Disappointing, unexpected but not short on storylines.
The 2015-16 season for the Phoenix Suns in which the Suns went 23-59 didn’t sit well with the team or fans, but the results stemmed from things more complex than worst-case scenarios.
Phoenix found itself stuck between rebuilding and winning now and accidentally tanked its way to a sound positioning in the draft lottery. Meanwhile, it was forced to trade a player on a unique contract who appeared distracted ever since his twin brother was traded away from the team last summer.
The Suns also found a potential perimeter cornerstone that suddenly altered the perception of where the previous two perimeter cornerstones fit. The Phoenix’s identity changed by the game as injuries, lineup changes, and staff moves unhinged the on-court product.
There were a number of midseason developments that forced general manager Ryan McDonough to re-imagine his plan for 2016-17 and beyond. Here are the five leading storylines from 2015-16 that caused that to happen.
Devin Booker’s ascent
Let’s begin with the most obvious.
Devin Booker’s ascension as the youngest player in the league is reason No. 1 Phoenix’s outlook changed so drastically from the beginning of the year. The Suns’ recent history of drafting young players — from T.J. Warren to Alex Len — didn’t help McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek when they said Booker could play much more than a minimal role as a rookie.
But after Booker became the most dangerous offensive weapon on the team and a potential star as a scorer and playmaker, the Suns’ outlook changed.
That makes it a bit awkward — or at least more complex. Phoenix will likely maintain a win-now attitude under McDonough’s leadership and Booker could very well fit fine into those plans, but the Suns can now project a bit further and with more flexibility, especially regarding their two well-paid, injury-plagued guards.
As for the free agent market, Booker’s emergence likely helps the Suns sell a future with the team as being one with more promise than we could’ve imagined a year ago.
Booker’s rise also changes the fit on the roster already at hand.
The fit with Bledsoe and Knight
Most obviously, the connection between Booker’s expected retention of a key role (starter or not) is the biggest question facing the team moving forward.
Depending on which head coach leads Phoenix — more on that in a bit — and the philosophies of that coach, Booker could be looked at as a fit with point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight if the matchups can work.
Set aside where he fits in a rotation with the two point guards.
Looking at Bledsoe and Knight together without Booker is more of an issue than it was before the year began. Not only did both combine to miss almost exactly half the games between them as both went under the knife again, the point guard duo didn’t seem to mesh together when healthy.
They were turnover-prone duplicates of one another in many ways. Neither is an exceptional passer out of a pick-and-roll based offense — they’d rather attack themselves. Knight didn’t shoot well enough from three-point range (34 percent) and Bledsoe doesn’t have the quick trigger to space the floor between them even though his accuracy improved. Both had their issues in regards to team defense, even if Bledsoe is considered a strong man-to-man stopper.
It’s only responsible to mention that many of their issues were exacerbated by not playing with enough talent, but it’s also fair to point out that in 31 games of an average of 26 minutes played together, the two only put together a less-than-exciting -0.9 plus/minus rating, per NBA.com/Stats.
Many people will argue against the two point guard system but that’s a pointless philosophical argument when not considering the individuals involved. Bledsoe’s and Knight’s more specific identities are the issues, not the idea of them playing the same position.
All that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive on the same team. It’ll just take direction they didn’t have this season.
The firing of Jeff Hornacek
Jeff Hornacek sold a vision and the most cloudy piece when foretelling the future comes in not knowing if whomever replaces him shares it.
When Hornacek was hired before the 2013-14 season, his plan of attack remained quite clear. Like he did playing alongside Suns teammate Kevin Johnson, Hornacek would lead a dual-point guard system with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. That evolved into a Bledsoe-Knight backcourt this past season, but now it will be intriguing to watch if the Suns stray from that idea.
McDonough shared many of the same values, more generally described as positionless basketball. If the Suns retain interim coach Earl Watson, who closed the year with a 9-24 record as interim coach, the same question posed in the backcourt can be asked of the Tyson Chandler and Alex Len center duo that played together late in the year.
From a wider angle, how will the culture change?
For a team that watered down everything from the offensive sets to the defensive philosophies this year, Phoenix must look hard at whether it wants to hire a coach with rigid scheme structure and if he can hold the team accountabile enough to pull it off.
And will that sacrifice the franchise’s push to always play an entertaining brand of basketball?
With head coaching jobs opening up as the season ends, Phoenix will face competition on the market.
The identity of the team continues to swing in the balance. Even if Watson is hired full-time, there’s not a big enough sample size and not enough talent on the team he coached to determine what the Suns will become.
Tyson Chandler’s health
Selling the idea of Tyson Chandler bolstering the Suns’ defense and mentoring Alex Len wasn’t so hard when he signed as a free agent.
At worst, the biggest concern over Phoenix signing an aging center regarded the longterm: Would his health hold up over the course of his four-year, $52 million deal?
This season only exacerbated those worries.
Chandler played 66 games this year, a number not completely out of the norm for a player who has been banged up quite a bit since coming out of high school 15 years ago. Still, he never looked the same after his hamstring strain early in the season. His block rate has never been so low, and SportVU data shows Chandler ranked well outside the top-100 of NBA players in rim defense.
Of Suns two-man duo that played at least 10 games with one another, Chandler appears in eight of the lineups ranked in the bottom-10 of net ratings. He and Len are second-to-last of all the combinations that played together this season.
That leads us to wondering how the Len-Chandler lineup will work moving forward. Watson has been quick to defend using two centers as a defensive-oriented starting lineup, and there was a period of 10 games in late March where the Suns were actually in the top-half of the league in defensive ratings.
Still, that lineup couldn’t handle small-ball or shooting power forwards. Offensively, it was disastrous, though how well Len and Chandler could coexist with more offense on the perimeter remains a mystery.
As for Chandler’s place on the Suns, his commitment to continue playing in a lost season goes a long way. His presence this summer and beyond won’t hurt as McDonough continues chasing free agent veterans.
Markieff Morris saga
Suddenly, with the trade of his brother leading into months of distraction before Morris was dealt to the Wizards, the power forward spot is the biggest hole on the roster moving forward.
Would it have been different if Hornacek had handled Morris like Watson did, making his role clear and building a relationship to help the distracted power forward out of a funk? Nobody knows.
Here’s what we do: The Suns have reasonable options off the bench if they so choose to re-sign one or two players. Jon Leuer proved himself as a solid bench player and Mirza Teletovic grew his stock better than anyone else on the Phoenix roster. Any NBA team would love a gunner like Teletovic coming off the bench. He showed enough ability to continue his hot shooting when teams had few other threats to focus on defensively.
Phoenix doesn’t have a power forward under contract. Leuer and Teletovic, both free agents, remain solid options to build depth on reasonably cheap contract, but the draft or free agency remain answers for the longterm.