The Phoenix Suns are going nowhere fast, at 5-13 with one of the easier schedules in the league despite playing 11 of their first 18 on the road. They own the league’s 26th best offense and 22nd best defense, per basketball-reference.com’s formula.
Their 13th loss came on Sunday to the Denver Nuggets, 114-120, after allowing the Nuggets to start the first and second quarters a combined 25-0. In the first quarter, the starters got down 11-0 before scoring. In the second quarter, the bench unit gave up a 14-0 run before any Suns player scored.
Suns coach Watson already sounds incredibly frustrated with the losses.
“It’s just maturity, it’s aggressiveness, it’s physicality,” Watson said after the Nuggets loss. “Our young guys just didn’t have it. There’s nothing wrong against them. It just takes time for young guys to get stronger in the paint.”
Rookie Dragan Bender saw the Suns get outscored by 10 points in his 14 minutes on Sunday, mostly in the second quarter. Rookie Tyler Ulis was a -14 in only 4 minutes, all second quarter. And rookie Marquese Chriss was a -15 in only 10 minutes. Stretches like that get you benched, especially when your resume is only 18 games long.
Veterans Brandon Knight and Leandro Barbosa each posted -19s on the night. Knight’s big negative stretched over 17 minutes, while Barbosa collected his in just 8 minutes.
Conversely, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler all posted +10 to +14 for the game even after starting the game in a -11 hole. There’s a reason those guys all got 36 or more minutes. Reserve Alex Len ended up with +3 playing a lot of second half minutes with the aforementioned.
“We came out the second half and played like we are supposed to play,” Bledsoe said.
“At half-time we decided let’s not give it another chance,” Watson of the quarter-opening duds. “Let’s go a different direction for the rest of the game and see what happens. That gives you more clarity about what’s the next step forward.”
Watson has made it clear he won’t play young guys who don’t play with aggressiveness every minute they are out there.
P.J. Tucker posted his first 20 point game of the season while also grabbing 8 rebounds. Eric Bledsoe scored a season-high 35 points while dishing 6 assists and grabbing 6 rebounds. No Suns player in 16 years, since Jason Kidd in 2000, has posted at least 15/5/5 in 5+ consecutive games. Devin Booker scored 30 points, his 10th 30-point game of his young career. Tyson Chandler had a double double, including 15 rebounds, while Alex Len had 10 rebounds of his own.
Everyone else was terrible on Sunday, and Watson let them know it.
“Our guys that played long minutes played aggressively,” Watson said.
Rookie Marquese Chriss (19 years old) was rewarded with a starting spot earlier this season for his aggressiveness and consistent motor, but seems to have lost his focus in recent games going up against starting power forwards around the league.
On Sunday, Chriss was badly outplayed by hustle-meister Kenneth Faried in the opening minutes of the game. Chriss racked up five fouls in only ten minutes of first half play, contributing to the Suns’ 15-point deficit in his minutes on the court.
To make matters worse, Chriss even gave the Nuggets a point when he wasn’t even in the game. Chriss drew a technical foul from the bench in the second quarter.
“You can’t stick up for yourself on the bench,” Watson said of Chriss technical. “And, bench Ts put you on the bench in the second half, so it’s an accountable moment.”
Hmmm.... a coach that doesn’t want his players hurting their chances of winning games by drawing technical fouls for complaining about other foul calls. Where have we seen this one before?
“He’ll learn,” Watson said of Chriss. “He knows I love him. He’ll learn. He’ll move forward. Some aggressive accountability tonight, transparency. The greatest sin of any coach is to lie to a player. The greatest sin ever. Can’t lie to players. Sometime love is honest, and it’s brutal.“
Watson is in the beginning stages of the biggest test of his young coaching career.
It’s one thing to step in for the prior coach (you know, the one who basically lost his team when he tried to bench guys for drawing Ts) as the guy the players can trust and who will have their backs.
It’s quite another to have to be the bad guy when those players don’t do their job, and to be the bad guy when the “wrong” players actually DO their job.
It won’t be difficult for Watson to keep Chriss in line, given that Chriss is a good-natured, impressionable rookie. Almost certainly, Chriss won’t hold a grudge against Watson for being benched for aggressiveness that happened to draw a T.
But what happens when it’s P.J. Tucker drawing that T for arguing? Or Devin Booker? We all know Tyson Chandler earns Ts on occasion. Will he be benched too? Or is the rule limited to Ts drawn while on the bench after playing poorly anyway? Or is the rule only limited to rookies who need to learn the right way to play?
But that’s not Watson’s biggest challenge this season.
Even more than being the bad guy on benching players for drawing silly Ts or playing without energy, Watson has to keep these guys on the same “love” page even while they realize more and more that Watson is a rookie himself and probably not putting the team in the best position to win games every night.
Watson wants the players to rally around teamwork and a collective desire to play hard and win games. Every coach wants that. But every coach eventually gets himself fired because one or more of those things fails miserably.
“For me, I’ve got to get better,” Watson said of the 5-13 record. “Accountability falls back on me one hundred percent. Regardless if we’re young, regardless of what the situation is. And, I’m fine with that. It is what it is. Another opportunity to continue to keep building in the details.”
Watson’s basically been given a pass on winning this year, but he’ll be in trouble if he can’t keep the locker room in harmony while they lose 60 of 82 games.
So far, the guys are all on the same page. Watson’s challenge is to keep it that way, AND show the young players how important it is to work hard every single day AND show the veteran players that if they play they way Watson wants they will get commensurate minutes.
How do you bench P.J. Tucker in the name of “youth movement” if he’s playing exactly as hard as Watson wants the kids to play? Or Tyson Chandler? Or Jared Dudley? Benching those guys would make Watson a liar in that respect, which would eventually erode the entire team’s trust in him.
Watson is learning on the job. He can’t afford to lose the one thing he’s got in spades: trust.