The Phoenix Suns have had a busy year trying to find the right combination of players to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010 without sacrificing most of their youth and future draft picks along the way.
"What we've tried to do isn't easy," Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said last week.
The Suns have fielded one of the youngest NBA teams the last two years and won 87 games against 77 losses, but came up short of the playoffs each time. After surprising the league with a 48-34 record in 2013-14, the Suns crashed back to earth last season behind a series of unfortunate events culminating in losing 10 of 11 to close the year with a 39-43 record and yet another late lotto pick.
The Suns have done this with a growing stable of youth, supplemented by a sprinkling of veterans to help carry the load.
"The thought process is, as time goes on," he said. "You try to have a winning team every year, you try to get into the playoffs and try to compete for a championship every year. And then at some point, the older players their level falls off and they're not what they once were the young guys have developed and are ready to step right in."
The problem is the Suns haven't had enough of those high-value older players to hold the fort and win games until the kids are ready to win games on their own.
After a cinderella 2013-14 season, the Suns front office mistakenly thought the kids were ready. The team went really young, letting veteran Channing Frye leave in free agency, reducing roles of late-20s Goran Dragic and Gerald Green, and trusting the team to handful of 25-and-unders who held it together for a while but eventually unraveled.
Clearly, that plan didn't work.
"Last year I thought we were too much skewed toward the younger end," McDonough said. "I thought we were a little small up front, we got beat up sometimes in the post and on the boards."
The Suns used a team-record 23 players last season as he tried to find the right mix, ranging from 82 starts from Markieff Morris to a 2-game silhouette from Seth Curry.
Nine players (two starters) are gone from last season's opening night roster: Goran Dragic, Zoran Dragic, Tyler Ennis, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Miles Plumlee, Shavlik Randolph, Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver. More than half of them were regular rotation players (Goran, Gr33n, Mook, Miles and IT). Also gone is the prized Laker pick that is only Top-3 protected in 2016.
Seven more players came and went during the 2014-15 season, including Brandan Wright, Earl Barron, Seth Curry, Marcus Thornton, Danny Granger, Reggie Bullock and A.J. Price. None will be back in 2015-16. Still hanging on: Jerel McNeal, who may be released after Summer League before his 2015-16 contract becomes guaranteed.
Only six players remain from last season's opening-night roster, four of them starters most of the year. Still around are Markieff Morris (longest-tenured Suns player at 4 years), Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin. The Suns also have their own future draft picks, plus three more future first-round draft picks, currently slotted in 2016 (Cleveland's, via Boston), 2018 (Miami's, top 7 protected) and 2021 (Miami's, unprotected).
As we stand on July 13, three of those returning players project to be starters in 2015-16. Only Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker were on the roster inherited by GM Ryan McDonough 26 months ago.
The last two weeks have been a whirlwind around the Suns roster. Just since June 25, the night of the NBA Draft, the Suns have re-signed Brandon Knight and added six new players - Devin Booker (R), Jon Leuer, Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic, Sonny Weems, and Ronnie Price.
Tyson Chandler is the only new starter added, but Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems expect to get a lot of playing time next season as long as they are making their shots. Of the five new players added, only one (Booker) is younger than 27 years old.
"We certainly upgraded the roster," McDonough said. "Tyson is a huge part of that. The young guys can learn a lot from him and watch him. And some of the other veteran guys we brought in as well. Hopefully, take the next step next year and make the playoffs."
Where we stand
Despite all the changes, the Suns still return three players who have been in the starting lineup most of the last two seasons: PF Markieff Morris, SF P.J. Tucker and PG Eric Bledsoe. None is sure-fire All-Star caliber, but all three contribute to a winning environment.
GM McDonough and President Lon Babby have been trying to surround them with an All-Star or two but just have not been able to close the deal. The Suns have not had an All-Star since Steve Nash retired/left the Suns in 2012.
