We are now 11 games into the young Phoenix Suns 2014-2015 season, and the Suns sit at a less than stellar 6-5 despite a home-heavy opening schedule. The Suns have had some difficulty adjusting to their new three point guard rotation. I think we have a decent enough sample size to start discussing what works and doesn't work for this team so far. Granted, it's still early, but let's begin.
1. This Suns team is only 6-5, after completing a lousy 2-3 home stand. Is there any reason to sound the alarms for this team?
Garrett Benson: I don't think so. It's way too early to panic. The Suns have added a major rotation piece in Isaiah Thomas, and it simply takes time to adjust to such a major change. There's going to be growing pains for a while but I just think this team is too talented to play only .500 ball. Once everyone has a better feel for their respective roles and egos are tamed, I think we'll start to see a product that more closely resembles last year's squad. Remember, last year the Suns got off to a 9-9 start. It took them a while to get going, but then the Suns ripped off a 10-3 record in December. It takes a while for young teams to find their grooves. There's no reason to think that this Suns team won't.
Geoff Allen: No. Many of us predicted this team as a 45-50 win team. We're going to lose games. We're going to lose entirely winnable games. That doesn't mean there is something inherently wrong with the team.
Dave King: There are definitely some warning signs, but nothing that a little time can't resolve. The Suns are still a young team with less NBA experience than most any other NBA team, yet they are fighting for the playoffs. There will be growing pains, some of which are seen in the fight for "mine". My minutes. My stats. My team. My future. Once the newness of the season wears off and it becomes a grind, I think Hornacek will rally the troops back into the all-for-one concept.
Jim Coughenour: It's been a tumultuous start to the season, but I think it's more of a case of growing pains than systemic flaws. For every concern, like the chemistry issues and inconsistency among the team's guards, there is a beacon of hope, like the improvement of Alex Len and (continued in his case) Markieff Morris. The team seems to be muddling along right now, struggling to form an identity... and the Suns are still 6-5. If they can grow and evolve they can still be a force to be reckoned with.
Sean Sullivan: I'm a believer in the 20 game rule...excluding extreme cases like the Sixers, of course. I don't think it's time to panic yet...not even close. For one, the Suns still have a winning record at the moment. In addition, the Suns are still playing with the rotations and the minutes to see what works best. We may see some changes in the near future that could change the dynamic of this team without having to make any trades. There are still a lot of things we don't know about this team yet, and there is no reason to panic this early.
Kellan Olson: I don't know about sounding the alarms, but I'd definitely say that there is some reason for concern. The way this team has been playing and the way they've gone about losing has met some of my lowest expectations for the season. I don't think anyone expected some of these players to look as flat as they sometimes have, and there's still a rotation to figure out. It's still way too early to start sounding alarms though.
2. What is the most glaring issue the Suns have right now?
DK: Settling the rotations. Seems like there's new combinations on the floor every night. Some of that is due to P.J. Tucker's weird season - suspended 4 of the first 11 games now, after the Celtics game - while some is working in the new PG rotation. It will work itself out over time. The players are just too good to stay at .500 all season.
GB: The lack of fire from the starting five is...concerning. They have a lot of trouble opening up games, and Dragic and Bledsoe have had to take a backseat to Gerald Green and Thomas in a few fourth quarters. The chemistry just doesn't look like it's there yet. These guys are not playing for each other yet, and it's not hard to tell. I went to the game against the Sacramento Kings, and there was a moment when Miles Plumlee and PJ Tucker were yelling and cursing at each other about a defensive lapse on Plumlee's part. Stuff like that, and seeing Bledsoe occasionally pouting, is not what you want to see from a team that had such great chemistry last season. The team needs to start pulling together if they're to meet their playoff aspirations.
GA: I know its probably not the most popular opinion, but I think the play from Plumlee has been a big problem. He just hasn't been as impactful as he was last season. His efficiency isn't a whole lot different from last season, but his rebounding and usage rates are down. This is largely the result of him getting far fewer offensive rebounds. If Plumlee isn't rebounding, he does not fit in with this starting unit.
JC: Establishing roles and building an identity. The addition of Isaiah Thomas has been more ripples than would have been preferred. The strength of the team (guard play) is still finding its way. Now there are three point guards who are used to being primary ball handlers and they need to feel each other out. It's a difficult proposition to learn when to defer and when to be aggressive. The departure of Frye and the recent emergence of Len further complicates a young team that will need some time to develop.
