As the 2016-17 Phoenix Suns season approaches, there are so many questions still unanswered. Basically, I feel like the Suns could start out with a winning record, a .500 record or lose every single game and I wouldn’t be surprised. I have no clue how “hustle + 38% shooting” will translate in the regular season.
Let’s begin to delve into the myriad questions facing this team and their fans this season.
Seven questions are answered today by the BSotS illuminati, with another dozen or so coming up over the next week.
For now, let’s focus on trying to predict the right answer to these questions...
Which will rank higher this season: Offense or Defense?
Dave King: From the preseason, we know that Coach Watson has the Suns being as aggressive as possible. After the first four preseason games, they were Top 6 in points-in-the-paint, % of points on free throws, % of points on fast breaks, steals, blocks and personal fouls drawn. At the same time, they were dead last in % of points from behind the arc (2nd to last in attempts), have had the most shots blocked of all NBA teams and are bottom-5 in Effective field goal %. On the defensive end, they have a Top-15 defense in points-per-possession, but have committed the most fouls and given up the most free-throws-per-possession in the league. Maybe the preseason won’t portend to what we see in the regular season. Maybe they will get all their fouling out now, and become a three-launching team all of a sudden. In fact, in game five of the preseason we suddenly saw 33 launches (and 40% makes) from deep after seeing only 16 per game (on less than 30% makes) the previous four games. But I have more faith in their D being higher ranked than their O.
Jim Coughenour: Last season the Suns were 28th in DRtg and 25th in ORtg, so it’s not like improvement would be a great feat. I think that the majority of players who are likely to play a larger role this season (e.g. Booker and Warren) are better offensively than defensively so I’ll go with offense. That being said, anything above the bottom third of the league will be at least a mild surprise in either category.
Kellan Olson: Easy answer here for me. With Bledsoe at the helm and Warren back, the offense should see a notable bump. Booker, Knight, and one of the rookies at PF will be in the rotation, making it hard to believe there’s a chance of the defense being around top 15-20.
Mike Lisboa: This is basically a coin toss this year. Based on what I’ve seen in pre-season, I’m going with defense. That’s where Earl Watson has planted his flag and I think that’s where a lot of the coaching emphasis will be: win the game on the defensive end and give the new motion offense time to round into form.
Rod Argent: I think it will be defense. Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort on defense and as long as that continues the Suns could be a much better defensive team this season and a better team overall. They are putting in a lot of effort on offense too but I think that their only real chance to outperform expectations this year is by playing better defense.
Geoff Allen: I think both are going to be lower middle of the pack, but I’ll put my money on the defense. If everyone stays healthy I think this team has solid defensive potential, while with the offense there are going to be more growing pains as the new offense continues to be installed.
Brendon Kleen: I think about these things in terms of additions and losses, and purely based on what was added this year, you have to assume the offense will improve. Warren, Knight, and Bledsoe are ready to play, and the free agent second-timers will do more for the offensive efficiency than the defense. Rookies struggle on defense. No really, please listen to this! Bender and Chriss will almost surely struggle on that end, though they have the potential to add layers to the offense.
Owen Sanborn: Given the state of the roster and the tempo of play that is going to be instituted, I would put my money on the offense scorching the earth to a higher degree than the defense. Booker’s insertion into the lineup should turbo-charge things, and provide an avenue for scoring when things break down. A top ten offense is in play if everything breaks right; I can’t say the same for the defense.
Will Devin Booker make the All-Star game?
JC: It’s possible. Last month Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated had 19 year old Devin Booker 100th overall as his last entry in the top 100 player preseason rankings for 2016-17. Last year Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Harden, Thompson and Bryant made the team. Kobe is gone for sure so it’s possible that opens a spot. Of course it’s the coach’s prerogative to go with another frontcourt player. Lillard would seemingly be right in line to snag a spot, too. Other than the usual suspects I don’t know that I see another player on the cusp of a meteoric rise. I’d almost wager that Bledsoe has a slightly better chance of being a surprise addition than the $150 million dollar man, Mike Conley. Let’s say somebody goes down with an injury, is it possible Booker can be a 20+ ppg scorer? The kid already has buzz. So I’ll say no, but I won’t say it’s completely impossible.
