The Phoenix Suns began the preseason with no less than 15 guaranteed contracts plus a walk-on (Earl Barron) playing well enough to make the team as an in-case-of-emergency backup center.
The Suns not only have a solid starting four returning from last season - Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee - they also have nearly two teams worth of backups good enough to play NBA rotation minutes. Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver all signed offseason contracts. Gerald Green, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin and Shavlik Randolph all come back as well. Add in rookies T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis and Zoran Dragic and you've got a baker's dozen plus two.
But as you saw in the "somewhat like a regular season rotation" game against the Clippers on Wednesday night on ESPN, it's really hard to play more than 10 of the 15 guys on a given night while keeping some semblance of order.
Ten players got between 10 (Tolliver) and 34 (Bledsoe) minutes, yet firestarters Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green couldn't garner more than 16 apiece despite Dragic getting just 26. Six other minutes were given to the 3rd and 4th centers because of foul trouble, a small-ball trend not likely to change with the current roster.
But injuries are playing their part to cull the herd.
Starting Power Forward
While some, including me, think that Markieff Morris fits better on the second unit as a primary scorer than in the starting lineup, the position is now Morris' to lose as Anthony Tolliver has been struggling with a hand injury.
Against the Lakers and Clippers, Mr. Stretch Four missed all eight of his three point attempts and is not productive in enough other ways to overcome missing everything on offense. To be an effective rotation player, Tolliver has to be a knock-down shooter. His hand injury must still be affecting his shot.
Keef has not played exceptionally well this preseason, but he is a known quantity and - best of all - seems to be healthy. Keef can score in the midrange as well as on the perimeter and offers a toughness the Suns need against the West elite.
Miles Plumlee is the starter because there's simply no better option. He's a known quantity who always gives you what you expect - clanky hook shots combined with active defense and solid rebounding. It's the backup position that's been
less than hotly contested.
Alex Len, the most talented of the bigs, missed the first five preseason games with a hand injury while Shavlik Randolph sustained a knee sprain last week.
Len returned against the Clippers and played 16 minutes, in part because of Miles Plumlee's foul trouble (6 fouls in 16 minutes) but he did not attempt a shot and clearly favored the hand on offense. Len's defense however was a pleasant surprise as he instinctually defended the rim several times on Clipper drives.
Randolph returned from his sprain and played well against the Lakers but only got one minute against the Clippers.
Each injury has given Earl Barron a chance to shine. Jeff Hornacek said the Suns were willing to "eat a contract" if Earl Barron played his way onto the team and the only one you could see being eaten is Shav's. He returned and played well this week against the Lakers but only played 1 minute vs. Barron's six against the Clippers. A lingering knee injury won't help his chances.
There's been no real injury to the guard core, so it's still a four-man weave with Tyler Ennis, Archie Goodwin and Zoran Dragic on the outside looking in. Ennis has hardly played this preseason. Goodwin did not play against the Clippers, and Zoran has been out an all-important week with visa issues. Expect these guys to have similar roles to Earl "in case of emergency" Barron.
Bledsoe, the Dragon, Thomas and Green are the four primary guards. Green and Thomas both hobbled at one point during the Clipper game. Green came down hard on a Clipper's foot in the fourth quarter, while Thomas stumbled getting through a tough screen on the perimeter. Both continued playing, so the injuries were likely superficial.
After playing a lot of SG last year, P.J. Tucker has slid to PF a lot more than SG this preseason. Part of that is the lack of front court rebounding prowess that he can bring, and part of that is some extra weight Tucker is carrying this preseason.
Starting Small Forward
Speaking of Tucker, entering the preseason he seemed a lock for the SF position he held down all last season. His tenacity and predicability got him 30 minutes a game on a deep team.
Tucker may still earn that time, but he's butting up against a three-game suspension to start the season so Marcus Morris has gotten a lot of SF time this preseason and looks to be a lock for the starting SF position to begin the season. Morris grabbed 8 rebounds against the Clippers in 29 minutes while scoring 17 points, including two threes.
Rookie T.J. Warren joined the hand-injury brigade on Tuesday night, jamming his thumb against a Laker so hard that he cracked a bone. His injury starts at a 6-8 week recovery and rehab period, but as we've seen from Alex Len it can take months to fully recover from such an injury to such an integral part of the body. Hands cannot be protected without wrapping that renders the person ineffective (unless you're Kobe Bryant, I guess).
Between injuries, via issues and rookie-ness, the Suns are getting closer to a rotation to being the season.
Unfortunately for Randolph, Warren and Tolliver, in particular, it appears that their unfortunate injuries are likely to reduce their role in the early-season rotation.
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