In retrospect, it's quite amazing that coach Jeff Hornacek has been able to squeeze out an 87-77 record from this squad despite the lack of top-end talent and a plethora of unfortunate off-court and on-court events.
Now, the suns can trot out center Tyson Chander, the first player ever to wear Suns colors who was at one point the league's Defensive Player of the Year (2011). He is also the team's first All-Star (2013) player since Steve Nash.
At 32, Chandler may never be an All-Star again, but the same was said of Shaquille O'Neal who made the team in 2009 thanks to the training staff mafia #TSM. Even so, he's the Suns most accomplished player, having made the playoffs in 7 of the last 8 years.
Joining him in the starting lineup next season is Brandon Knight, just turned 23, who was acquired last spring but only played 11 games for the Suns before injuring his ankle. Knight was under consideration for an All-Star berth in the Eastern Conference before coming to the Suns. He won't be an All-Star in the deep West, but he will be an improving starter still on the upswing of his career.
Most of the turnover occurred on the bench, but even there the primary bench unit of Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin are returning players. Only veterans Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems look to be new regulars.
All tolled, that's four new regular rotation players (two starters) who will begin the 2015-16 season as of this writing in mid-July. Booker, Price and Leuer are unlikely to play major roles next year unless the Suns suffer from major injuries or ineffectiveness.
Then and now
The depth chart a year ago:
- PG Bledsoe, Thomas
- SG Dragic, Green, Goodwin
- SF Tucker, Mook Morris, Warren
- PF Keef Morris, Mook Morris, Tolliver
- C Plumlee, Len
The Suns regular rotation last season was the youngest of the West playoff contenders (26.1 years old), while they clung to the 8th position in the West until the trade deadline. The team's average playing age dropped to 24.3 years after the trade deadline though, which contributed (along with injuries) to the Suns losing record in the second half.
The depth chart now:
- PG Bledsoe, Knight, Price
- SG Knight, Weems, Goodwin, Booker
- SF Tucker, Warren
- PF Keef Morris, Teletovic, Leuer
- C Chandler, Len
Where they stand
"The model involves some veteran guys starting and playing the majority of the minutes and the young guys learning from them," he said at the Chandler press conference. "And then at some point, the older players when their level falls off and they're not what they once were, the young guys have developed and are ready to step right in."
"That's what the good teams and good organizations do."
San Antonio is a perfect example of this, at least with the development of Kawhi Leonard in recent years as well as the development of unheralded young guys in Patty Mills, Danny Green and Corey Joseph, among others.
With the addition of Chandler (33 years old on opening night), Teletovic (29) and Weems (29) to the rotation, you'd think the Suns would be getting a lot older again. But they won't.
Assuming some basic distribution of minutes on a 10-deep rotation (not including Price, Booker or Leuer), the Suns will still be playing at just over 24 years old next season over the course of the game. The starters will run a bit older (27 collectively, mostly because of 30 year old Tucker and 33 year old Chandler), while the bench will be considerably younger on the whole. Ages are as of opening night.
Still to do
On the surface, the Phoenix Suns have exhausted all their cap space with the agreed-to contracts.
But the Suns have not officially signed anyone new beyond Tyson Chandler at the moment. They will have to use their cap space to sign Teletovic to his $5.5 million contract, but it's possible that Weems and Price could be fit into the "room" exception and a veteran minimum exception, respectively, for teams that reach the cap in one offseason. Knight, whose cap hold is smaller than his new salary, will still be signed last.
In the meantime, if the Suns release Jerel McNeal next week (after Summer League ends) before officially signing any more players, they could have somewhere between $4.5-5.5 million in cap space to offer another player or include in a trade if they so choose.
"There's a few more moves to come," McDonough said in the Chandler press conference last week.
Lon Babby said the Suns roster would be largely finalized "in the next two weeks".
They might have just been talking about Weems/Price/Teletovic. But at the time, Teletovic was the only 'unknown' name and the agreement to terms occurred before the press conference started.
We may not be done yet.