KO: I’m with Jim and believe if a Suns player is going to make the All-Star team, it will be Bledsoe and not Booker.
ML: The only way Booker makes the All-Star game is if he averages over 30 points per game or there are a rash of injuries in the West. It’s possible he gets in with something less, but between fan votes and stacked backcourts, he’s the odd man out. And unlike Kellan, I would not be surprised if Booker gets the nod ahead of Bledsoe.
DK: No. The West guard crop is too deep for Booker to make the regular All-Star game, but he will likely get picked again for the Three Point Shootout and the Rising Stars, and might even get put into the Skills Challenge. It would be fun for a teammate to join him. Maybe Marquese Chriss?
RA: Unless the Suns get off to another Cinderella start like they did in 2013-14, I doubt that he will have a real chance at making the All-Star team. If the Suns preform as expected and are well below .500 at mid-season, Devin would have to be averaging 25-30 PPG to have a shot at making it. But if Earl and the coaching staff focus the offense around getting Booker a lot of touches, I wouldn't put it past Devin getting close to averaging 25 PPG so I guess my answer is that it's doubtful but possible.
GA: I love Devin Booker, but there is no way in hell he makes the All-Star game. He’ll definitely make the Rising Stars Challenge, though.
BK: Hmm. The only way I see this happening is through the fan vote, but between Phoenix’s minimal national exposure and the abundance of superstar backcourt players in the West, the odds are against Booker this season. But the three point-happy environment of the Rising Stars Challenge will welcome him with open arms.
OS: Nope... Not this year. Damian Lillard fell short last season despite raining holy jumpers on a nightly basis and leading the Blazers to unforeseen heights. Booker is great, and his time will undoubtedly come, but not this year. However, I do project Book to reach All-Star levels off the court. (Look out, ladies.)
Will Brandon Knight be a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year?
KO: He was one of the best fits in the league in terms of his game, minutes available and who else comes off the bench. It all comes down to how he handles the role and if he can put up the type of attractive numbers that grab people’s attention, which is what this award comes down to a lot of the time.
ML: Finalist, yes. He’s going to have the minutes and opportunity to excel against opposing teams’ benches. There’s definitely a bias towards 6MOY winners coming from winning/playoff teams, but he will have to play terribly to not be in the conversation.
JC: Probably not. Contenders for that award are typically on playoff teams and I expect the Suns to be battling for 11th in the Western Conference assuming things don’t go sideways. If he is a finalist I think the Suns will have had to vastly outperform my expectations.
RA: I think he will be in the running as long as he stays focused and positive about his new role as the Suns' sixth man. That's my real concern. He's been a starter for most of his career, is used to playing starter's minutes and being on the court at the end of close games. That last thing might be the most difficult adjustment for him once the regular season starts, sitting on the bench watching Bledsoe and Booker close out those kind of games. I'm sure there will be times when Earl will use all three during crunch time but there are no guarantees.
DK: Assuming he stays with the Suns and stays healthy, I’d say yes. Sounds like Watson really likes the idea of playing lots of guards at once, so I expect Knight will have a big role whether he warms to the off-the-bench idea or not. Sixth Men are almost always guards, and don’t need to shoot a high percentage. Plus, he’s got name recognition.
GA: I’m going to echo Jim’s point here: the 6MOY award almost always goes to a playoff team, and I don’t see us anywhere near that. Now, if we manage to get into the hunt, its a possibility, but it seems unlikely to me.
BK: If Will Barton couldn’t make a real charge for the award in his stellar and surprising breakout last year, I doubt someone whose perception has fallen like Knight’s has will contend in any real way unless his contributions lead to wins. But his role and narrative definitely fit the pattern of quasi-starters who like to chuck emerging atop the ballot.
