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Summer of change ahead: Suns’ Booker done not making playoffs

Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough does an interview with The Doug & Wolf Show on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX – One by one, the players took their turn answering questions from reporters. And when they were done, they left.

The question now is how many will return.

The answer didn’t come on Wednesday, when the Phoenix Suns held their final media availability, officially closing the book on the 2017-18 season, which had the same ending as the previous seven: No playoff appearance.

The Suns face one of their more important offseasons in recent memory with the argument to be made that it may be the franchise’s biggest in history.

“We’ve been pretty consistent in our approach, I think, over the last couple of years. Now, our approach is changing,” GM Ryan McDonough said, “and that change is mainly being aggressive in trying to bring in high-level players either by trades or free agency.”

Before that happens, however, the Suns need a head coach. Again.

And if it’s not removing the interim tag from Jay Triano, then the team will be looking at their fourth different head coach in as many years.

Whomever the head coach is — McDonough has repeatedly said they  plan to interview several candidates — the Suns need to be ready to make a commitment, financially of course, and also in years. The last head coach to complete three full seasons was Alvin Gentry, who also was the last head coach to lead Phoenix into the postseason, back in 2010.

Eight years later, amid the longest playoff drought in franchise history, the Suns may be headed toward a roster overhaul.

“I’m done with not making the playoffs. I’m serious,” guard Devin Booker said. “This is probably my last year ever not making the playoffs. I want to say that, and that’s putting a pressure on myself that I need that I’m going to take into this summer and work that hard so it doesn’t happen again.”

Booker and guard Brandon Knight plus forwards Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren are likely safe to assume they’ll be back next season. Everyone else is less certain.

Going into the summer, the Suns have nine players signed to guaranteed contracts for 2018-19: Booker, Jackson, Knight, Warren, forward Dragan Bender, center Tyson Chandler, forward Marquese Chriss, guard Troy Daniels and forward Jared Dudley.

The rest of the roster includes four players on non-guaranteed deals: guard Shaquille Harrison, guard Davon Reed, center Alan Williams and guard Tyler Ulis; three unrestricted free agents: forward Danuel House, center Alex Len and forward Alec Peters; and one restricted free agent: Elfrid Payton.

“We got a lot of young talent, so to be able to get some veteran guys around us to kind of put us over the hump. Their experiences and mentality can coexist with our youth and talent,” Warren said.

Change is coming. It has to.

The Suns just suffered through their second-worst season (21-61) in the 50-year history of the franchise. Only the inaugural season in 1968-69 finished with fewer wins (16).

Among the many lowlights: a pair of double-digit losing streaks, including a franchise-high 15 in a row; four 40-point losses, matching the team’s combined total in its first 49 years; a franchise-low 10 home wins; a 12-game road losing streak; and the franchise’s first winless month (0-14 in March).

The good news — yes, there’s good news — is that the Suns are lottery-bound, and they are one of the few teams with significant salary cap space.

The NBA Draft Lottery is May 15, when the Suns will have the best odds (25.0 percent) of landing the No. 1 overall pick. At worst, they’ll select no lower than fourth. Overall, the Suns will have two first-round picks, and perhaps a third, plus a pair of second-round selections in the June draft.

Come July 1 and the start of free agency, the Suns are projected to have more than $20 million to spend should they choose to — they also have the ability to increase that amount by at least another $10 million. McDonough is on record saying they will be “more aggressive.”

“I’ll do whatever I have to do (to help recruit players to the Suns),” Booker said. “But I think Phoenix is a place where people see the potential. They see the young core that we have; they see the fan base, the wonderful city. Obviously, our reputation isn’t the best throughout the NBA but I think the people that are actually in the NBA, they see the bright spots here.”

For Booker and Warren, as well as the countless others associated with the team, both on and off the court, the time has come for the Suns to be relevant once again.

It’s been a long three years, a stretch that’s seen the Suns go 68-178, the worst three-year run in franchise history.

“We’re going to raise our standards. We won’t be as young. We won’t have nearly as many young players as we did this year. We’ll have more experience, we’ll have more veterans,” McDonough said.

“I think we have the ability to do all that. Now what we’ll be able to do, that will be dictated over the next three or four months as we go through the draft and free agency. But we’ll add at least one more elite young player to Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and the rest of our guys and then we’ll try to accelerate the rest of it.”

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