The Phoenix Suns are not a playoff team this season as it stands. There it is. I said it. To put it in the most simple of terms, things are going to need to happen. With that process in mind, I decided to look at the five biggest questions the Suns face this season. I tried to run these in circumstantial order, meaning I don't think we even get to talking about #2 if #1 doesn't happen and so on and so forth. There's a little twist at the end with the format, so just stick with me here. The premise here is that there are several points as to why the Suns wouldn't make the playoffs and there are some things that will need to happen or stay consistent in order for the playoffs to make sense. Let's take a look at what they are.
Will the breakout players from last season regress?
We start with the most obvious counterpoint to every "the Suns will make the playoffs this year" proclamation. Every single player in the main rotation last season had a breakout season for the exception of Channing Frye. P.J. Tucker developed a corner three, Eric Bledsoe got that money, Goran Dragic made All-NBA, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green turned into scoring assassins off the bench, Marcus Morris had the best shooting percentages of his career, Miles Plumlee looked like a legitimate NBA center, Ish Smith shot over 40% and stuck on a rotation, and rookie Archie Goodwin showed flashes of potential to get everyone excited. That is a lot to hold up for this season, which is why the strong amount of skepticism is there.
I started off with this question because I think it’s the easiest one to uphold for the 2014-2015 season. With a deeper rotation now the overall averages of some of these players might slip, but I don’t see that as a sign of regression. There’s no hardcore evidence to grab from last season that this was just an extremely long "hot streak" or anything close to that. The one big checkmark Suns fans can tally is having a great head coach to keep this team focused and in the same mindset as last season. Jeff Hornacek will keep this team in line and add new elements to try to give them that extra push. They were projected as the second worst team in the NBA last season, will they still have that same fire and level of play now that 45 wins wouldn’t be unexpected as opposed to 25? I think so, but there’s one major red flag we still have to cover before we move on any further.
Will the Suns make up for the loss of Channing Frye?
This is what they like to call "the big question". I didn’t want to use the word "replace" here because that’s just ridiculous. Frye did a lot of things on this team that Markieff Morris is simply not going to be able to do right away and it’s going to have to be a combination of many players to fill that hole.
If we run through what Frye did for this team last year the number one we can say is that he spaced the floor. Frye was a weapon whenever he was on the perimeter and where he was going to go after setting a pick for one of the Slash Brothers was just as important to some teams as what Dragic or Bledsoe would do with the ball. He’s not going to be here anymore and neither of the Morris twins will be able to replicate the threat he possessed out there. The first question here is if they can at least supplement it. Markieff is coming off of a disastrous 32% from three last season, but his brother Marcus was much better at 37%. The question I want to put on top of that question is that would you rather cut off Dragic and Bledsoe to the key or have one of them shooting an open three? Those two along with Anthony Tolliver are going to have to make other teams pay to earn opposing defenses respect before the Slash Brothers start to see any resemblance of the spacing they saw last season. By the way, this is not to say that the spacing will be non-existent or anything like that. It will be there, it's just that the magnitude of it might have to be put down a couple dials though.
More under the radar here is how solid of a defender in the post Frye was. He wasn’t a shutdown guy by any means, but he knew how to take the bumps and had years of experience to make him a good enough team defender as well. He was a very big body as a power forward and he understood how to use it. I’ve expressed my massive concerns on Markieff on defense already, so what will the Suns do to help him out? A lot of it is on Markieff to improve and it might just be a lot of double teams and "flashes" from the guards to try to pester guys backing down in the post. This could become a major weakness for the Suns and it’s absolutely something to watch for this season.
Something to quickly note here is the possibility of Tolliver actually starting. He has not been shy at all from three in what we've seen so far this preseason and he's a much more active defender than Markieff. The offense in general has flowed better when Tolliver has been on the floor as opposed to Markieff and that's led to a lot of belief that this could actually be something that happens (cue the "it's just preseason" comments). It would not be extremely surprising given Markieff's success off of the bench last year and it wouldn't necessarily mean that Markieff plays less minutes, it would just give the Slash Brothers more room to operate at the beginning of the game to get going.
If Markieff improves enough, the Suns figure out enough clever ways to neutralize his differences with Frye, the offense turns out to be too good regardless, or Tolliver starts and turns out to be what this team needs, what’s next?
Can the Suns stay healthy again?
