Last call for alcohol.
See where some of the staff members sit on issues surrounding the Suns before taking in the season opener tonight.
1. The Suns will make the playoffs if...
Rollin J. Mason: There are a ton of ifs that the Suns will need to break their way. They'll need healthy seasons from Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, improved shooting from pretty much everybody on the roster, Markieff Morris to a) keep his attitude in check and b) remember how to get to the freethrow line, Warren to blossom into a bonafide bench scorer, but most importantly they need either Eric Bledsoe or Brandon Knight to have a breakout year, preferably both. In a conference packed with Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins, the Suns need to unearth a star player if they want to keep up. Bledsoe in particular is on the cusp, and needs to deliver on his potential this season.
Scott Howard: If literally everything goes right for them. That's the margin of error that exists in the West. For me I guess it comes down to a couple things - (1) Markieff Morris has to be a good basketball player and not the massive distraction he was all summer and (2) Brandon Knight has to play at the near All-Star level he was playing at with the Bucks prior to his trade to Phoenix. Obviously there are other things like Tyson Chandler staying healthy, Eric Bledsoe cutting down on turnovers but I think those two core issues are going to make all the difference between the Suns making the playoffs and missing the playoffs. The ridiculous part is that even if that all works out it's going to be near impossible to crack the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies stronghold so they'll be left fighting with Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, the Mavericks mystery box, and the Jazz for the bottom two spots.
Ray Hrovat: Defense and 3-point shooting must both be much improved, and the bench will have to be a plus. The investment in Tyson Chandler tells me the Suns' annual "we have to focus on defense" talk this time of year is actually serious this time around. With either Chandler or Len on the court for most of the game protecting the paint, it unleashes the rest of the players to defend aggressively, knowing an intimidating big has their back. On paper, the Suns shape up to be an above average defensive team, but it's the Suns so skepticism is called for. As for 3-point shooting, the 48 win 2014/14 team was 8th in 3 point % and 2nd in opponents' 3 point %. Last season's 38 game winner finished only 21st and 19th, respectively. Brandon Knight will need to shoot somewhere close to the 41% he did with the Bucks, and newcomers Sonny Weems, Mirza Teletovic and possibly Devin Booker will need to make strong contributions from behind the arc.
Geoff Allen: The Suns only make the playoffs if Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight both have nearly All-Star caliber seasons. They're probably the most important part of this team right now, and are supposedly the long-term core. If they play well, they'll create more opportunities for Markieff Morris, Tyson Chandler and (preferably) P.J. Tucker on offense. Importantly, they'll both need to improve in drive and kick situations and consistently hitting three point shots.
Jim Coughenour: ...Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe have a symbiotic relationship. I'm going to go with the group on this one. If Bledsoe puts up his numbers from last season and Knight gets back to his Milwaukee form this will be one of the best backcourt tandems in the league. Unfortunately, Knight's transition has been anything but seamless. Injuries have limited his playing time and he might still be struggling to regain his form. With guard depth being somewhat questionable Brandon must not only coexist with Eric, but also be a floor general when Eric sits. Great point guard play for the better part of 48 minutes from these two would probably make this the team's greatest strength.
Sreekar: Two of the following three things happen: 1) Someone has an All-Star year; 2) Brandon Knight has a career-best season while shooting over 38% from three; 3) Alex Len and TJ Warren improve enough to be considered legitimate candidates for the Most Improved Player award. This seems pretty prescriptive but I think in general, these three things address areas of concern and required success for the Suns this year. The All-Star thing is nearly impossible in the monstrous Western Conference but Brandon Knight continuing his career trajectory and improving is instrumental for the team's success. This roster lacks a bit of shooting, which is why Knight returning to the 41% 3PT shooting mark he posted in Milwaukee last year would be huge. Lastly, there's a lot of promise and potential on the Suns bench – Warren and Len will surely improve, but big jumps for one or both of them would give a much-needed boost.
