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Bender, Ulis, Sauce might be out of Suns rotation soon

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The Phoenix Suns rotation will be slimmed down once the regular season starts. By all indications, some fan favorites will be out of the rotation.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

When the regular seasons starts, Suns coach Earl Watson has to cut down his rotation to a manageable size. Unfortunately, that means someone or someone(s) will be disappointed in their bench role future, and one of those guys might be your favorite player.

Watson already stared down one big decision by making Brandon Knight a permanent fixture on the bench while promoting teenager (soon to be 20) Devin Booker to the starting lineup. On the court, this move appears to have paid dividends as Knight has led the second unit in scoring while Booker shows he belongs in the starting unit.

Watson - like every other coach in the NBA - plans to keep his rotation no larger than 10 deep, with nine of those spots locked down on a regular basis and the 10th being a platoon. Going deeper than 9-10 players on a regular basis, with consistent roles, is simply an impossibility in a 48-minute game if you want any kind of continuity and predictability.

For the most part, the Suns might slim down to a 9-man rotation, in fact. When coach talked about Knight’s minutes, he hinted that Knight could squeeze out that 10th man for the most part.

“It will be a mix,” he said of the fourth guard off the bench behind Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight. “Depending on how the game flows. We really want to try to keep two out of those three on the court at the same time, so it really can’t be a solid 10. That 10th guy flows here and there. Whoever that guy is, will play itself out.”

Unfortunately for Watson, the Suns have at least 13, maybe 14, players on the roster who really should be playing every night in some capacity.

Injuries and trade(s) could change all of this, but we don’t know what we don’t know so let’s review what we DO know at this point.

Starters

We already know that the opening night starting lineup is...

  • PG Eric Bledsoe
  • SG Devin Booker
  • SF T.J. Warren
  • PF Jared Dudley
  • C Tyson Chandler

Warren was named a starter primarily because of P.J. Tucker’s injury and rehab timeline. Tucker wants to return by opening night, but the medical recommendation was to hold that back to 1-2 weeks into the season at the least.

Warren may never give Tucker that starting job back though. Tony Buckets is averaging 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds (3.0 offensive) in 27 minutes per game. He’s shown a lot more defensive effort as well.

*all stats courtesy of stats.nba.com’s suns team page

If the Suns continue to win the rebounding battle overall, Warren might stick in that starting role. But 1.7 defensive rebounds in 27 minutes is tough to swallow if the Suns struggle anywhere else, and we have to remember poor-rebounding Jared Dudley is the power forward for now.

Watson has said that making Jared Dudley a starter was an obvious one, despite the modest numbers he will produce.

“Jared Dudley comes with a lot of experience,” Watson told the radio show. “We have two young guys right there at that power forward position, with Marquese (Chriss) being one and (Dragan) Bender being the other who can slide over from a small forward, so I don’t think it’s a bit of a surprise.”

Tyson Chandler gets the start at center for obvious reasons as well. He looked spry in that opening win over San Antonio despite his age (10 points, 8 rebounds in 19 minutes), and Alex Len has not wrestled the starting spot away from Chandler in any way the rest of the week (5.7 points, 5.3 rebounds in 21 minutes) while Chandler’s been out for personal reasons.

Four primary bench roles

Using Watson’s numbers, it appears he wants a primary backup at each of the front line spots and at one guard.

Brandon Knight will get starter-level minutes at guard, backing up Bledsoe and Booker.

“We really want to try to keep two out of those three on the court at the same time,” Watson said.

Of course that won’t always happen due to foul trouble, game flow, poor performance, etc. But for the most part, you’ll see Bledsoe, Booker and Knight splitting 90+ of the available 96 guard minutes (48 x 2).

Marquese Chriss has been a revelation this week with how aggressive he’s been on offense and on the boards. The 19-year old showcases moves like a young Amare and has a chip on his shoulder. He’s posted 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game this week in a large role (24.7 minutes per game is 3rd on the team). Those 6.7 rebounds include 3.3 per game on the defensive end, a number topped only by the centers and tying him with Bledsoe and Knight, of all players.

