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Phoenix Suns teenager-heavy rotation crystalizes as opening night approaches

The young Phoenix Suns now have a more balanced rotation after the release of Archie Goodwin.

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Based on what we saw in last Friday’s preseason game against the Lakers, since that’s all we’ve seen of the Suns in the past week and a half, it appears that Earl Watson is sticking with his rotation plans.

“I don’t know if it will be platoon at times. Depending on how the game flows, it really can’t be a solid 10,” Watson said two weeks ago regular season rotation depth. “That 10th guy flows here and there. Whoever that guy is, will play itself out.”

The Suns roster, until yesterday, rolled 16 deep. So deep, in fact, Watson couldn’t even play all 16 in a preseason game when the score didn’t matter.

So it’s no wonder that a coach with a penchant for transparency and early decisions broke the news already he won’t go much past 10 players a night.

The Archie waiver

We all should have seen this coming.

Sure, I’d hoped for a trade that would net an asset in return for Archie Goodwin (my roundtable prediction!), it was painfully obvious in preseason that (a) Goodwin would be no better than 6th in the guard rotation this year and (b) Archie would have really bristled at that reality.

The maths tell us the Suns picked Derrick Jones Jr. and John Jenkins over Archie Goodwin, as if the Suns decided those players were somehow more talented than Archie. But reality is that none of those three players would see the court, barring catastrophe, this season. And of those three players, Archie would be the one most irked by that development.

Remember the 2013-14 season? That was the last time the end of bench guys were just happy to have a job. Dionte Christmas and Ish Smith made the team because the Suns at the last second shipped out Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall, who were expecting rotation minutes but facing the same situation Archie faced this week. Dionte and Ish were the team’s best cheerleaders and a fresh presence in the locker room.

Now the Suns did it again. None of Jones, Jenkins or Alan “Big Sauce” Williams (basically filling Slava’s last big guy role) will grumble about playing time this season because they’re just happy to be in the NBA. They will cheer on the team from the bench, and help build a harmonious locker room.

I wish the best of luck to Archie Goodwin going forward. Archie always meant well, worked hard, and really wanted to succeed in the NBA. I hope he develops a real jumper and/or some other skill to supplement his bulldog drives to the rim.

But like Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall back in 2013, everyone is better off with Archie moving on.

The first seven

Watson said that he envisions a 10-man rotation. But only seven of the guys on the roster are guaranteed to hear their name called on Wednesday night.

Those seven are:

  • PG Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight
  • SG Devin Booker
  • SF T.J. Warren
  • PF Jared Dudley
  • C Tyson Chandler, Alex Len

At least to start the season, both Len and Chandler will play nearly all the center minutes. Last Friday, those two played 47 of the available 48 minutes in the pivot and both nearly posted their own double-double. Chandler had 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Alex Len had 16 points and 9 rebounds.

That’s 20 rebounds in 47 center minutes.

Compare that to a combined total of 16 rebounds in 89 minutes from the primary forwards (T.J. Warren, Jared Dudley, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender).

Of those four, the only forwards 100% guaranteed to play every night are Jared Dudley and T.J. Warren, as Chriss and Bender are both still just learning the NBA game and P.J. Tucker is (at the moment) still recovering from his back surgery.

In the back court, Watson said that while the front line will be two-deep across those three positions, the guard rotation will almost fully be dedicated to three players: Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.

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

Brandon Knight has accepted his role as Sixth Man with ultimate professionalism this fall, and now with the rotation at hand it’s clear the Suns really do want Knight to play starters minutes.

Watson also wants to play all three guards together at times, and he’s done that for 3-4 minute stretches in each of the games all three have been available this preseason.

8th and 9th

While Watson said that the 10th player in the rotation might be a platoon depending on the game flow, I think even the 8th and 9th players could be a platoon as well.

It’s important to realize that going any further than 10 players in a single game is really difficult for a coach to manage, allowing for garbage time and/or foul issues.

So holding the discussion to 10 with impactful roles on a given night, the 8th and 9th spots appear to belong to P.J. Tucker and Marquese Chriss.

The Suns expect to clear Tucker to play in the regular season opener, and you know he will get minutes. There’s no way Tucker can ride the bench to start the season just so Dragan Bender gets more than 10 minutes of playing time.

Now depending on how Tucker and Bender are playing, or how the game is developing (i.e. 20-point deficits would favor playing Bender over Tucker, for example), their minutes might vacillate, but Tucker will get the majority of minutes.

At backup power forward, high flying teenager Marquese Chriss looks like the clear favorite to play as many minutes as he can handle behind Jared Dudley. Expect to see Chriss sub in for Dudley with about 4-6 minutes left in the first quarter each night. If he doesn’t pick up a pair of quick fouls, he might get more time than JD. But this is where we can appreciate Dudley and Tucker’s versatility to play either forward spots any number of minutes to cover for the good and bad nights from kids Chriss and Bender. Last Friday night, Dudley played 28 minutes versus Chriss’ 16 minutes because Chriss picked up 3 fouls in something like 5 seconds of playing time.

10th man

Of course on any night, Watson could play 10-15 guys. But those extra minutes won’t be guaranteed and won’t be consistent.

My guess on the 10th spot is that Watson, as mentioned above, will use a platoon that rotates depending on foul issues and matchups.

That 10th man could be either of Leandro Barbosa as the 4th guard or Dragan Bender as the 7th big man.

You’d think Barbosa would have the best chance to grab the 10th-man minutes, given he’s 4th on the guard depth chart.

But there’s also Dragan Bender who deserves minutes. While he’s a mess offensively, he’d been a surprisingly effective defender in space and a good weak-side shot blocker. Watson wants to play Bender fairly often, but the playing time will depend on a zillion in-the-moment factors.

The only way Bender gets into every game this season would be due to injury or trade to one of the bigs ahead of him. Bender could fill in at all three front court positions on a spot basis, so really he IS the “swiss army knife” backup, much like Earl Watford has been for the AZ Cardinals. He just needs an opportunity.

Odd men out

We’ve already listed 11 players on the “almost certain to play unless injured” list for a 10-man rotation.

Unless the team suffers multiple injuries or trades a number of players, there’s just no room for consistent minutes on this team if your name is Tyler Ulis, John Jenkins, Derrick Jones Jr. or Alan Williams.

None of those four played at all in Friday night’s tuneup against the Lakers.

Of those four players, it’s clear that Derrick Jones Jr. will spend a lot of time driving up and down I-17 this season to alternate playing for the D-League NAZ Suns and suiting up (literally, wearing a suit) for Suns games.

Ulis and Williams might hit the D-League on occasion too, but are also quite likely get into every other Suns game for spot minutes as the need arises.

John Jenkins is now your “in case of emergency” guard in case any two of Knight, Booker and Barbosa pull up lame.

Four Teenagers

McDonough sure likes ‘em young!

I did some digging this summer and could not find ANY teams in the last 30+ years of stats on that had played more than two teenagers in the same NBA game.

Now with Derrick Jones Jr., the Suns have FOUR teenagers on the roster for opening night with three of them expected to play. And even after Devin Booker turns 20 this weekend, the Suns will still have three teens (Bender, Chriss and Jones) until mid-February when Jones turns 20.

Final Word

The roster now seems a bit more balanced with Goodwin out of the picture.

There’s a clear Top 11 that includes six players 24-and-under, plus a bevy of youth to fill in when injuries or trades hit.

Meet your 2016-17 Phoenix Suns!

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