17 season isn’t about wins and losses ultimately. It’s about evaluation; finding out what some of the seldom-used players can contribute with more regular minutes in the future.
For second-year head coach Earl Watson, that means shuffling his player rotation. In the last two games, Watson inserted Alex Len into the starting lineup at center. Rookies Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones Jr. have seen increased minutes, while second-year big man Alan Williams has opened eyes with his play off the bench.
With opportunities for the younger players, veterans must accept decreased roles. In fact, center Tyson Chandler and backup point guard Brandon Knight didn’t step onto the floor in losses at Chicago and Milwaukee.
Knight’s situation is an interesting one. The fifth-year player’s name popped up frequently in trade rumors leading up to last week’s deadline, but no deal was struck. He has struggled this season in a bench role, shooting under 40 percent from the field, 32 percent from three-point range and playing a career-low 21.1 minutes per game.
He’s also got three years remaining on a five-year deal he signed in 2015 that will pay him almost $44 million. It stands to reason that either the Suns need to get Knight on the right track so he can contribute to the team moving forward or at least let him rebuild his stock around the league.
Watson joined Doug and Wolf Tuesday morning on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM and explained the organization’s thinking on shutting Knight down.
“I think Brandon Knight is a unique player in a unique situation, but right now our focus is on our group,” Watson said. “We want him to become better and we want to continue to push to make him better as a basketball player and better person.
“But we truly have to see if Tyler Ulis can be a dominant ball-handler in the second unit. To play Brandon Knight with Tyler right now makes no sense because Tyler will sometimes, if not half of the time, will end up being off of the ball. We need to see if Tyler can be that guy.”
Evaluating Ulis’ potential would have ripple effects on the rest of the Suns’ guard rotation, according to Watson.
“If Tyler is that guy and we understand that clearly, then we need to see if it’s better to have a two-guard like (Leandro) Barbosa, who can run the court, spread the court and play off the ball. Or is it better to have a secondary ball-handler like Brandon Knight, who can make plays alongside Tyler Ulis.”
While much older and a different position than Knight, Chandler is in a similar situation. The Suns have decisions to make on Len and Williams, who will both be restricted free agents this summer.
“We have to start putting together a clear, transparent, solid vision of our group and saying ‘this is step one of moving in the right direction,’ and start building with a purpose,” Watson said.
It’s never easy for a coaching staff to have to tell players their roles are being reduced, but Watson said both veterans handled the situation well.
“One thing about the NBA is, players are fine if you tell them the truth,” he said.
“It’s difficult for any basketball player, but eveybody’s been professional and that’s the positive of our group.”
The Suns conclude their three-game road trip Tuesday night in Memphis against the Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum. The game tips off at 6:00 p.m. and pregame coverage starts at 5:30 on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.
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