Suns slotted to win 27 games by ESPN’s projections

Aug 3, 2018, 9:52 AM

Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov, right, speaks as general manager Ryan McDonough listens Mond...

Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov, right, speaks as general manager Ryan McDonough listens Monday, May 14, 2018, in Phoenix. Kokoskov will oversee a vastly improved team after they compiled the worst record in the NBA last season. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

The Phoenix Suns wanted to upgrade their roster, but doing so mostly through the draft doesn’t move the needle enough to see their win total jump next season.

That, according to ESPN writer Kevin Pelton’s forecast, is why the Suns are projected to win 27.2 games in 2018-19 and finish second-to-last in a deep Western Conference.

Using Pelton’s Real Plus-Minus ratings and the SCHOENE projection system, Phoenix’s group of returning players — including Devin Booker and Josh Jackson — aren’t getting enough additional help through offseason moves that included the drafting of center Deandre Ayton and forward Mikal Bridges, plus the signing of veteran forward Trevor Ariza.

While the Suns might be trying to win after signing Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract, RPM still doesn’t see them as particularly competitive. After all, Phoenix was last in the league in both offensive and defensive rating, so even a projected improvement to 27th on offense won’t help much. (The Suns still project as the league’s worst defense on a per-possession basis.)

As it stands, it would be reasonable to predict the Suns take the biggest leap on offense.

Ayton adds a rim-rolling presence that hasn’t been seen in Phoenix since the Marcin Gortat days at the beginning of this decade. The Suns started erecting a skeleton of shooting support by signing Ariza, trading for Bridges, the 10th overall pick, on draft night and taking French point guard Elie Okobo 31st overall.

Brandon Knight’s return from a torn ACL a year back gives the Suns shooting from the point guard slot assuming he’s healthy, and he and T.J. Warren could theoretically team with Booker as 20-point-per-game scorers on any given night.

Yet, Pelton’s apprehension to project the offense improving to even the NBA average is fair with so little known about how first-year coach Igor Kokoskov will bring the most out of all those players.

And it’s also reasonable to believe Pelton when wondering about how the defense can improve. Ayton must first show a natural ability to rim-protect, though his size alone is reason to believe he at least can help in that regard. Ariza will bring communication and toughness at either forward slot.

Beyond that, it’s a long list of what-ifs.

Does Josh Jackson hold his own in a role taking on the best offensive weapon each night? Can Bridges make an instant impact in the same light — or does he not even earn enough playing time to make an impact? Can Knight become a pest at point guard after struggling with injuries and head coaching decisions that made for, arguably, his worst NBA season in 2016-17?

A lot of Pelton’s projections simply come down to viewing the Suns within the rest of the NBA. The Western Conference only got stronger.

It’s no surprise the Golden State Warriors sit alone atop the projections with the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets following them. That the Los Angeles Lakers sit ninth at 41.2 projected wins after adding LeBron James and the always-steady San Antonio Spurs are 10th at 38.5 expected victories explains the depth well.

Only the Sacramento Kings at 25.4 projected wins sit below the Suns, putting a promising offseason in Phoenix into perspective.

Even if Kokoskov works magic, Ayton pushes for NBA Rookie of the Year and Booker takes another leap in his development, it’s probably going to take more time for the season win total to make a serious jump.

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