It has now been two seasons and change since the Phoenix Suns completed their regime change with the hiring of GM Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek. Though a small handful of noteworthy events have occurred during this time, the organization is more or less back to where they started -- spinning their wheels in the mud with a lame duck coach and a dearth of top-end talent.
The buzzer-beating losses of 2014/15 and the fourth-quarter collapses of the last couple months were a painful experience to all involved, but left a glimmer of hope in that surely this team's luck was bound to change. However, the languid performance the team offered on Monday night in Salt Lake City carried not even a hint of competitive spirit, much like the loss a week earlier in Dallas, and those of us who were clinging to those close losses as a harbinger of better times were only collecting coins on a deserted island.
The rescue ship isn't coming -- not under these conditions.
The roster teardown that began with such promise in the summer of 2013 finally culminated in what the Suns trotted out in 2015 -- every single player on the team was signed, drafted, traded for or extended by McDonough. While there were a few big grabs that came up empty, this was our first look at an entire team assembled in his image.
30 games in, and it's already time to decide which parts should be blown up.
Luckily for the Suns, this time around there exists some considerable young talent on the roster. Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker all look to be good (possibly great) draft choices, as each has already raised the bar on their development.
Throw Jon Leuer into the mix, who was flipped for a second-rounder on draft day and has since played his way into the starting lineup, and there are signs here of a well-run organization. The Suns have drafted well and pulled off some shrewd signings to build a solid bench and a very nice supporting cast.
Unfortunately, when the foundation is cracked no one cares how nice the paint job is.
The Suns have $192 million in guaranteed contracts tied up in Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler. Those three were obviously to form the foundation of the team.
Now, the backcourt has played well. Bledsoe is posting career highs in points, assists, steals, FG% and PER. He was worthy of All-Star chatter before the Suns skidded into the rails. He has expanded his shooting to all parts of the floor, knocking down a stellar 53% of shots between 10-16 feet and 43% from 16 feet to 3. He also has the ability to keep up with just about any point guard in the NBA defensively, with the frustrating caveat of whether or not he is "locked in."
Knight is also having a career year in points and FG%, and as a microwave scorer has shown the ability to put up monstrous stat lines -- at times taking over games and thus taking pressure off of Bledsoe. Not surprisingly, the Suns are 7-7 when Knight scores at least 20 points, 5-11 when he doesn't.
Despite all the fancy numbers the backcourt produces, they are shockingly prone to seizing up as the game tightens in the final minutes. Turnovers, bad shots, poorly run plays -- name a basketball mistake and the chances are either Bledsoe or Knight has been guilty of committing it at a crucial time.
Not helping matters, neither are exactly replete with leadership skills. One has to wonder how the lockerroom is impacted when the best players on the team routinely give wins away. How many times will these guys roll the boulder up the hill only for someone to slip on a banana peel?
This is where the third part of that $192 million should factor in. Tyson Chandler was brought aboard to provide an anchor on defense, a roll man on offense and to keep his teammates playing hard.
The defensive impact hasn't been there -- per Basketball Reference the Suns have a Defensive Rating of 106.1 when Chandler is on the floor, compared to 102.6 when his backup, Alex Len, is playing instead.
The offensive impact hasn't been there -- per NBA Stats he is scoring 0.96 Points Per Possession as the roll man, just a tick above Meyers Leonard and Roy Hibbert. There have also only been 27 such possessions in 20 games, meaning the Suns have done very little to establish the threat in the first place.
As for bringing leadership and accountability to the team, we can all draw our own conclusions there.
It should have come as no surprise that Hornacek's recent change to the starting lineup yielded no positive results. No matter how the parts are stacked or sorted, the system will struggle as long as it rests on the shoulders of a pair of guards who quite simply are not cut out to carry a team to the finish line.
With the trade deadline looming and Hornacek possibly on life support as his team bottoms out below him, perhaps the only option left is to dump the core altogether. But would any playoff teams want to pick up the tab for Chandler or Knight, who are in the first year of $52 and $70 million contracts? Does anyone have the room or inclination to acquire Bledsoe -- a star point guard who lacks star qualities?
It's a damn shame that these questions even need to be asked this early in the season, but perhaps it's better than playing the role of playoff pretender until well into the third act, as has been the case in recent years. Despite the promising youngsters on the team, we have finally caught a glimpse of a Ryan McDonough basketball roster, and it was not good.