SS: Inconsistency. I know the easy answer would be to blame the struggles on the loss of Channing Frye, and the inability to find a player to fill that role, but I suspect if you were to replace Keef with Frye in the starting line-up, and replace Tolliver with Keef in the second unit, we would either be in the same boat, or slightly worse off. I think the inconsistency of the three guards has been the biggest issue so far, with one or two of them seemingly switching it on and back off on a rotating basis. The good news is that I expect this to be resolved as they continue playing together, and we have already seen some improvement from the starting unit. The Suns just need to find their rhythm offensively and figure out how to play together, and I think they will.
KO: I would say it's the ball movement on offense. The Suns showed what they can do on Monday, with 30 assists on 48 field goals including at least five from four of the starters. That was against a really poor defense though, and there's no way this team should finish 29th in assists again with the sort of firepower they have on offense. Having three really good point guards in your rotation should fix this, but that's not necessarily the case. Isaiah Thomas has shown that he can bring more playmaking off of the bench at times, but it really is no secret to everyone what he's trying to do when he has the ball and he could bring so much more to this team if he tried to do a little bit more playmaking. Moving the ball around consistently will keep everyone happy and that along with more flow to the offense is good for everyone.
3. Who has been the biggest disappointment to you so far this season? Biggest surprise?
GB: Maybe it was silly to think so, but I was really thinking Anthony Tolliver would be a good fit on the second unit. We haven't seen too much from him yet, and he's only shooting 33% from 3 after a 41% output last season. He's definitely no Channing Frye replacement. Tolliver's shot is slow to get off, and he really hasn't done too much to improve the spacing. Then again, he might just need to get into a groove, as it took him a while to become a regular cog in Charlotte's rotation last year. As far as surprises go, it's got to be Alex Len. He's still just a kid out there but you can really start to see the potential this kid has lately. That free throw line jump shot is looking pretty nice. If that continues to develop, as well as his rim protection, we might be seeing Alex Len in the starting lineup sometime this season.
GA: Tolliver seems to be the obvious choice for biggest disappointment, but I'll go with Eric Bledsoe. He hasn't looked like a guy you give $70 million dollars to so far. Most disappointing is the fact that his defense really hasn't been there in my eyes. Len seems like he is going to be the obvious choice for biggest surprise, and I'm going to echo that. I expected the team to really, really regret not keeping Earl Barron because I didn't think Len was ready. He has definitely proved me wrong.
DK: I've got to echo Geoff here. The biggest disappointment has to be Eric Bledsoe. He looks like the 15/5/5 guy we thought we were getting last year. The one who can't shoot and can't really run a team but has uber-skills to impact the game in other ways. I think he will come around, but for now he's a disappointment to me. The biggest surprise has to be Alex Len. He looks like a kid with the highest ceiling of any center we've had in Phoenix in, like, forever. He can shoot, score, defend, rebound, protect the rim... and even run and finish his own fast break. Wow.
JC: I am most disappointed in and by P.J. Tucker. He started off the season on suspension, hasn't made a significant impact on the season and managed to get himself suspended again for missing the bus. He's missed the bus on the whole season. Coach Hornacek said in an interview that in his entire playing career he could count on one hand how many times he can remember a player missing a bus. P.J. was supposed to be a leader on this team. It's about time he acts like one and starts to make his presence felt on the court. My biggest surprise has been Goran's slow start. I really thought he was going to build upon last season and stay in the conversation of being an All-Star/All-NBA player. 15 points and three assists a game isn't getting it done. Hopefully he is adjusting and rounding back into form since he had his best game of the season against Boston.
SS: Tolliver. I thought he could come in and help space the floor and provide the offense with driving lanes through which the guards could operate, but that simply hasn't been the case thus far. I don't really blame the struggles on him, specifically, it's just that he hasn't made the impact that I was hoping to see. The biggest surprise has been Alex Len, who has played above and beyond what I thought he was ready to contribute this season. He surprises me in almost every game that he plays in, and his emergence could be the deciding factor that gets the Suns into the playoffs this year, if he can stay healthy.
KO: I have to go with Tolliver on the disappointment. I saw him in the preseason and like a couple of other people on this site believed that he could start the opener. It's been a really rough start to the season for him, and if he can't hit threes there's no purpose in him being on the floor unfortunately. The biggest surprise is easily Alex Len. I've been one of the biggest naysayers on that draft and it looks like he is going to prove me wrong. He's a confident player who stays active on both ends and really understands how to use his length. I honestly might have freaked out more about his elbow jumper Monday than his breakaway slam. Len is 10% better than Plumlee on contested rebounds and players shoot 6% worse when Len is defending them instead of Plumlee. I didn't think we would be at a point this season where we'd start thinking about a new starting center and new options at power forward off the bench (T.J.?), but here we are.
