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Phoenix Suns enter offseason armed with optimism

Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson, left, stands with assistant coaches Bob Hill, middle, and Corey Gaines, right, prior to an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns once again spent the day after the end of the regular season cleaning out their lockers, just as they had done the five previous years.

The six-year playoff absence is the longest in the 48-year history of the franchise.

The Suns, however, believe they are closer to ending rather than extending what is currently the third-longest postseason appearance drought in the NBA.

“We’ve got a great opportunity to be really good,” Tyson Chandler said. “I’m actually excited going into this offseason because I feel like the franchise — even with this tough year — the franchise has put themselves in a position to have success, to have success this summer, which would translate into having success next season.”

Despite a 23-59 record, second-worst in franchise history and fourth-worst in the NBA this season, the Suns head into the offseason armed with draft picks — potentially three first-round selections, two of which would be in the lottery — and cap space, projected to be in excess of $20 million.

Whatever moves are made, either in the June draft or July free agency, will be added to a roster that’s expected to improve significantly, if for no other reason than the return of healthy players.

The Suns played much of the season without their top three scorers, including point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight; both of whom have since undergone surgery and should be 100 percent well ahead of training camp.

“It’s going to be exciting next year having Bled back, Brandon back, everybody back, T.J. (Warren, right foot surgery) back, so going into those same arenas that we lost in and coming up with some big wins, I think that will be fun,” said Devin Booker, who saw his minutes increase once Bledsoe and Knight got hurt and averaged 13.8 points per game his rookie season. “I think we can (make the playoffs next year). I’ll never doubt our team. Like I said, I think we had a shot this year if Bledsoe didn’t go down. We had a lot of injuries we were dealing with this year. I think next year is going to be exciting.”

The Suns have seven players with guaranteed contracts for next season (Bledsoe, Booker, Chandler, Knight, Warren, Archie Goodwin and Alex Len); another three on partial/non-guaranteed deals (P.J. Tucker, John Jenkins and Alan Williams); and four unrestricted free agents (Chase Budinger, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price and Mirza Teletovic).

The biggest question mark, however, is head coach.

Earl Watson went 9-24 after replacing Jeff Hornacek on Feb. 1.

Watson has the support of the players.

“If he stays, I would be happy,” Tucker said. Still, the Suns are expected to interview several candidates.

Working in Watson’s favor is how well the team competed under his direction.

“We’ve been showing it for the past three months how we’re supposed to play,” said Teletovic, who is interested in re-signing with the Suns. “I think, my opinion, if we have everybody together from Bledsoe and B-Knight from the beginning with the coaching staff that we have right now — the same mindset — we would be in the playoffs. But we have to our mindset right now like Earl says, we have to have a mindset right now for next season. There’s no excuses; just got to make the playoffs.”

After an 0-9 start to his coaching career, Watson led the Suns to nine victories in the final two months, including winning three of four to close out the season.

“I love how we came out and fought every single night,” Tucker said, adding about momentum from one season to the next, “It’s more of a mental thing. If guys know what we have to do to get better — first of all, our mistakes and why we didn’t win this year — and building towards next year knowing all the good things that we did. We did a lot of good things this year, so carryover is definitely important, and hopefully guys understand that.”

It starts with building an identity, according to Knight.

“The biggest step is just starting right away,” he said. “Summertime is definitely an important time, especially for a team that doesn’t make the playoffs. We never want to be in this position, especially not consistently.”

Only Minnesota (12 years) and Sacramento (10) have longer postseason absences than the Suns, whose last playoff appearance came during the Western Conference Finals run in 2010.

A franchise-record 23 different players suited up for the Suns this season.

“When you have a season like this, it’s not one person that needs to go out and look in the mirror, it’s everybody from top to bottom has to look in the mirror and say, ‘we all have to be better coming back next season’,” Chandler said.

“I have the ultimate belief that management will put us in the proper position to succeed, and I know, personally, as players we’re going to do what’s necessary during the offseason to make sure we come back and we’re not doing our exit interviews in April.”

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