I can hear the keys typing already and before you go on about how nicked up or out the two best players on the Suns last year were, stay with me on this. The Suns had SIX players in their rotation play 80 or more games last season. Five out of those six players are returning this year in Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, P.J. Tucker, and Miles Plumlee (Channing Frye is the other). Those five combined only missed FOUR games last season, which is a pretty startling number. If you are trying to find the point here it’s that only two of the Western Conference’s playoff teams pulled that number of players staying that healthy off last season.
Right now the Suns are in a position where they can’t afford anything major to go wrong. The new additions to the roster are going to be massive here. Isaiah Thomas specifically will help out Bledsoe and Dragic in not getting hammered on minutes, and both Archie Goodwin and Tyler Ennis will both be ready enough for small chunks of minutes if Hornacek is feeling overwhelmed by how much time his three guards have seen of the floor. At forward it’s more of that, as new faces T.J. Warren, Zoran Dragic, and Anthony Tolliver will give Hornacek that same look. This is by no means to say that the Suns are going to be able to replace someone and not have a drop-off in production, but now they are much more covered and don’t have to make emergency calls to Brazil, have their energy guy on the bench actually play minutes, or have a third-string point guard be their backup this season. It should all go well in this department and if it does where does that leave the Suns?
Will any of the eight playoff teams from last season in the Western Conference drop out of that position this season?
The Suns are going to need help if they make it to the postseason this year. Nearly every single team out West made a significant improvement or avoided major loss. San Antonio held onto Boris Diaw and Patty Mills to keep their absolutely absurd depth, Oklahoma City looked around and went "sure, I guess?", the Clippers tried to add some bench depth with Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar, Houston lost Chandler Parsons but added Trevor Ariza, Portland will look for its youth to step up more, Golden State
got Kevin Love is going to try again with Steve Kerr at the helm, Memphis will be healthy and has new addition Vince Carter, and Dallas added Chandler Parsons.
It’s a depressing top eight to look at as a Suns fan, so where are the possibilities? Well, Portland is one major injury to the rotation away from panic, Golden State has a new coach who no one knows is good or not with injury prone stars everywhere, ditto for Memphis, and Trevor Ariza is not playing for a contract in Houston with Kevin McHale still at the helm coaching a surprisingly thin rotation. Those are the bottom four teams to keep an eye on and it’s clear that the Suns need a break to come in their favor. The ceiling of this current Suns team is in a playoff spot, but that would require for a lot of things to go right for them and a lot of things to go wrong for someone out West. Instead of tying in our last question into if that would happen, let’s look at if that doesn’t happen. How could the Suns get better? Well….
Does Ryan McDonough make his big move?
McDonough is sitting on a picture perfect execution of what Daryl Morey was trying to do in Houston for so many years. He has a large variation and collection of players that a lot of NBA teams would want, all of them are on reasonable or cheap contracts, and he has a bunch of draft picks as well. Morey was going to wait for superstars to come available and he wound up getting two. Could McDonough get one? He went 0/2 this summer as any of us would have so where does he go from here?
There's already the bulk of good seasoned NBA players that the Suns have, but they can offer a whole lot of youth as well. McDonough has four young players in Alex Len, Goodwin, Ennis, and Warren that should still somewhat hold their value of where they were selected in the draft. The Los Angeles Lakers 2015 first-round pick is top five protected and it looks like that they should finish just a smudge above that, the Minnesota Timberwolves first-rounder will turn into two second-rounders if they don’t make the playoffs this season, and the Suns have their own draft picks for the future to deal as well. Like I said, he has a lot of depth in the talent department where he could swing 2-4 of these players and 1-3 of these draft picks for a really good freaking player.
From here on out, it’s all about waiting for that opportunity to come about. McDonough doesn’t want to make this move for just a solid NBA player and most of the All-Stars in the NBA right now are off the market. It’s an extremely small window of players that fit the mold and quite honestly I don’t think that player is out there right now. Someone needs to become unhappy with their situation or a team has to want to blow up and restart their build. The Suns can give a team that, but the question is if they can be provided that player in return. If the Suns get an All-Star or just about one at the forward position this becomes a surefire playoff team in the West and turns into a flat out dangerous team that no one would want to play in May. Unless McDonough wants another point guard he's going to have to get lucky and come through. Will he get the opportunity?