Suns score poorly in Sports Illustrated’s midseason grades

Jan 26, 2017, 6:00 PM
Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) in the first quarter during an NBA basketball game against the Ut...
Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) in the first quarter during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver gave each Western Conference team a grade for the first half of the 2016-17 season, and the Suns barely got by with a passing grade, earning a D+.

The Kings, Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Mavericks were the only West teams to receive a worse grade than Phoenix. Golliver had a lot to unpack with the Suns, citing a recent string of unsuccessful trades and the lack of commitment to a youth movement as the reason why they graded so poorly.

GM Ryan McDonough’s awful run of losing trades and shaky signings set up the Suns for a tough season defined by multiple conflicts of interest. In one corner, vets like Tyson Chandler, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and P.J. Tucker expect to win every night, or they’re wasting their time. In another, youngsters like Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Alex Len and T.J. Warren all need committed minutes to figure out who they are as NBA players. First-time head coach Earl Watson has done a reasonably good job of juggling these groups: He’s leaned heavily on his older players, successfully installed Booker as a lead option, and granted Chriss a starting role, even though the 19-year-old rookie is clearly in over his head.

The Suns have been struggling to balance playing their veterans with letting young player grow under Watson. Both Bender and Chriss are averaging under 20 minutes per game, while Chandler and Tucker are fourth and fifth on the team in playing time. Booker leads the team at 34.5 minutes per, but the distribution is fluid and changes frequently. Len and Bender especially have seen their playing time drastically change on a game-to-game basis.

The biggest problem for the Suns, as far as Golliver is concerned, seems to be front office performance. Knight, Chandler, Bledsoe and Tucker have all been mentioned in trade talks, but the market for all seems to be sub-optimal, especially Knight and Chandler.

Beyond that, Golliver suggests that an active deadline could actually scare fans, given Phoenix’s recent history in the trade market.

The result? A sometimes-spunky squad that pulls the occasional upset, but one that hasn’t won nearly enough to make it worth staying the course. Indeed, dynamite time is fast approaching again, although McDonough will likely find that players he overvalued—Chandler and Knight in particular—won’t reap much of anything in return. The Bledsoe/Booker pairing has a shot at working long-term, as Booker’s been able to scale his scoring this season, but McDonough might as well dangle Bledsoe while he’s healthy to see what offers are out there. If nothing else, Tucker should land a worthwhile pick from a contender, clearing more time for Phoenix’s youth movement. With memories of the Isaiah Thomas and Knight trades still fresh, though, Suns fans can be forgiven if they reflexively shudder at the thought of an active deadline.

At the 2015 trade deadline, the Suns dealt point guard Isaiah Thomas to the Celtics for a first round pick owned by the Cavaliers and Marcus Thornton. The pick ended up being 28th and Thornton contributed little in half a season with the Suns. Meanwhile, Thomas is likely going to make his second All-Star appearance.

Within minutes, the Suns traded a first round pick given by the Lakers to Philadelphia in a three-way deal that landed them Brandon Knight. The following summer, they signed Knight to a five-year, $70 million deal. Knight is currently averaging 11.9 points per game while shooting 39.4 percent, both career lows. Meanwhile, the Lakers pick, which is top-three protected this season and unprotected next season, has a chance to still be a very high lottery pick.


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Suns score poorly in Sports Illustrated’s midseason grades