The Phoenix Suns open their 2015/16 season at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix versus the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night. After an eventful offseason full of disgruntled twins, Ronnie Price reunions and another defeat at the hands of the Spurs, the Suns emerged with a new locker-room leader and a shifted focus toward defense.
Tyson Chandler has already established his role of being the good cop and bad cop among his teammates, offering heaps of praise and encouragement but also holding each man accountable. Tyson's extroverted personality has been contagious as even Eric Bledsoe, maligned at times for his quiet demeanor, has followed suit and taken a more vocal role on this team.
"Guys who aren’t usually talking are talking," P.J. Tucker told AZ Central. "Eric is talking more so I think it’s contagious. That’s one of our biggest problems in the past – our communication. Coming from the wing is one thing. But when you’ve got a big anchor in the middle that’s doing it, it’s a whole other deal."
Chandler will form a duo of defensive anchors with the returning Alex Len, who showed flashes of tantalizing potential in the paint during his sophomore 2014/15 season. Len held opponents to 49.1% shooting at the rim according to Nylon Calculus -- not an elite mark but better than the likes of Marc Gasol (49.6%) and Omer Asik (50.9%), and only a tick below DeAndre Jordan (48.5%).
Len achieved this mark despite the obvious fact that he was operating under a steep learning curve. Per 36 minutes he blocked 2.5 shots but also committed 5.1 fouls, which to be fair was a dramatic improvement over his comical 6.8 fouls per 36 during his rookie season.
The hope is that under Chandler's tutelage, Len will operate less on raw instincts and hone his anticipation and timing, both of which are key to successfully defending the paint. And with the veteran big man in his corner, eventually he should grow into a more vocal backline defender.
After Len's dominant performance in a preseason win over the Utah Jazz, Chandler gushed over his new apprentice. "He doesn’t understand how great he can be. He can do it all. He has right hand, left hand, soft touch, jump shot, a big long body. That’s tough in this league. For me it’s just confidence. Everyday I’m just trying to make him work so he can continue to get comfortable."
The tag-team of Chandler and Len will be the fulcrum for the new focal point of the Phoenix Suns: defense. The Suns will return Tucker and Bledsoe, both renowned for their defensive abilities, and added Sonny Weems to the mix to provide a capable wing defender off the bench, something the team lacked last season.
Tucker spoke recently about the team's renewed focus this season.
"We have an actual defensive mindset," Tucker said. "Coach comes out and says, ‘The running Suns stuff is done. We’re going to play defense. We’re going to stop people.’ Now everyone knows they aren’t playing if they’re not playing defense."
Any Suns fan who survived the brief (but not brief enough) Terry Porter era will likely shudder at that quote. While it's highly unlikely that Jeff Hornacek will implore his guards to walk the ball up and dump it into the post as did Porter, seeing such a comment emerge from a Phoenix Suns locker-room is still quite jarring. Perhaps Hornacek simply realizes what most of us do after perusing this team's roster -- there isn't enough firepower here to win many shootouts in the West.
Bledsoe, Markieff Morris and Brandon Knight are all talented offensive players, but if any are going to lead your team in scoring, there had better be a solid defense keeping things afloat. If this is the year the Suns get over the playoff hump, they'll have to offset the absence of superstar talent with defense and hustle.
With this in mind, it's probably safe to assume that Tucker will retain his starting status at small forward over emerging youngster T.J. Warren, at least for now.
Wednesday, 10/28 vs Dallas
Friday, 10/30 vs Portland
Saturday, 10/31 @ Portland
The Suns kick off the season against the two most likely candidates to tumble from last year's playoff bracket. The Mavericks were infamously left at the altar by DeAndre Jordan over the summer after neglecting to re-sign Tyson Chandler for the second time, and were forced to sift through the free agency scrapheap in a desperate effort to plug the hole at the center position.
They came away with only Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee, once again forfeiting the security and reliability of Chandler and effectively replacing him with a stopgap committee. Their starting backcourt will consist of the diminished and oft-injured Deron Williams, and free agent signee Wesley Matthews, who is recovering from a torn Achilles.
Chandler Parsons is also currently in recovery mode after undergoing offseason knee surgery, and the Mavs' only reserves at the wing are currently John Jenkins and rookie Justin Anderson. If that doesn't look dire enough, their 2016 first-round draft pick is owned by the Celtics, courtesy of the disastrous Rajon Rondo rental.
It's looking like a long season in Dallas.
Meanwhile, the Blazers surprised everyone over the summer by punting on every free agent they had, allowing Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez to bolt the Northwest and trading away Nicolas Batum. An assortment of youngsters and defensive-minded role players were plugged in around the newly-extended Damian Lillard, and while the Blazers probably won't win a lot of games this season, they look on paper to be a very frustrating team to play against.
There is a lot of length and hustle on this roster with Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. There is also a dearth of shooters, so be prepared for an ugly home-and-home.