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Suns’ large investment at center worth monitoring over time

Phoenix Suns' Tyson Chandler, Alex Len, and T.J. Warren, from left, on the bench during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in Phoenix. The Nuggets defeated the Suns 104-96. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

While the amount of point guards the Phoenix Suns have had in the Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek era has been the main position of scrutiny over that tenure, center could be taking over that claim this season and in the future.

In an effort to lure free agent LaMarcus Aldridge to Phoenix this summer, the Suns made a sudden and surprise signing of Tyson Chandler. Perhaps overpaying a couple million to bring Chandler in before the Aldridge meeting early in the free agent process, he agreed to a four-year $52 million deal on July 1.

A shocking move in many ways, perhaps the biggest surprise was that this was only two years after the Suns took Maryland product Alex Len at No. 5 in 2013. While Len was still battling the expected consistency and foul problems for a young big man, he was a borderline starting-caliber NBA center at the end of the 2014-15 season.

Chandler and Len have had their struggles on both ends of the floor this season.

Chandler is an elite pick and roll player, who sets awesome ball screens and over the years has gotten better at taking a dribble or two if needed when he receives the ball. That reputation and ability simply makes an offense much better by spacing out the floor.

Due to many different factors, that has not been the case. Chandler is taking a career-low 3.4 field goals per game and is shooting only 46.7 percent from the field, which is almost 20 percentage points lower than his field goal percentage last year in Dallas.

As Empire of the Suns has covered previously, a lot of this has to do with two guards that turn the ball over too much, are not very good passers and cannot find Chandler on lob passes, let alone consistently.

It also goes without saying that Chandler has appeared to have lost a step, something easy to spot for long-time observers of the former No. 2 overall pick in 2001. It hasn’t helped he suffered a hamstring injury that may linger.

For Len, the struggle continues to be consistency. Len has seven games this season in which he grabbed at least seven rebounds and scored at least 10 points, but he also has eight games this season in which he failed to grab more than five rebounds and score more than eight points in at least 15 minutes of play.

Len plays strong, is capable of using that in the post, can finish with contact and shoot a midrange jumper. It all comes down to whether or not he can do it consistently, but that’s a safe bet at 22 years old.

The more troubling numbers come on defense.

With both Chandler and Len on the team, the Suns projected as an elite defensive team at the rim. In 2014-15, both were around the middle of the pack for defensive field goal percentage at the rim, with Chandler at 50.8 percent and Len at 49.1 percent.

This season, Len is at 50.7 percent and Chandler is at a far more troubling 55 percent, which only trails some of the worst post defenders in the NBA such as Al Jefferson and Nikola Vucevic for the highest percentage allowed.

While the play of both players leaves enough to be desired, the most concerning part is how much both have not played.

Len has not missed a game this year, but he has played less than 15 minutes in nine games this season — and that is not because of how much Chandler has played. The big signing of this summer has played only 22.5 minutes per game, his lowest since the 2001-02 season, and has missed nine games already.

Why is that? The emerging play of Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic has allowed head coach Jeff Hornacek to go small. Teletovic and Leuer have the highest offensive ratings of the players in the Suns’ rotation, and while Teletovic’s defensive rating is three points higher than his offensive rating, Leuer’s are the same.

The Suns’ offensive rating improves by 9.9 when Chandler is off the court and 3.7 for Len. The defensive numbers get a little bit worse when Chandler and Len come off, but that is expected when a team goes small. The most dramatic difference is by far on offense.

Leuer, who has spent time at center, has the same field goal percentage allowed at the rim as Len at 50.7 percent.

While the offensive and defensive efficiency is not sparkling for any four of those players, Chandler has by far a team low for the net difference at -11.4. To make matters worse, that net difference is the worst number in the NBA for someone not on the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers that has played at least 20 minutes per game.

The most troubling issue for Chandler is his contract, which the Suns will pay him until 2019. The expectation for most was that Chandler would be the player he’s been for most of his career in the first two seasons and then could serve as a backup to Len in the last two years.

That projection seems far away now. Even if Chandler was to play slightly better than he is now, the former Defensive Player of the Year would be a below average center starting or coming off the bench.

Even with the cap going up to somewhere between $90-100 million in those four years, Chandler’s contract would still be a burden on the team and difficult to move if the Suns had other plans and Chandler’s level of play remained around this range.

The flexibility combined with plenty of movable assets is what made the Suns so appealing for the future despite a spot in the middle of the NBA standings, but a large chunk of that goes away if Chandler’s play continues at this level and Len fails to have more consistency. The Suns’ hopes indeed ride or die with the play of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, but it would be foolish to not pay close attention to how the situation at the center position unfolds.

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