PHOENIX — In early February, the concern with Phoenix Suns center Alex Len was that, for a contract season, the fourth-year pro wasn’t getting enough playing time for the Suns to make an informed decision on how to handle his restricted free agency this summer.
Even with Len’s opportunity opening up following the shutdown of Tyson Chandler, it looks like the Suns knew what they were doing.
While Len’s playing time slightly jumped from 19.7 minutes per game to 21.7, he did not improve. His net rating of -10.9 was the second-worst on the team behind Marquese Chriss, his offensive rating of 101.2 was the lowest and his defensive rating was third-worst, only trailing Chriss and T.J. Warren.
If the fancy numbers trouble you, the simple fact is the Suns were even worse than their 24-win record when their No. 5 overall pick in 2013 was on the court.
While partially aided by the surprisingly productive play of Alan Williams behind Len, the team’s offensive rating after the All-Star break jumped over four points when Len sat. There was a similar dip in the defensive rating.
Now, Len was starting alongside Chriss, who had a foul defensive rating of 116.7 since the trade deadline that didn’t help matters, but the same argument was made in February when Len was playing with Brandon Knight off the bench. The putrid numbers still rang true.
At some point, it’s on him.
During Suns exit interviews, general manager Ryan McDonough spoke candidly about what he saw out of Len.
“Flashes,” McDonough said. “Flashes, of talent.”
Flashes are for rookies or second-year players who didn’t play much in their first season, not for top-five picks in a contract year.
Of the 38 centers who played at least 20 minutes per game since Feb. 22, Len ranked in the bottom five for both offensive and defensive rating.
His effective field goal percentage was the sixth worst and his assist-to-turnover ratio was the second worst.
Those are his negatives, but McDonough mentioned some positives.
“Generally, rebounds the ball well,” McDonough said. “His rim protection numbers were pretty good, especially at the start of the year.”
The numbers partially back this up.
Protecting the rim, Len was 14th in defensive field goal percentage and as for rebounding, he was 19th in rebounding percentage.
Chandler believes Len can still be a starting-caliber center in the league but thinks his game should be more basic.
“His game is more get down on the block, left shoulder, right shoulder hooks and being able to demand a double team,” Chandler said.
Len’s numbers didn’t reflect that.
In post touches among that center group, Len was tied for the third-worst field goal percentage on post touches at 50 percent. Williams, who is five inches shorter, shot 58.2 percent.
Fifty-five players had at least 1.5 post-ups per game this season, and Len’s 0.69 points per possession tied for the third-worst number among that group.
That’s not to say Chandler is wrong because Len’s work outside the paint was also poor.
From 10-14 feet, Len shot 28.6 percent on 28 attempts. Going even further out to the true “midrange” area of 15-19 feet, a signature jumper for a big man to hit when his defender is helping off him near the basket, Len hit 31 percent of his 71 attempts.
To compare that number in that midrange area to some other centers that fit Len’s profile as a complementary player, Robin Lopez shot 43.8 percent on 185 midrange attempts for the Bulls and Gorgui Dieng shot 43.9 percent on 187 attempts in Minnesota.
To recap: Here is a center whose team has a very bad offense and defense when he’s on the floor. He’s far from efficient, rarely sets up his teammates and doesn’t take care of the ball well at all. He’s been one of the worst players at posting up in the NBA and lacks range on his jumper to make up for it. While he can protect the rim and is an average rebounder, his competition this past season and in free agency this summer is a guy who outperformed him drastically amongst that group — Williams was eighth in defensive field goal percentage and ninth in rebounding percentage.
McDonough sees the adjustment for Len this offseason as changing what he does on the floor, perhaps abandoning the high-post hybrid elements of Len’s game that were so enticing on draft night.
“Simplify his role a little bit, put him in a position to be effective,” McDonough said. “Anytime you have a talented young player who has the ability to do a number of different things, it’s tempting to throw a lot at them.”
The previous shooting numbers and Len’s shot chart reflects that’s the right decision.
Maybe it’s easy to criticize Len because the post-trade deadline role was one where he was expected to bounce back and create a difficult free agency decision for the Suns.
He did the opposite of that.
This entire argument surrounding Len is not to ignore the fact that he’s still talented.
The Denver Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February and in his time in the Pacific Northwest, Nurkic averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals per game in the regular season. He was a monster.
Uninformed fans have been rushing to crush Denver for the trade, but the story on the Bosnian in Denver didn’t quite have the national reach. He was fuming with his role behind Nikola Jokic, who looks like the next franchise big man in the NBA. He was pouting and didn’t look interested when he was playing.
The Nuggets had no choice but to deal Nurkic, despite this potential everyone in Denver knew he had.
Len won’t become a world-beater like Nurkic, but despite the flaws in his game, he’s got a whole lot of talent and potential left at 23 years old.
While it’s clear he will never be able to fill the shoes of what a top-five pick in a weak draft should be, he’s always had the skills to be a competent, complementary starting center who would play well on both ends.
Another NBA team may very well unlock that player, but it’s extremely unlikely for it to come in Phoenix.
The Suns control their destiny with Len.
He is a restricted free agent, and Phoenix will be able to match any offer he agrees to with another team.
With a $13 million-plus commitment over the next two seasons to Tyson Chandler and having restricted free agency control over Williams, though, there’s no reason to bring back Len.
First-round picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss both show enough promise to play minutes at center and already did this season. If Len gets offered even just $10 million per season, why would it make sense to use nearly a quarter of the salary cap on centers?
The Suns appear to be on the same page by, down the stretch, playing Len fewer minutes than Williams, who could wind up being his replacement and certainly will be cheaper.
Williams is not a long-term fix as a potential starting center of the future but as of now, Len isn’t either.
If the Suns can get Len to re-sign on the cheap without much long-term commitment, it’s worth another shot to see if what McDonough said about a simplified game for Len is true. If that doesn’t happen, it’s time to move on.
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