The Phoenix Suns, with such little roster makeover from a 23-win season, probably wouldn’t strike you as a team to break out next season.
But before laughing off such a possibility, consider a few things when reading CBS Sports’ James Herbert’s inclusion of the young Suns on his list of seven potential NBA breakout teams for the 2016-17 season.
1. The low floor. Phoenix finished second-to-last in the Western Conference so relative improvement, by definition, won’t be all that difficult.
2. Health. Let’s say the Suns could bump their win total by 10 games if guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are healthy for an entire season. Then factor in T.J. Warren recovering from his season-ending injury and Tyson Chandler doing the same after a seemingly banged-up season.
3. There’s direction. We don’t yet know what direction first-year head coach Earl Watson is going, but we know he’s focusing on fixing up the Suns’ teamwork and defense. If the Suns are on the same page and know their blueprint, there’s no doubt their on-paper talent shouldn’t be floundering at the bottom of the NBA standings.
With that said, here’s Herbert’s take.
With Devin Booker’s emergence, Phoenix has an extremely dangerous guard rotation, especially on offense. If the Suns start Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker at the forward spots, they’ll space the floor nicely for the playmakers and bring versatility on defense.
Like New Orleans, Phoenix shouldn’t have been as bad as it was last year. Injuries and chemistry issues derailed everything. With Dudley and Leandro Barbosa both coming back in free agency, the hope is that the locker room will be more harmonious this time around.
A few roster tweaks and a more well-spaced floor on offense would seemingly put Phoenix in a better position to succeed. How Watson integrates (or doesn’t) raw rookie forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender might change the Suns’ trajectory, as could the improvement (or lack of it) by young players like Booker and Warren.
The biggest factor leading to apprehension about the Suns chances is Watson. An unproven head coach obviously makes any preseason prediction lean toward the negative. What’s the worst that could happen, according to Herbert?
Bledsoe, Knight and Booker might not figure out how to share the ball. Centers Tyson Chandler and Alex Len could wind up playing too many minutes together. There aren’t a ton of proven defenders here. Coach Earl Watson needs to make this team click in a way that it hasn’t for a few years.
Watson has hinted that he won’t use the Len-Chandler duo like he did at the end of last season. As I wrote after the season, there was reasonable evidence to suggest it was a tactic to protect the rim and, more importantly for a team without any offensive juice, to gain extra possessions with high rebound rates.
Offense or defense, much of the Suns converting a 23-win season into a breakout year is dependent on health and Watson getting the most out of his team, both defensively and in terms of finding an offensive identity.
If those things go favorably, the elements to push for a .500 record are there.
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