The Phoenix Suns brass warned us of a few things at the end of the season. Let's review some of the most outstanding quotes to see how the summer has played out so far, as of the end of July.
"Almost in no circumstance do you come back with the exact same team," Lon Babby said in April.
"We'd like to bring a majority - not all the guys back - but a majority of the guys back next year," GM Ryan McDonough said, "and try to add to that group."
Through July, the Suns have kept most of their core together. They have lost only one major rotation player (Channing Frye), a minor rotation player (Ish Smith) and two end-of-bench guys in Dionte Christmas and Leandro Barbosa. To replace them, the Suns have added a major rotation player (Isaiah Thomas), a probably minor rotation player (Anthony Tolliver) and two first round draft picks (T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis) who probably won't play much unless there's trades.
This doesn't feel like as much turnover as the Suns might have expected. Really, only one of the top 9 guys in the rotation has been replaced. That will help continuity, for sure, but it's probably less than anyone expected.
There are still two months between now and training camp - plenty of time to make more moves. But the Suns are set to improve simply by growing together a little bit more.
Keeping the core together
They did say they wanted to keep a majority of the core intact, including bringing back P.J. Tucker and Eric Bledsoe.
"We have every intention of getting a deal done," McDonough said. "We'd like to have P.J. back. He was a big part of the team, on and off the court."
"We place a value on him," Babby said of Tucker and, by inference, Eric Bledsoe since both are restricted free agents. "The market will have a value on him. If there's a disconnect, we'll address that at the time. But we have those rights, and we'd be foolhardy not to utilize them. Ryan's made the essential point that he's in some ways the heart and soul of our team, beloved by his teammates, and an important part of this organization."
The Suns made it clear from day one that they would match any offer given to Tucker and Bledsoe, using their CBA-given rights of first refusal on any contract offered by another team. They also said they would initiate contract talks as soon as July 1, rather than waiting for other teams to make an offer.
No other teams actually made any offers, to date. Tucker re-signed for two guaranteed years plus a third mostly non-guaranteed for a total of $16.5 million. That's a very good deal for a full-time starter for the past two seasons, even considering his transgression this summer. The Suns loyalty to P.J. was tested by that, but in the end the Suns decided to go ahead with their plan to re-sign him.
The Suns also entered summer telling anyone and everyone they wanted to keep Bledsoe. Twenty-nine other teams believe the Suns, and now the agent is frustrated. And that's all I'll say about that.
Big Free Agency Plans
"I've always taken the position this was a destination franchise," Babby said. "Great history, great infrastructure, great weather, great community, great fan base. Where we have improved now is we have a better team, a great coach who everyone wants to play for, we have one of the brightest young executives as our GM."
"You can't spend to spend," owner Robert Sarver said on June 26. "You've got to make sure get the right people in there. You can't use all your powder just to use it. Two big things I learned: sometimes if you have something really good, you think the grass is greener somewhere else. You try to get better but you also have the chance of getting worse in trying to get better."
The Suns tried for the big splash, going for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in a package deal while also promising to retain Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic and Miles Plumlee. Their bid fell short, though, as the Suns just couldn't measure up to the pull of Cleveland. But even more clear, when the rubber hit the road, neither LeBron nor Anthony gave the Suns serious thought.
"Roster. Roster. Roster. Talent. Talent. Talent," LeBron follower for the past decade, Brian Windhorst, said on KTAR on July 1 of his prediction that the Suns would fail in their big attempt. "LeBron wants a super talented roster thats ready to win NOW. Not in two years. Not after a year of seasoning. Not after this draft pick develops. NOW."
The Suns are not yet considered "here to stay". National folks still wonder if the talent base is good enough to have repeat success. Windhorst even used the phrase "smoke and mirrors" to describe the Suns staying in the playoff picture until the final days of the season.
Still, the Suns made the big pitch. They waited LeBron out, and came up short. In the end, Windhorst was wrong about LeBron's intentions. Dead wrong. LeBron didn't go to the team guaranteed to win the most games in 2014-15. He went home to Cleveland, who failed miserably to put a respectable team on the court without him.
"As long as the Suns just get in the game, it will be a long term benefit," Windhorst said. "I think the Suns two years from now would be a compelling option for any free agent."
This prediction remains to be seen. This summer was a wash-out in terms of big signings.
The Suns eventually signed Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver to value deals, and still have $12-14 million spend if they so want to. But if they don't, the Suns are in position to re-enter free agency with a full powder keg next summer to do this all over again.
Low post scoring
"We'll try to address it though free agency and the draft," McDonough said. "I think Miles and Markieff made big progress this year. Markieff became a go-to guy down there. but I agree with that. We need to find a way, if we can't get up and down, and teams slow us down. I think this year we didn't have the answers. I think that's part my fault and Lon's fault, we didn't give Jeff that option."
So far, the only inside scoring threat the Suns have added is T.J. Warren, a 6'8" rookie with a knack for scoring in the paint on a variety of moves. He doesn't profile like any current NBA player. Rather, Warren profiles like an old-school craftsman along the lines of Bernard King and Alex English, two of the highest-scoring small forwards in the history of the game.
