Empire of the Suns’ Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson review the 2016-17 season for Phoenix, which included another mystifyingly poor season from Brandon Knight, shutting down of key vets and, of course, promising signs from Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe.
What went wrong for Brandon Knight?
Kellan Olson: The biggest problem for Knight last season was effort, so his fall to one of the worst rotation players in the NBA this season was even more shocking when he was clearly making his effort a prime focus. The adjustment to playing off the bench was clearly the issue, whether it was mental or re-defining his role.
Kevin Zimmerman: Can we call it Markieff-itis? While it’s hard (for me, at least) to imagine a professional athlete playing poorly on purpose, it’s more reasonable to see the weight of uncomfortable roster moves around them impacting their play. And did it ever impact Knight. At minimum, a role with reduced minutes and the ball in his hands less — he tried to be an offensive initiator — only shocked his confidence on offense and caused him to press on defense as his minutes were threatened with poor play.
Outside of Knight, what was the biggest surprise this season?
KO: Alan Williams not only proving that he’s an NBA player, but one that deserves minutes was a huge surprise to me. He’s 6-foot-8, slow, can’t jump high and doesn’t possess any skills that translate to another position besides center, yet he’s incredibly productive on offense and the glass that his deficiencies as a player can be offset.
KZ: That the Suns so aggressively tanked after Earl Watson, granted as interim, chased wins at the end of a lost season a year ago with Ronnie Price, P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler playing big minutes. I’ll also have to admit that I was wrong: Where I saw glimpses of Big Sauce a year ago and in Summer League, Tyler Ulis — he averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 assists and 1.1 steals in 25 post-All-Star game appearances — being not only productive, but wildly so, has me eating crow.
Did the Suns do tanking right? What personnel decisions could have been different?
KO: Yes. Shutting down all three players made sense. Chandler is 34 and has two more years left on his deal, Brandon Knight was not playing well while Tyler Ulis deserved some more playing time, and Eric Bledsoe has had multiple major knee surgeries. They got a good look at Ulis, Alan Williams and Derrick Jones Jr., who could all be key pieces going forward all while losing lots of games. I wouldn’t have changed anything.
KZ: It was the right move, not only to improve the draft odds but to accelerate the development of the young players like Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss and get a peek at some others like Ulis and Williams. If there was one gripe, it’s that Bledsoe should have been shut down along with Chandler for health reasons — though I understand his rapport with the youngsters is important for the future.
Most enjoyable part of this season?
KO: Eric Bledsoe’s play in January was special to watch. He averaged 24-5-8 on 43-37-88 shooting, and despite that, the Suns went 5-9 that month. Since the dying moments of ‘Seven Seconds or Less’, we hadn’t seen elite basketball in a Suns jersey, but for that month, we certainly did. Bledsoe, 27, proved his doubters wrong and showed that he had another level or two to his game, kicking down the door to enter his prime.
Best role player this season?
KO: P.J. Tucker is not showing much of a decline at the age of 31, and I’m personally thrilled to experience “Playoff P.J. Tucker” for the first time in Toronto. His shooting ended at a respectable 34 percent from three and we all know what he brings defensively. Williams fills the humongous void Tucker’s presence leaves, but no one will raise their hands up and stare around the court in disbelief on missed defensive assignments quite like P.J.
KZ: It’s always impressive that players like Tucker and Chandler will act as leaders and positive voices during a down season. It’s even more wild that Jared Dudley signed up for such a thing as a free agent. Dudley was the glue and a perfect get-out-of-the-way type of role player who contributed the most in practices against young bigs like Dragan Bender and Chriss.