At the end of the 2014-15 season, the Suns were faced with a major logjam at small forward. P.J. Tucker was still the starter at that position for the third straight season. But minutes also had to be allocated to Marcus Morris, Gerald Green and prospect T.J. Warren. That left only a total of 75 minutes for former first-round pick Reggie Bullock, and veteran wing Danny Granger did not even play due to injury but appeared enthusiastic about a potential resurgence with Phoenix the following season.
Going into the 2015-16 season, the situation on the wings is a lot less complicated. Following a salary dump trade with the Detroit Pistons, Warren and Tucker are the only full-time small forwards left on the roster. In addition to those two, free agent acquisition Sonny Weems will also be available for some minutes on the wings.
Here's a breakdown of the wings situation, player by player.
P.J. Tucker is heading into his 4th season with Phoenix, which is a pretty long time for a role player. A healthy 70-80 game season from Tucker would propel him into the franchise's top 25 all-time leaders in games played, virtually tied with greats such as Connie Hawkins and Jason Kidd.
Tucker isn't a flashy player, but he has been consistent throughout his stint in the desert. Tucker's per 36 minute production during the 2014-15 season was almost identical to the production from his 2013-14 campaign, with the lone exception being that his three-point shooting dropped by close to four percent. If P.J. can continue to provide about 10 points and 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes on 35%+ shooting from deep, he'll give the team all that they ask from him on offense. At age 30 regression is always a possibility, but as a player who relies more heavily on shooting than athleticism Tucker will probably be just fine.
Of course, we all know that defense is the real reason Tucker is still the starting small forward. For example, in 11 career games against James Harden's Rockets Tucker has held the MVP candidate to just 39 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent shooting from deep. Harden averaged close to 25 points per game in those matches, but he also turned the ball over an average of five times per game.
A lot of more casual Suns fans may not be particularly well acquainted with T.J. Warren's game at the start of the season. That should quickly change.
Although Warren may not yet possess the defensive prowess required to steal the starting SF spot from Tucker, his offensive production will be critical to the second unit's effectiveness.
In March and April of last season, Warren averaged eight points in 20.5 minutes per game on a whopping 55 percent from the field. His outside shot throughout the season was not impressive but he broke down defenses using an assortment of floaters and runners as well as layups and dunks resulting from off-ball cuts to the basket. According to NBA.com/stats, Warren had 37 field-goal attempts on cuts last season in 40 games, and he scored 1.42 points per possession on those plays. That efficiency puts him in the 88th percentile among all NBA players. For comparison, Tucker attempted just 29 shots in 78 games and posted a PPP of 0.98, putting him in the 18th percentile. That's a world of difference.
Warren also dominated summer league and continues to play well in the preseason, proving that he is a terrific breakout candidate for the season ahead. The sooner he can develop a consistent outside jumper the sooner he can be a 20 PPG wing in the NBA.
Weems is in the position that Tucker was in just a few years ago, returning to NBA action after spending several seasons overseas. Weems spent one season with Lithuanian club BC Zalgiris before playing three years for Euroleague powerhouse CSKA Moscow. He was part of a Euroleague "big three" during the 2014-15 season that also included Milos Teodosic and Nando De Colo.
Weems is a different player now than he was five years ago with the Toronto Raptors. He is still a threat in transition, but he has added a much more consistent three-point shot to his game and spent a lot of time with Moscow practicing his corner three. Throughout his four seasons in the Euroleague Weems shot 37 percent from deep, albeit on a slightly shorter three-point shot. If he can keep that percentage at 35 percent or better with the Suns, he could be a good option to sit in the corner and space the floor when Tucker is on the bench.
Another overlooked aspect of Weems' game is his improved court vision. Weems often talks about how playing for one of the best teams in Europe made him less focused on scoring and more focused on facilitating, and there is plenty of evidence for that claim. Weems went from being a 1.5 APG player with the Raptors to averaging close to four assists per game on CSKA Moscow. So far in the preseason he dished out five assists against Utah, four against Houston and eight against Denver.
Weems will not bring the same physicality or intensity on the defensive end that Tucker brings, but in a best-case scenario even that could change. When Tucker made the transition from being a star in Europe to a role player in the NBA, his mindset changed. He did not have a reputation for tremendous hustle in the overseas leagues, perhaps because he was playing such a key role that he wasn't looked on to contribute the little things. His role changed drastically with Phoenix, and Weems' role will change too, possibly leading to yet another shift in mindset. The other possibility is that Weems fails to make that transition and instead becomes the next Josh Childress, who the Suns are still paying for to this day.
The Suns are clearly weaker on the wings than they are in the frontcourt or backcourt, as P.J. Tucker is nowhere near as valuable as Bledsoe or Chandler. In fact, despite holding down the starting SF spot Tucker is probably among the 5-10 worst starters at his position in the NBA.
But there is reason to be excited about the future, and that reason is T.J. Warren. He's no sure bet yet, but he's going to get minutes and he's going to develop. Having Warren, Len and Booker all on the bench should give Suns fans a lot of confidence about where the team could be in two or three years.