Following a mostly disastrous trip to the Eastern Conference, the Phoenix Suns stand at an unsightly 9-13 as their fourth quarter ineptitude has reached almost comical levels. They have now dropped 8 of the last 10 games after a somewhat impressive 7-5 start, and are rapidly approaching a crisis point in the young season.
Despite the recent implosion, there are still many positive takeaways to be found on the team. Heading into the season, there were a multitude of unknown factors on the roster. Were there enough shooters to make defenses pay for packing the paint? Would anyone provide consistent scoring off the bench? Is Brandon Knight even all that good at basketball, and could he co-exist with Eric Bledsoe? Can Devin Booker -- the youngest player in the NBA -- contribute in year one? Will T.J. Warren continue his stellar play from the end of last season? Can Markieff Morris set aside his misgivings about the organization and provide the team with a third scoring threat?
All of these questions aside from the Morris conundrum have been answered emphatically by the Suns, yet they can't find a way to turn enough close games into wins to keep up in a weakened Western Conference that is begging to be taken advantage of.
Though the last-second win on Monday night against Chicago could be a harbinger of good things to come. Mirza Teletovic's rebound and putback in the middle of three Bulls rebounders with 0.3 seconds left could lift the lid off the Suns' ability to close out games in thrilling fashion.
The noble scribes of Bright Side of the Sun offer their insight on the first quarter of the Suns' 2015/16 season.
1. Let's start on a positive note: what has been your most pleasant surprise during this season so far?
Kellan Olson: The play of Jon Leuer. Remember, this was a guy that we weren’t even sure about being a consistent three-point shooter. Leuer attempted only 78 threes in his three Memphis seasons and shot 38% on those attempts. As of today he’s shooting 48% and is taking six a game. His physicality inside as a rebounder makes up for his inconsistencies on defense and he’s a legitimate rotation player in the NBA that the Suns should work out an extension for. That’s nuts to me.
Deadpoolio: C'mon. It's obviously Jon Leuer. I wasn't jumping for joy when the Suns acquired him on Draft night (possibly because I was still depressed over not getting Kristaps Porzingis), but he has proven to be a better player than even Ryan McDonough likely expected. I'm not surprised that he's put up the numbers he has; I'm surprised that he's done it with this level of consistency. Considering the inconsistent play of Mirza Teletovic early in the season and the missing play of Markieff Morris pretty much all season, Leuer's steady production has been a blessing.
Dave King: Devin Booker, even more than Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic. I think I knew what Leuer could be, and with an opportunity ahead of Markieff Morris, he's producing like he was going to produce. I could say the same about Mirza. I'd expected a 40% three-point shooter on varying chances to produce, and some occasionally very heady plays to potentially change the course of games for the better, and that's what we're getting. But Devin Booker has been a surprise in many ways. He just is not afraid of any situation. He's regularly been able to make his first shot after coming in cold off the bench, and has recently proven to be deserving of regular, closing spot in the Suns rotation. In my most positive, pollyanna moments I might have hoped for this, but to see it live is fascinating.
Rollin J. Mason: Booker gets my vote here too. I would've believed it if someone told me that his shooting was good enough to earn him some steady minutes at some point this season, but I had no idea what a beast he can be on the drive. Players his age simply aren't supposed to be able to a) hit from outside and b) take it to the rack with such skill and conviction. No matter what happens with the Suns this season, it will be a pleasure to watch Booker's growth.
2. Markieff Morris has had exactly 2 games out of 17 in which he has shot over 50% from the field. How confident are you that he can turn his season around with the Suns?
KO: I’m another 10-15 games away from this, but it has to be close to a reduced role. There’s no doubt that he’s playing as hard as he ever has and is more energetic. He’s also getting the same looks he got the past two seasons, but they just aren’t going in. I am vehemently against speculating what’s going on in his head and such so I’ll just leave it at that. There is a breaking point though and we are in the homestretch of it.
D-Pooly: Unfortunately, I'm not confident at all. If he were missing jumpers only, I'd say he just needed a few layups to get his confidence going, but he's missing gimme putbacks as well. I believe the mental side of his struggles has grown too large for him to escape and that a change of scenery is probably the best move for all involved. I hate to say that because Morris' clutch offense from last season would go a long way for this year's team, but last year's Markieff isn't this year's Markieff.
DK: Welp, before you could post this, Rollin, coach already reduced the role. Even to benching him entirely, kinda like what happened to Gerald Green a year ago. Suddenly, Green went from playing awfully to not playing at all to completely out of the picture. Now it's Markieff. Luckily, Keef has a good enough, and recent enough, reputation to be acquirable as starting power forward and there are a lot of struggling West teams (and 'want to beef up' East teams) to make this next two months interesting.
RJM: Yeah, I guess Jeff Hornacek answered that question for us.
3. With four straight fourth-quarter meltdowns on the recent road trip and the team at 9-13, the question can't be avoided any more: how hot should Jeff Hornacek's seat be right now?
KO: The team being unable to run anything productive in the fourth quarter and doing things like having Ronnie Price run a play or setting up P.J. Tucker in the post on a mismatch; that’s on the coach. Like many other people on the staff, I think Hornacaek is a very good coach and it would be foolish to let him go. However, these things work a certain way and if this keeps up for another 2-4 weeks the Suns might have no choice.