But Warren is not likely to garner a lot of minutes in the current rotation, and there's still no back-to-the-basket low-post threat added to the team.
Improvement from within
"The sum was greater than the parts this year," Lon Babby said. "But things change. Contracts change, players want to demonstrate that they have improved."
Paul Coro of azcentral.com highlighted in an article on Wednesday that the Suns incumbent players not involved in free agency have almost exclusively been working out all summer together. Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, Dionte Christmas and Ish Smith were there all spring, joined in early July by T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis. That's a huge turnout.
After the Suns' past two summers focused on enhancing the athletic training program and analytics, this summer was focused on player development.
Players are made in the offseason, but the Suns are putting themselves in a position to make their team, too. With a roster mostly of returnees, an unusually high amount of Suns chose Phoenix as a summer home to work with Suns staff.
"It's something that makes our team special," Suns center Miles Plumlee said. "Not many teams have guys here this early and this consistently. It's that bond that carries over into the regular season, and we're pushing each other to get better."
If the Suns are not going to make any major moves in the next two months, guys like Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee will all need to step up their games. Keef has been working on stretching his game, being able to make threes while not losing the inside presence he developed last year. Mook has been putting on upper body weight and strength to handle the down-low minutes he will get as one of the backup PFs behind his brother. Plumlee has been working on a back-to-the-basket game.
Read the whole Coro article for more details on how the Suns plan to improve from within.
"We need to recognize how unpredictable chemistry is," Babby said. "And not to deceive ourselves into thinking that it will automatically be recreated if we brought the core, the same group of guys back."
Ah, the all-important question of chemistry. That nebulous thing attributed to any over- or under-achievement vs "paper". Last year, the Suns were better than their talent because they were all pulling for each other and no one was demanding minutes. The only rotation players that were impending free agents were starters getting all the minutes they could handle (Channing Frye, Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker). All the other regular rotation players were on multi-year guaranteed contracts. When that's the case, it's easy to root for one another.
"The guys, they seemed like they played for each other and with each other," new guard Isaiah Thomas said in his introductory presser. "They just had fun out there. Even playing on the court against the Suns, there was really no arguing. There was just wanting to play, wanting to have fun and wanting to win."
Next season, the Suns will have at least five major rotation players fighting for their next contract and, if the roster doesn't change, they will be fighting for minutes too.
How will Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Anthony Tolliver (only $400k guaranteed if released after a year) share the PF position when all of them are worried about their next contract?
How will Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and (maybe even Eric Bledsoe, if he takes his qualifying offer) fight for minutes in the guard position, when all three are worried about their contract?
"Things change," Lon Babby predicted. "Contracts change. Players want to demonstrate that they have improved. I always say its like another school year. It's not the same each year."
That's a lot of pending contract negotiations mixed with minutes-sharing.
Yet both of the Morrii have been around all summer, keeping up the team-over-everything motto that served them so well last year. Anthony Tolliver marks the Suns as his 17th team in half those many years of post-college basketball. And Goran Dragic has always been a guy to go along with whatever as long as the team is playing the right way.
But what if Bledsoe takes the qualifying offer and becomes a mercenary on and off the court next season? What if Gerald Green, surely squeezed by the new rotation, regresses and becomes a shell of his 2013-14 self?
You can't count on chemistry being perfect when money is on the line.
"We've reached a point where we'd rather put ourselves in that elite group of contenders sooner rather than later," McDonough said. "We feel like we're not far away. If we can use our draft picks to get better, to get a veteran or package them to help us take the next step and get us from wins in the upper 40's to 50's or ideally 60's, then we'll do that."
Have the Suns improved to a 60-win team? Not yet.
Have they improved to a 50+ win team? Not the way we all expected. The Suns have downgraded at the PF position while possibly upgrading at the PG position to offset that. Teams will be ready for the Suns this year, mentally preparing for a tough game moreso than a year ago.
But there is a silver lining. By doubling down on the two-point-guard system with the addition of Isaiah Thomas, the Suns have added some insurance to their most successful lineup last year. Games come fast and furious through the season. In the NBA, you need to be different than everyone else to win a lot of games by surprising the opposition with your style. Denver won 50+ games per year for several years without an All-Star by running teams off the floor. The Suns did the same in the mid-2000s. The Spurs do it with incredible passing and discipline. The Grizzlies do it with overwhelming power at the rim along with stifling defense.
The Suns can win some extra games with the two-point-guard lineup all game long. Other teams are not prepared for this yet, and the Suns can capitalize on that.
"The people that have stuck with us have been rewarded with Phoenix Suns basketball and a bright future," Lon Babby said after the 2013-14 season.
Last year was more enjoyable for fans (like BSotS regulars) who'd remained invested during the dark days of 2012-13 than it was for the fans who "returned" to fandom after a hiatus. We stuck it out, and were rewarded sooner than any of us expected.
Whether this year remains on a high note is certainly a valid question. Witness Golden State last year. They surprised themselves and the league with 47 wins in 2012-13, good enough for a playoffs appearance. But then 2013-14 was fraught with expectations and despite winning even more games (51), they were all disappointed and their coach was fired.
Let's hope we can enjoy 2013-14 for what it is: a maturation year, one that's still "early" in the rebuild process, and one that requires patience at times.