The Phoenix Suns currently sit at 31-30 on the season, with 21 games remaining, while sitting 2.5 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Although the Suns came out of the NBA All-Star break barely holding onto what would be the eighth and final seed if the playoffs would have begun right then, they have since been sliding down the standings. And save for an impressive win over the Thunder on national television last week, they have also been trending downward in their play and performance.
As long as the post season is at least a possibility for Phoenix, you can expect that the Suns will keep their younger players, like Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, and Reggie Bullock on a short leash, as they have been thus far. However, as the prospect of competing in the playoffs becomes more and more unreachable, you can expect a gradual shift toward developing players for the future rather than trying to compete in the here and now.
So what will that look like?
Changing of the Guard
For one, I see little reason for the Suns to continue playing Marcus Thornton once they have waived the white flag on the season. Marcus is an $8.7 million expiring contract; nothing more, nothing less.
Thornton has some value for the Suns as a scorer if Phoenix is planning on making the post season. But he is not a part of the future of this team. You should expect his minutes to disappear altogether, or at least be drastically reduced (even more than they already have been) once this shift in direction is made.
Next, is Gerald Green. Green exploded onto the scene last season as an explosive scorer off the bench, and even in the starting line-up, who seemed to finally find the right team and system in which he could succeed.
Despite the fact that Green has had some good games this season as well, he has definitely come crashing back to Earth when compared to his impact from a year ago. So much, in fact, that he registered his first DNP-CD as a Phoenix Sun on January 30th against the Chicago Bulls, and registered his 2nd DNP after reportedly disappearing to the bathroom when coach Hornacek was going to sub him in on February 23 against the Celtics.
Although McDonough has consistently made remarks that the Suns would like to re-sign Gerald this off-season, I just don't see how he fits in the future of this team, unless he agrees to a drastically reduced contract...and even then.
The Youth Movement
The Suns will likely replace the minutes given to Gerald Green and Marcus Thornton with more Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, and Reggie Bullock in the coming weeks.
All three of these players are under contract for next season with very cheap team options for the season after, and they will all likely be given the opportunity to solidify their place in the rotation.
But with young players comes inconsistency, as Archie and T.J. have already demonstrated in their increased roles since the All-Star break.
Goodwin raised some eyebrows when he recorded double-digit scoring numbers in the first three consecutive games post All-Star break, something a 20 year-old hadn't done in Phoenix since Amare Stoudemire did it in 2003-2004.
However, Archie followed that up by scoring just one point against the Nuggets, five points against the Spurs, and two points against the Heat in his next three consecutive games.
As for Warren, he has also been a model of inconsistency thus far. T.J. has shown an impressive ability to cut at the right time on offense and also seems to have a nose for the ball, especially with offensive rebounds. However, his numbers have also been all over the board.
Warren's point totals in the five games that he's played in since the All-Star break look like this: 2, 8, 10, 9, 2. And while you may wonder if his minutes fluctuated just as much, they have been relatively consistent, averaging around 15 minutes per game.
Reggie Bullock is the biggest unknown, as he has yet to receive any meaningful minutes in the rotation. The one exception was the 14 minutes he played against the Spurs, where he shot 0/1 from the floor and failed to score any points.
While many Suns fans seem to be pining for the team to play the youngsters more, and appear resigned to the fact that the Suns are no longer in win-now mode, they must also understand that more minutes for the young guys, means more frustration and growing pains in the interim.
Suns fans have to prepare themselves for even more mistakes, turnovers, and bad decisions as the young players adjust to playing against more talented opponents, and getting consistent minutes on the court.
While I do believe the shift to developing more toward the future will be gradual, and is already happening to some degree, more minutes for the young players will mean more inconsistency...there isn't any getting around that.
Suns fans will need to be patient with the players, the team, and the coach as the Suns transition into development mode. Wins need to become less important than learning...you simply can't have it both ways.