Alex Len is certainly the top backup center and looks to keep that role into the season. The only question is how many minutes Watson wants to give to centers per game, period. He needs them desperately on defense while his front line is otherwise composed of rebound-challenged players in Tucker’s absence. But when Tucker comes back, it’s possible that Len and rookie Dragan Bender will be fighting for minutes with each other as the Suns play “small”.

Initially, Dragan Bender is the primary backup at small forward until P.J. Tucker comes back. Bender is a mess offensively and does not fill the stat sheet (3.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1 assist and 1.3 blocks per game), but has shown a real good knack for team defense. He moves well laterally on the perimeter to block drives by smaller players and also slides into the lane to provide weak-side shot blocking on occasion. I really like how to competes on defense, but he’s reed-thin so he can’t be expected to defend the league’s biggest players in the post. Hence, his perimeter leaning early in his career.

The leftovers

After those nine players - the five starters, plus Knight, Len, Chriss and Bender (at first, then Tucker later) - the remaining available minutes will be fluid. There’s a few guard minutes, and even fewer front court minutes left.

Fourth guard

That leaves old vet Leandro Barbosa fighting for the remaining 6-10 minutes per game with young Archie Goodwin and rookie Tyler Ulis.

It’s almost certain that John Jenkins is out of the picture, as he’s only appeared in two of three games and his contract is not guaranteed as long as he’s waived this week. And in a bad sign, Archie himself has only gotten into two of the three games, and averaged just 9 minutes when he does get in. Goodwin and Jenkins are tied for fewest minutes this past week among players with NBA contracts in hand.

My guess is that the season starts with Leandro Barbosa as the primary fourth guard, with Ulis getting time at point guard whenever extra playmaking or ball control is needed.

We might see rookie Tyler Ulis get a lot of run up in Prescott this fall for the D-League Northern Arizona Suns.

Fifth power forward/center

Once Tucker comes back, the small forward position will likely be shared by ICMT and Buckets, leaving Bender mostly out of the small forward picture.

That leaves Bender scrapping for playing time as the fifth big man behind Dudley/Chriss and Len/Chandler, or as the 7th front line guy if you expand to include the small forward spot.

Bender will likely get time at all three spots, but only a few here and there depending on foul trouble and performance in the game. A varying role each night does not bode well for Bender’s acclimation to the NBA, but he’s not ready to wrestle minutes from anyone ahead of him quite yet. Let’s let the youngest player in the NBA start slowly, and be okay with that.

This rotation also leaves Alan Williams locked into a bench warmer spot unless there’s an injury at center.

Bender and/or Williams could see a lot of time up in Prescott to play some D-League along with Tyler Ulis. That’s the beauty of a D-League affiliate only two hours away.

Rookie blues

Among the rookies, Marquese Chriss appears to have the clearest sightline to a large role this season, as Bender and Ulis are facing a numbers game squeezing them out of large roles to start the season.

It’s possible Chriss could force this way into Rookie of the Year contention, given that he’s got playable skills right now and won’t be forced to curb his fouls by playing soft, since Dudley and Bender can back him up on bad nights.

By the end of the season, depending on development, trades and injuries, we could see all three rookies getting larger roles. But to start the season, it’s slim pickings for two of the three.

Veteran blues

Alan Williams, Archie Goodwin and John Jenkins appear to be the veterans most negatively affected by the Suns deep roster.

Neither has even appeared in all three games, and neither has averaged more than 9 minutes per contest when they do get in. Once the regular season starts, those minutes will almost certainly drop to zero barring trade/injury.

Look for Jenkins to be released or - if the Suns can find a taker - for Archie and/or Jenkins to be traded. Archie is on a cheap contract and is still only 22 years old. Seems like some team short on guards would love to take a flyer on him despite his shortcomings on the court.

The only other veteran who looks SOL in terms of regular playing time is 23-year old Alan Williams. Big Sauce has a guaranteed contract with the Suns and is the best cheerleader the team has ever had. Expect him to dress out every night in case of injury/fouls on Chandler and Len. But he’s two inches too short in height and about 12 inches too short in bounce to overtake either of those guys in the rotation.

Final Word

The Suns rotation is taking shape, at least to start the season. It’s got a good mix of veterans and youth, with a huge opportunity for Booker and Chriss to establish themselves as part of the Suns core of the future.

I’m ready for the regular season to get underway on October 26.

Let’s go!