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Empire of the Suns 2017-18 review: What stood out and what’s next?

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, left, confers with interim coach Jay Triano during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, in Denver. The Nuggets won 134-111. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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No 21-win campaign could give off the scent of optimism in a place other than Sixers-land, which is why the Phoenix Suns have put the pressure on themselves.

Devin Booker proclaimed the 2017-18 season was the last non-playoff year for the Suns, and general manager Ryan McDonough has cut The Timeline talk by speaking with urgency. This offseason is about making enough changes to turn a sub-25-win team over the past three years into, at least, a playoff team.

That’ll have to happen through a coaching search, the addition of a top-four draft pick and any moves to place veteran talent around Booker and whatever young pieces remain beside him — Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender among them.

With that, Empire of the Suns’ Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson take one last look at what was learned in 2017-18 and what lies on the road ahead.

What was the most inspiring thing you saw from the Suns this year?

Kevin Zimmerman: This reads as a complete disagreement with Kellan’s biggest concern, but the Suns took to structure in the basketball sense and dedication sense for the first time since Ryan McDonough took over as general manager. It took three coaches to get there, yes, but Phoenix finally dumped an isolation-heavy offense and at least had a baseline defense they stuck to. Does that mean the results or execution was good? Obviously not. But for a while there, you couldn’t even make out what the Suns were supposed to do on either end of the court.

Olson: Booker climbed another level. There’s always the worry with a promising young player hitting a plateau too soon — I’m looking at you, Andrew Wiggins — but Booker was outstanding in year three and showed there is reason to believe he will take another jump in year four.

What was the most concerning thing you saw from the Suns this year?

Zimmerman: There might be just four or five players on this team that I could see in a playoff-caliber rotation in two years. That, plus the age of the players playing, are to blame for …

Olson: The overall “team” aspects of this team. The team defense, the miscommunication, the technical fouls, the flagrant fouls, the lack of real ball movement and on and on. These are the types of things the new head coach will have to take control of and change immediately, no matter how many members of this year’s roster are off the team. Like Kevin said, hopefully, we can put most of that on the inexperience of the roster.

Where do you stand on Devin Booker after his third year?

Zimmerman: He answered every question we had about his game going into the year. He got snubbed in non-important things like overall All-Star votes, etc., but the player voting and his selection to USA Basketball’s 35-man team shows just how good basketball executives think he can be.

Olson: He’s kid franchise. Besides how good he actually is, what’s going way too under the radar is where he ranks among young guards. In an extremely deep and talented league at the moment, it’s really only Ben Simmons and Booker playing at an All-Star level as guards under the age of 24. Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell are the debatable names we see compared to Booker, and until the 2017 NBA Draft class and/or other names rise up, it’s going to stay that way for a while.

Is Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss the most promising prospect after two years?

Zimmerman: You could’ve asked this at the end of their rookie seasons and it’d go the same way. Who can say?

Bender, this year, gave me confidence he will develop into a solid role player or perhaps even a nice starter. Chriss’ conditioning setback at the beginning of the season didn’t help the evaluation. But as the year went on, he actually flashed some potential as a plus defender and small-ball center. All I can say is that Bender has a lower floor, and Chriss has the higher ceiling.

Olson: I’m split on this. Bender’s foundational skills of shooting, passing and defense have translated to varying degrees in the NBA. Chriss, however, looks more comfortable on the court and continues to improve via various little tweaks to his game.

Chriss also doesn’t look the part of someone who has no feel for when he should be aggressive with the ball, like Bender. Bender also avoids complaining or glaring at a ref for every foul call and showing up out of shape or being suspended a game for violating team rules, like Chriss.

I believe Bender is still the guy because we know what he is, but I see a breakout year coming for Chriss in year three if the Suns are a 30-35 win team.

As a great volume scorer in the second half of his rookie year, where does Josh Jackson need to improve the most in year two?

Zimmerman: Defense. His offensive output means nada. Jackson was drafted for his defense, and beyond showing solid lateral quickness on the ball, he’s got to improve from a team standpoint. Not that he had a chance to show anything on that end this year playing with so many youngsters around him.

Olson: I was really high on Jackson in the draft because of his all-around ability. My tagline was that he could be your secondary ball-handler and secondary shot-blocker. The shot can be the way it is if he’s a great passer and defender, which he has the potential to be. Progress towards that to avoid becoming the next (gulp) T.J. Warren is necessary.

Does interim coach Jay Triano have a shot at the head coaching job?

Zimmerman: I think the Suns can and will find another person — Triano’s name is attached to this team’s record, after all. That said, I think he’s a realistic option if the search goes badly (i.e. this is not the Earl Watson situation). Remember: He inherited a bad, poorly-coached team and had to install things with a coaching staff slapped together by plundering the Northern Arizona Suns. Give him a high-level defensive coordinator and roster upgrades, and I think he would do just fine. Realistically, perhaps he could stay on board as offensive coordinator under a new head man.

Olson: Triano did a fine job considering when he got the job and the amount of talent he had to work with day in and day out. This team, though, needs that aforementioned radical change and it needs to come through a coach they spend serious money on so that coach has the pedigree to make those changes happen. I don’t think he has a shot because of how quickly the Suns are going to act on this.

Quick! Make three moves to swing the Suns into contention.

Zimmerman: 1. Draft Luka Doncic. 2. Sign Avery Bradley and 3. trade Warren, a couple first-round picks and probably one of Chriss or Bender to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol. Easy peasy.

Olson: Trade for Kawhi Leonard and hope the Spurs are stupid enough to do it and the Suns are lucky enough to have the best offer. Sign Clint Capela to an offer sheet and hope the Rockets are stupid enough not to match. Trade for Kevin Love and hope the Cavaliers are stup … wait, that sort of makes sense already, right? Maybe?

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