D-Pooly: Hornacek's job isn't in jeopardy...this year. However, with this being the last year of his contract, that seat is plenty toasty regarding next year. While much has happened over Hornacek's run that was beyond his control, coaches are far easier to replace than players. The NBA is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, so his success in 2013-14 won't mean much if the Suns fall flat for a second-straight season. Kevin McHale was fired after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season, and George Karl was fired in Denver after winning Coach of the Year. Hornacek has no reason to believe his job is safe.
DK: Mirza might have saved Honry's job. The worst thing that can happen to a coach is his players losing all their confidence, and losing games in agonizing fashion. With Mirza's putback, the Suns now might be able to ride a wave of confidence to save the season and Horny's job. I hope that's the case, for coach's sake. He's a very good coach.
RJM: The interesting part about the recent road trip is that the Suns actually played very well overall. To be in position to win each and every game of the road trip is an impressive feat, and it's cruelly ironic that that is what made the losses resonate so much. I think Jeff Hornacek is a fine coach, but if the team's fourth quarter woes continue and they stay just outside of the playoff picture, well, you can't fire the players. However, I suspect the Suns will bounce back nicely once they secure Chandler's return. They're clearly better than their 9-13 record.
4. Jon Leuer recently usurped Morris of the starting power forward spot. What do you see as the next logical change to the Suns' rotations?
KO: Leuer staying as the starter and having around 20-25 minutes per game with Morris receiving the same, with both of those fluctuating on their performance through the game. I’ll also take more Devin Booker please. 17-22 minutes sounds just fine to me and gives Hornacek an efficient substitute when he staggers the point guards. I'd stick with having Tyson Chandler or Alex Len on the floor at all times, but there are matchups that favor Leuer at the 5.
D-Pooly: A trade. Honestly, what other combination of players can Hornacek run out there that he hasn't tried already? Sure, he could go the youth route and play T.J. Warren, Alex Len, Devin Booker, and Archie Goodwin more minutes, but McDonough will try to jolt the team to life via trade before the Suns cash in their chips for the season. I'd personally like to see a return to having Tyson Chandler or Len on the floor at all times instead of these small-ball lineups of late. At least when those guys played the Suns had rebounding to hang their hat on.
DK: When Chandler comes back - and in light of the Suns awful defense without him - the rotation will change again. There's simply no room for three PFs in the rotation. Keef might never get on the floor again. Alex Len might see reduced minutes too.
RJM: This really is a strange team. A number of players have stepped up and delivered career seasons thus far, yet there are only 9 wins to show for it. Since asking this question back on Saturday, the rotation looks to be tightened up with Booker, Teletovic, Len and Warren receiving steady minutes and Price stepping in situationally.
5. The East/West script has been flipped thus far, with the East currently boasting 10 teams with at least .500 records versus just 6 for the West. Is this just a flash in the pan, or do the Suns have a chance at sneaking into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record?
KO: Yes. The Mavericks might be the fourth team in the West, which is absolute lunacy and Rick Carlisle is some sort of sorcerer. With the Pelicans, Jazz, and Rockets all over the place I think there are three playoff spots legitimately up for grabs in the West. Not a great time to be horrible at closing out games huh?
D-Pooly: Are the Suns still folding like origami paper? Then no. New Orleans will improve as they finally get healthy, and it's hard to believe Houston will continue to flounder all season, especially with the return of Donatas Motiejunas. I haven't given up hope that Phoenix can be a playoff team, but they're not holding up their end of the bargain.
DK: I think you'll need a winning record to make the West playoffs, but not by much. There's just too much depth in the West all the way down to the 12th spot. I have no confidence in the East keeping up their pace, but the West will be a tough ride all season long. I'd think a 43-win season makes the post season.
RJM: The only team currently behind the Suns in the standings (as of Wednesday morning) that seems capable of making a surge is New Orleans. Aside from that, you have Minnesota, Portland, Denver and Sacramento -- none of which you could say have been underachieving thus far. If Utah tumbles during Gobert's absence, things could get really ugly out West. I'll say a sub-.500 team makes the playoffs, because those 10-14 teams will probably get worse.
BONUS HYPOTHETICAL QUESTION: You're Ryan McDonough. Sam Hinkie has too much gin one night and calls you up, offering to trade back the Lakers pick for Brandon Knight. Do you bite?
KO: No. Even if Knight was playing just average, this team is built around his age range and taking another two steps back in the rebuilding process is not the right move. The Lakers are clearly tanking anyway so who knows when you are getting that pick. Knight looks like exactly what the Suns had in mind too.
D-Pooly: If Hinkie's that drunk, why stop there? But Jerry Colangelo won't be hoodwinked so easily.
DK: That's a great question. Frankly, I keep Knight. The Lakers are playing SO poorly it's almost a lock they keep that pick again this year. You cannot expect the pick to be better than 6th or so. Maybe as high as 5th. You can only hope that 5th pick becomes a 21-point, 5-assist producer some day. The Suns have that right now, and he's only 23.
RJM: It's tempting, because Knight's surge this season still hasn't added up to many wins. But ultimately, I prefer known quantities to unknown. Go home, Sam. You're drunk.