2. The Suns won't make the playoffs if...
RJM: Utah is as good as they looked post-ASB last season and New Orleans gets/stays healthy.
SH: If (1) nobody from that Top 6 suffers from injuries the way the Thunder did last season, (2) Anthony Davis gets better and the Pelicans benefit from Alvin Gentry being a good coach, and (3) what Rollin said about the Jazz. And that doesn't even address the possibility that Dallas could hold it together with Dirk.
RH: Scott called it well in the previous section. Suns really need everything to go right, avoid injuries, get lucky bounces (we're due after last year, right?) and see young players emerge to make the playoffs. If they don't turn up aces on most of those, they'll be staring at the bottom end of the lottery again.
GA: (1) Either of the starting guard misses more than 8 games due to injury/suspension/etc, (2) Len or Chandler misses more than 8 games due to injury, (3) one of Sonny Weems/T.J. Warren/Devin Booker doesn't emerge as a bench presence. This team's weakness in depth comes at PG and C. I'm fairly comfortable with wing depth (though its unproven) and the power forward position, but I don't like the prospect of Ronnie Price and Cory Jefferson/Jon Leuer playing 10-15 minutes a night if an injury occurs.
JC: ...They can't shoot the three. The Suns were the worst three point shooting team in the league after the All-Star break and only added one plus three point shooter this summer (Mirza Teletovic). All of the other additions are either unknown variables or proven liabilities from long distance, and none of them has every hit more than 31 three pointers in a season. Basically, the Suns are going to need at least 3-4 guys on the roster to improve on their shooting from last season. The Suns run an offense predicated on taking and making lots of threes, so if they're in the bottom half of the league in three point shooting again they're screwed.
Sreekar: Two of the following three things happen: 1) Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight don't improve; 2) The Suns shoot worse than 36% from three (they were at 34% last season and 37% in 2013-14); 3) What others said about Utah comes true – the Jazz play like they did post-Kanter last season.
3. Who is the most important player for the Suns this season?
RJM: Brandon Knight seems like an obvious choice here, but I'm going with Bledsoe. If he is injured or otherwise ineffective, the season is basically over. I think this team might be able to withstand Knight not living up to his potential, but I can't fathom them even having a chance without a good/great season from EB. And if he can more often look like the player that stood toe-to-toe with Russell Westbrook and came out on top, that alone might be enough to separate the Suns from the pack.
SH: I will take Rollin's "obvious choice" and go with Brandon Knight. Ryan McDonough brought him in at a heavy cost after he'd played fantastic basketball for the Bucks in the first half of the 2014-15 season and he basically flopped in the early stages of his Suns career. Sure most of it had to do with injuries and learning to play off the ball - but it was not pretty to watch. Now he's armed with a 5 year, $70 million dollar contract and what should be high expectations. As stated above, his ability to get back to his near All-Star level (and hopefully beyond) is vital to the Phoenix Suns playoff hopes.
RH: I'm going with Markieff Morris. It's a strange situation with the public grousing Keef did over the summer, then he showed up at media day, behaved, and now everybody seems willing to sweep it under the rug like nothing happened. Hard for me to imagine that he's truly over his hurt feelings, but it's possible they can be kept under wraps as long as the team's winning. On the court, if Keef truly added a reliable 3 point threat to his game, then his game might approach All-Star level.
GA: I'm going to go with an odd-ball pick here and go Sonny Weems. This team is going to need a consistent player off the bench with Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker at this stage all likely to be inconsistent. Weems shares a lot of similarities with P.J. Tucker in both background and physical tools, and if the Suns have found the next iteration, it could go a long way towards moving this team into the final playoff spot.
JC: How about Tyson Chandler (just to keep things interesting)? If he can anchor an improved defense, help keep Markieff in line, provide a venerable and authoritative veteran presence, help give the team a little bit of a mean streak, draw in the defense to open up the perimeter and help give the Suns two quality centers (which hopefully gives the Suns at least one healthy big in all 82 games)... why not him?