OS: He will be in the conversation because, well, he already is in the conversation. There is already a narrative out there presenting Knight’s case to stake claim to this award, and that will be a big help. If the Suns are a pleasant surprise, it is easy to envision a scenario where Knight is rewarded for his sacrifice.
Will any of the rookies make the All-Rookie first team or second team?
ML: In the early going, Chriss seems to be making a case for himself. Once the 82-game grind kicks in, it could be another story. If he continues to log heavy minutes, two factors will work against him: the “rookie wall” and opposing defenses actually scheming against him. We saw Devin Booker struggle against both of those factors last season as well. It’s possible we see some more from Bender in the latter half of the season, but I’m not holding my breath.
DK: It sure seems like Marquese Chriss has arrived already, despite being the 4th youngest player in the NBA. He leads the league in rookie scoring, rebounding and committed fouls. With Dudley in front of him, he won’t have to play 30+ minutes which is good because he might he fouled out by then each night anyway. Still, I can see Chriss making an All-Rookie team, and even joining Booker at the Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Weekend.
KO: You’re not going to believe this, but I’m not ready to give up yet on Dragan Bender despite how terrified he has looked in the preseason. With that in mind, he’s never going to put up the type of stats in a limited role to warrant a selection. Chriss, however, could be right around the second-team border for averages and has the highlight plays to stay fresh in voters minds, even if he averages over six fouls a game per 36.
RA: Marquese Chriss definitely has a chance. He may still be raw in some ways but his athleticism and talent paired with the opportunity for playing time he should get this season ought to get him there. If he continues playing the way he has when the regular season starts, this kid should start getting noticed more and more by the press and work his way onto the first or second team.
GA: I actually think both Bender and Chriss have a shot at one of the two All-Rookie teams. Chriss looks more confident right now, but Bender has improved even in the short period of the pre-season. It wouldn’t surprise me if either got to the point of making the All-Rookie teams, but both getting there is unlikely.
BK: Off the top of my head, I would guess that Dario Saric, Brandon Ingram, Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown, and Buddy Hield seem likely to nab spots. Outside of those, there are five spots up for grabs. The Suns’ young bigs will get the minutes to earn a spot on the ballot.
OS: I wish there was a first and second team for coaches. I would peg Earl Watson for a spot on one of those. I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. Also, I’ve been in the minority on the Chriss and Bender debate (I side with Chriss), so I hope this preseason renaissance flows into the season.
Will Alex Len shoot over 45% inside the paint?
ML: I think he has to. At 7-feet 1-inch tall, finishing in the paint successfully is a must. I’ll go out on a limb and say yes because I’ve got faith in this coaching staff to do lots of unlikely things this season. They seem ready to disprove the doubters.
RA: That's a tough one. He's only shooting .346 overall in the preseason and I don't think that he's taken too many shots that are outside of what should be his comfort zone. But then there are times where I'm not certain that he actually has a comfort zone. It's really depends on him becoming more confident and assertive in every game which is something he's going to have to prove to me that he can do. After saying all that, I'm going to vote no on this one. I'm certain that he could do it but I'm not at all certain that he will do it.
BK: Through February of last season, he was sitting around 46%. The end-of-year parlay into power forward-dom was uncomfortable and over-extended Len. Playing a consistent role as backup center should help, as should a return to a minutes load in the twenties. All of that, and he’s still seven feet tall. So he kind of has to, right?
OS: I have a hard time buying that Len will shoot 45% on dunks at this point.
KO: I love this question and I will mirror Owen. His finishing is as inconsistent as ever in his past 30 games, so I find it very hard to buy in, even with a number that low.
DK: Alex almost set an NBA record low in FG% last year for a 7-footer, and the year before he was much better (50%+), so I’m going to cross my fingers, close my eyes and say YES he will shoot better than 45%.
