It’s the midseason point: The Phoenix Suns fired head coach Earl Watson three games into the year, took steps forward despite an injury to star Devin Booker and have played competitive ball of late under head coach Jay Triano en route to a 16-26 record midway through the 2017-18 season.
Here are five key questions to answer for Empire of the Suns’ reporters Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman.
Devin Booker has taken a leap, but how high is this leap? Should the Suns grab a solid veteran or two and go for a playoff spot?
Kellan Olson: It is just absolutely silly the numbers he’s putting up with the roster around him. I think he’s a clear No. 1 piece for the future and right now. He’s been one of the top 3-5 players at his position this season, period. I think if they grab the right pieces next year they could, in theory, win 40 games or so, but those pieces are going to be difficult to grab. With so much youth on the roster already, GM Ryan McDonough can afford to trade a combination of 2-4 of his future first-round picks and core young players to build around Booker. It is time to end this playoff drought, but there’s no need to rush into it right now with how difficult the schedule gets and the clutter at the bottom of the NBA standings. Waiting until the offseason seems wise unless a can’t-miss trade comes up.
Kevin Zimmerman: The leap might’ve come a year sooner than most expected, and there’s no doubt the Suns have an easy decision to offer Booker an extension onto his rookie deal following this year. Those numbers, by the way: 25 points per game on 44 percent shooting and 39 percent from three to go with 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. The problem is, this league isn’t about franchise players, but what collection of players makes a contender. That said, the Suns can stay the course while still looking for upgrades by packaging their young role players and/or picks to move up the draft — easier said than done — or heavily consider going after NBA talent this summer and beyond.
How do you assess Jay Triano’s performance? How well does the team need to play in the second half to bring him back?
KO: He’s been very, very good. The team’s fortitude and resilience is unlike a typical bad NBA team. Better yet, Booker, Chriss and Bender all look better under him. He deserves credit for that. To bring him back as a candidate, I’d say continuing this level of winning, so around 27 wins or so. Please interview some candidates, though, and see if someone like David Fizdale would be interested.
KZ: The Suns doing reasonably solid basketball things under Triano is a relief after their play under former coach Earl Watson deteriorated into some of the ugliest basketball I’ve ever watched in college or the pros. That makes for a very young team in line to win 30 games, which at this point seems like a major development for a fan base that was so pro-tank. Triano coaches with a mix of communication and accountability, and no matter how you view schemes and rotations, there’s enough consistency and teaching showing through to say Phoenix has improved quite a bit. If this continues, regardless of wins and losses, he deserves to be considered for the job.
As far as players on the roster outside of Booker, who has surprised you in a positive manner and a negative manner?
KO: For the positive, I’ll go with Marquese Chriss in these past two weeks. His feel is getting there and that unlocks all of his role-player contributions across the floor, as we’ve seen in these games. For the negative, I’ll say Josh Jackson. I didn’t expect him to be great, but he’s been arguably the worst rookie in a real role this year. It’s gonna take time, and he’s less than four months younger than Booker. The past three games have been encouraging, though!
KZ: I’ll take this from a general angle: Most of the young players have shown enough promise to eventually become rotation players. That said, none outside of Dragan Bender have consistently shown that they have one very good skill to lean on. Ditto to Kellan’s view of Jackson, but Tyler Ulis’ struggles without pick-and-roll partner Alan Williams have become concerning.
What’s more important: The Suns finish with 28-32 wins and show promise under Triano heading into next season, or they finish with less wins and a top-5 spot for lottery night?
KO: The latter. This draft has four very special players that would slip right into a need the size of the Atlantic Ocean for the Suns. If the class wasn’t so good, I’d say the winning, but it’s so good!
KZ: A healthy roster from here on out should push for 30 wins, and that’s huge for the team expecting to go for the playoffs next year. Winning now will move the needle where a few additions — via trades, free agency or draft — can push for 40 wins next year. And hey, the lottery system could still help a 30-win team get a high pick! Or is that having cake and eating it too?
Let’s say the draft was tomorrow and Kellan’s top-3 prospects — Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba — are off the board. Are you taking Oklahoma point guard Trae Young fourth? If not, who would you pick before him?
KO: This is excruciating for me because I feel those three are the most clear-cut fits in the draft for the Suns at the top. Marvin Bagley III is another raw, developing big man. Ditto for Jaren Jackson Jr. and there’s absolutely no room for Michael Porter Jr. on this roster. Could I take Mikal Bridges fourth knowing he’s a backup two-guard while fighting for minutes between T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson? No. So, yes, I would take Young fourth. I believe he’s the better prospect than Collin Sexton if his efficiency doesn’t dip, and if we couldn’t wait and see, I’d risk it.
KZ: I can’t not pick Bagley here. I think his floor is higher than Bamba’s and he’s shown enough shooting and raw energy to get over the fact that he’s just an athletic unicorn playing college ball.