Sreekar: Jon Leuer
4. What are you most looking forward to about this team?
RJM: I want to see a Phoenix Suns team that defends and rebounds well. I know that's crazy, but I can't help but think that those things will make winning games easier. The Suns haven't finished above average -- that is top-15 in the NBA -- in DRB% since the Scott Skiles era. Quite frankly, that is an embarrassing statistic. This team has the potential to reverse the trend, and that's exactly what I'm looking forward to seeing.
SH: I'm really looking forward to watching Tyson Chandler. It's been a while since the Suns brought in a high priced free agent and one like Chandler has the ability to change the entire tenor of the roster. I know the toughness and leadership angles get overplayed when it comes to Chandler so I'll say I'm more excited for his ability to rebound and defend - also the part where you throw the ball to him at the rim and he dunks it through the basket. That should be a delight.
RH: I'm excited to see what T.J. Warren can do with consistent minutes and a defined role this season. Though his game is different, I think he can be a game-changing scorer off the bench the way Gerald Green was, but without the cold spells that made fans pull their hair out last season with Green.
GA: I wasn't high on the pick at the time, but I'm really excited about the potential emergence of T.J. Warren. I don't see him emerging as a dominant player or anything, but if he can develop into a high scoring small-ball 4, or put together even a modicum of a defensive game or a three point shot, it could do wonders for making him a legitimate NBA starter.
JC: Less drama. Even though it gives us more salacious things to write about and discuss, I want to focus on basketball and be able to cheer for a more likable team that gets along with each other. If things devolve again this season I'm going to be really disappointed.
Sreekar: The centers! This is probably the best center rotation in franchise history and I'm really looking forward to see Chandler make his mark on the defense and help Len develop. I'm a big Len guy and I expect him to flourish off the bench this season.
5. How important is this year for GM Ryan McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek? Where is your patience level at with the rebuilding process?
RJM: I don't think there's a Suns fan in existence that can tell you they aren't running out of patience and keep a straight face. It's an absolute bummer to be once again shooting for the eighth seed -- there's no point in mincing words. However, I'm still firmly in the camp that McDonough and Hornacek are part of the solution, not the problem. They have shown the ability to form a competitive team out of scraps; they just need to bridge the rest together and turn a contending team into a competitive team.
The talent has been clearly improved under their tenure, as has the level of play on the court, and I can forgive the few missteps after considering that these guys have had the rotten luck of playing in the most competitive conference that I can remember. When the tides turn and it's time again for the Suns to make a move, I'm completely fine and dandy with McDonough and Hornacek leading the way. Daryl Morey spent a number of years in the hamster wheel before landing Harden, but he was always in position to shake the earth during that period -- it was just a matter of time. That's where the Suns find themselves now, and I think that a regime change at this stage would have an excellent chance of being a complete disaster.
SH: I mean, the Phoenix Suns haven't played in the NBA Playoffs since 2010. It's 2015. That's a long time. They're currently sitting on what's tied for the longest playoff drought in franchise history and they have the 4th longest current playoff drought in the NBA. Those aren't small things. And sure McD and Hornacek had nothing to do with 3 of those 5 seasons but life isn't fair. I don't think the Suns necessarily NEED to make the playoffs for Jeff Hornacek to keep his job but they need to be competitive, be obviously getting better, and there needs to be some level of progression with the young players. As for McDonough - he threw most of his chips in with Brandon Knight and the chips he had left were in on Tyson Chandler. If those two moves work out then he should be in good shape - but if Knight continues to be lost in the woods and Chandler breaks down it's ruh roh time.
Regarding my patience level as a fan with the rebuilding process - I won't pretend it isn't getting more difficult to be patient. I've been a Suns fan since 1989 and really I'm just not used to missing the playoffs. More than half the teams in the conference make the playoffs - you've eventually got to get back in there. When your fan base has lowered its expectations from "we need to be a title contender" to "we really just need to make the playoffs" that's not a good thing. Frankly my biggest concern for the Suns is that they're becoming irrelevant not just in the NBA but in the local sports market.