Which player will be the most polarizing this season: Dragan Bender, Archie Goodwin or Brandon Knight?
RA: I'm tempted to go with Goodwin but I'll go with Knight instead because Knight is the one that I believe will have the biggest on the court impact this season. He's going to have to be almost perfect on and off the court to win over his detractors.
GA: Knight for sure. He’s going to be the scapegoat if the team is bad, that seems almost certain. But if the team exceeds expectations and he is playing well, he’ll likely win over some fans. And there are going to be the consistent trade rumors.
KO: I think it will be Bender because of the extremely shaky preseason he had. If he settles in on offense, moving the ball with confidence and hitting open shots, his defense has looked as advertised, despite some of those doubters saying before the draft it was due to his previous league’s players being slower. That’s not the case, and the potential for the defense rises with him getting more minutes.
DK: I will go ahead and say Bender as well. The popular choice is Knight since he will be playing 30 minutes a game. But Bender is just so tantalizing that I’m expecting a mass hysteria over the coach holding him back by not giving him enough minutes. Chriss has already earned the primary rookie big man minutes, so Bender only plays a lot if there’s injuries or trades.
Will Earl Watson frustrate the fan base playing the old guys too many minutes?
DK: No because they won’t win enough games to fool themselves into thinking playoffs once the real games start. I think he will definitely play the old guys - Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa - but not so much that the rookies, Warren, Len and Booker get squeezed. I expect some kind of roster-relief trade to happen a la October 2014 when the Suns traded four guys for a future draft pick (Tyler Ennis, eventually used in the Knight trade). Having said that, if the Suns somehow linger near the .500 mark in November, we might see more old guys than we want.
JC: I don’t think so. It wouldn’t shock me if the starting five after the All-Star break is Len, Chriss, Warren, Booker and Bledsoe. Actually, that would surprise me a little bit because that means Bledsoe would still be healthy over halfway through the season. To a certain extent I think this question could be rephrased as will Ryan McDonough frustrate the fan base by letting Earl Watson play the old guys too many minutes, and I expect that if the team is out of playoff consideration roster moves will be made to prevent this from happening.
KO: It’s tough for me to shut down this question after the preseason because of how much the main guys who have been healthy have played for the Suns besides those who have been injured. This also became a theme at the end of last season, especially for Booker, who was staying in games when the team was down 15+ with less than five or six minutes to go. For me, that’s more indicative of Watson playing his best player until the game is absolutely locked in certainty more than letting the young legs go. I say yes.
RA: No. And I say that because I don't believe that the older guys are either good enough to keep the young guys on the bench or will be able to stay healthy enough to play a lot of minutes throughout the grind of an 82 game season. They are all still good players but I don't believe that Earl will sacrifice the development of the young guys by playing them too much. The only guy that Earl might be tempted to play too much is Tucker once he returns and that would hopefully only happen on nights when he needs strong defense on a certain opposing player.
Which player will be the biggest surprise this season?
RA: Marquese Chriss is the easy answer here because he's already been the biggest surprise for me so far. But I'm going to go in another direction and say that Devin Booker will be the biggest surprise because I think that he's going to take his game to another level this season faster than most people expect him to.
GA: T.J. Warren. T.J. Buckets has looked really, really good so far in the pre-season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he keeps the starting job even after P.J. Tucker returns from injury.
KO: Eric Bledsoe. Anytime I talk about this guy, one of the first things I bring up is that he would have been under All-Star consideration in his two seasons with the knee surgeries because it seems to be hardly brought up. There’s no reason to believe he stays fully healthy, but if he does, everyone will remember how good he is.
DK: Alex Len, because he will finally figure out his role as a defender, shot-blocked and enforcer. And, as I wrote above, I’m about the only one who thinks he will shoot over 45% on dunks!
That’s all we’ve got right now. Next week, we’ll ask some more fun questions as the season is finally about to start!
In the meantime...
What say you, BSotS readers?
What are YOUR answers to those questions?