4. Who needs to step up their game on this team, and in what way?
GB: I think it's some sort of combination of Bledsoe, Dragic, and Coach Hornacek. Dragic needs to be the guy on this team, and Hornacek needs to find more ways to give Dragic that opportunity, whether that means getting him the ball more often or playing him more minutes. An All-NBA third teamer should not be playing second or third fiddle to two other point guards. Bledsoe, on the other hand, really needs to start playing like $70 player. His defense will keep him in the starting lineup, but he's turning over the ball way too much at this point and hasn't looked like the guy that was ripping off 30 point/near triple double outings at the end of last season. He's probably not ecstatic to be losing minutes to Thomas at the end of games, but Hornacek needs to find a way to bring balance and cohesion to his point guard unit.
DK: It's Bledsoe and Dragic - the original Slash Brothers. And the entire starting lineup, overall. Seems like the returning players have come in this year with a hangover. Give them a bloody mary and let's get going!
GA: I think its Hornacek, to be honest. The Suns have an overabundance of rotation players, and Hornacek's policy of sticking with the hot hand, while useful early in the season, seems like it could wear thin. Great coaches determine who in the rotation is going to play big minutes based off of matchups, previous performances, and a lot of deep game tape evaluation. It seems like the coaching staff wasn't as prepared as they should have been about how they were going to manage minutes.
JC: Bledsoe, Dragic and Plumlee. I think there should be a rule somewhere that players with $70 million dollar contracts aren't allowed to score one point in a game. Then it felt like Goran went about half a month without hitting a three (because he did). I have been consistently underwhelmed by the play of Dragic and Bledsoe. I think Isaiah, Gerald Green and Markieff Morris have had more to do with us still being above .500 than Goran and Eric. It shouldn't be that way. Those two need to take charge and get their shit together. Miles, meanwhile, has regressed from a 12/12 per 36 to a 9/9 per 36 and has games where he's basically an empty jersey. I guess the benefit of that is Len getting extra playing time. Either way, the Suns are thin up front and need contributions from both of them.
SS: Bledsoe and Dragic. This team goes as they go. Although the Suns won a couple of games on the backs of Isaiah and Green, they were never meant to carry the load...only to help complement the already potent scoring attack of Bledsoe and Dragic. On the bright side, both have been improving and stepping up recently, so hopefully this is a sign of better things to come.
KO: I think it's Bledsoe, Dragic, and Hornacek. I echo everyone's points on the rotation, as it's not even close to where it needs to be and that's not even touching on the ball distribution. Dragic needs to have the ball more and Hornacek needs to figure out how to balance out the rotation.
5. Is there a trade in the future of this Suns team?
GB: It's probably way too early to consider, but I have to think it'll be a possibility if things don't improve. There's a huge logjam at the wing positions, which is only further exacerbated by playing three point guards. There's really no backup power forward outside of Tolliver, so that's a pretty big hole. I'd hate to see it happen, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that we see one of the three point guards get traded if things don't click eventually. I really hope that doesn't happen, and that this team finds a way to make things work smoothly.
GA: As a direct result of .500 level play? No. Any trade that emerges before the All-Star break will not be as a result of winning half of the team's games, but instead will arise out of prepared plans to trade a player or an opportunity arising spontaneously. I've said all along Green has a strong chance of being traded this season. The only guy who could potentially be traded because of starting out poorly is Anthony Tolliver, but this is more because his contract, which is only guaranteed for $400,000 next season, is a nice expiring that will be enticing to teams looking for potential salary cap relief. If he can't get things under control shooting wise and falls out of the rotation, he has a strong chance of being moved.
DK: I hate discussing trades when it's not trade season. Sure, trades happen any time. But nearly all of the Suns key rotation players just signed contracts in the off season making them unavailable for trades until January. Wait for January/February please.
JC: I sure hope so. I really don't think that Ryan McDonough is the type to panic and rush to judgment that he's failed in assembling this team... frittering off his assets in an attempt to cut his losses. He's looking long term. Any trade he executes will be one that involves the pantsing of a competing team's foolish general manager. Dude's dealing from a position of strength, not a position of weakness... because McMiracle. So yeah, I'll take me some trades.
SS: Yes. However, I don't know who or what for. Going into this season, the popular opinion was that Green would be traded before the deadline, and that Goodwin would be able to step in and contribute. That hasn't happened. If anything, Green has shown just how important he is to this team...at least for now. I can't see the Suns trading him away just to get something for him before he becomes a free agent in the offseason. However, I do think the Suns will make a move at some point before the trade deadline...I'm just not sure who they would look to move.
KO:I thought there was at the start of the season unless the Suns got off to an amazing start so I'll still say there is. Like Dave said though, we will have to wait.