RH: I have more faith in Hornacek than I do in McDonough. This Suns team isn't talented enough to be upper echelon in the loaded Western Conference, and that's on McD. Overall, talent acquisition is more important (and challenging) than coaching. Generally, the most talented teams win the most. It's true that the cupboard was fairly bare when McD came here, but his moves so far have been a mixed bag. For the first time under the current regime, it looks like the Suns have actually tried to construct a balanced team designed to win now, unlike the "stockpile talent" mode of the last couple of years.
Five consecutive years without a playoff berth and irrelevancy creeping over the franchise are tough to swallow. We as fans shouldn't be overly patient with mediocrity, but it's important to remember that McD and Horny weren't around for the first three non-playoff years. Those years were a rudderless mess. At least now, they look like they have a plan, and have added lots of young talent. How that young talent (Warren, Len, Booker, Goodwin) develops will be most telling about the McD/Horny duo's performance so far.
GA: I'm on the record as not a particularly big McDonough fan. That being said, neither is safe if the team under-performs this season. Its a pretty well known fact among sports business types that the Suns are sliding in brand value from a sports-marketing perspective (as evidenced by the fact that, just hours before the home opener, there are still tickets available). The rebuild has not only failed to be successful from a competitiveness standpoint, but it has failed to capture the attention of the fan-base in a meaningful way. Neither McDonough nor Hornacek can be exclusively blamed for that, but responsibility isn't necessary for punishment in the NBA.
As for patience level, mine is pretty low. Unless I see significant improvement out of one of the young guns (Len/Warren/Archie/Booker), I don't see any reason to view the McDonough era as anything resembling a success. That's regardless of a playoff birth this year.
JC: As of right now I still think that McDonough and Hornacek are pretty good at their jobs, but both have had their missteps. Ryan has played too much fantasy league basketball with his roster in his first few years, ignoring the fragile egos of some of his players. Jeff has had problems with authority and player discipline... while some of that blame may fall on the unstable situation McDonough created, Hornacek has to shoulder his share, too. I think to a certain extent some of this job comes down to luck. Of course, luck favors the prepared, but it just doesn't seem like a sweetheart deal has sprung up (James Harden) even though the Suns are doing their best to pursue all avenues (LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge). Hornacek wasn't gifted a player (Anthony Davis) like Alvin Gentry. Plenty of qualified GM's and coaches have been fired because a certain situation didn't work out, maybe in part due to being a victim of circumstance, and went on to have success in a new environment. Sometimes timing just doesn't work out. I'm beginning to think that might be the case here, because I could easily see my patience wearing thin by the end of the season if there aren't more positive indicators than there are now.
I have more patience with Hornacek and McDonough than I do with the organization as a whole. Accountability goes to the top, and ultimately Robert Sarver has been directing this puppet show the last five seasons. Where is my patience level at? Let's put it this way. I write for a blog covering the team and I couldn't even bring myself to watch games down the stretch last season. If the Suns can't even capture the interest of their most dedicated fans... what does that speak to?
Sreekar: As others have mentioned, I think this is a pretty important season for the franchise, including Hornacek and McDonough. In Hornacek's case, any time a coach is in the last year of his contract for a team thirsty for a taste of the postseason in a league that has historically scapegoated many a coach, the pressure's always high. Given the landscape of the Western Conference and where the team currently is, I don't think it's a playoffs-or-bust kind of season but a six year playoff drought would undoubtedly increase the pressure and impatience even more. As long as the Suns are in the thick of the race throughout the season, I think Hornacek and McDonough are fine and will return – as they should. It's easy to forget that this is only year one of a rebuild that they started, and unexpected success in year one is what skewed everyone's hopes last season. With that in mind, I can't say I'm running out of patience yet but hell, playoffs would sure be nice.