The cliff is coming. They can only pretend it’s not for so long. No matter how determinedly they fix their gaze on the horizon as they march forward, content in their present stability, eventually there will come that step with nothing beneath their feet, and they will tumble over the edge. That is reality.
The Phoenix Suns have to start Alex Len. They have to move Tyson Chandler to the bench. And they have to do so now.
Len just wrapped up a string of starts in place of the bereaved Chandler and played his best basketball of the young season, averaging 10.2 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks on 56.9-percent shooting from the field. Not only is that a marked improvement over his numbers off the bench this season (7.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 38.6-percent field goal shooting) but it also represents a different Alex Len.
As a starter, Len played within himself. He operated around the basket on offense. He rebounded at a high clip. He defended the basket. He avoided foul trouble. Most importantly, he let the game come to him, with the instances of him pressing few and far between. It was the Len the Suns have been looking for since 2013, but the revelation proved fragile once Chandler returned to the starting lineup for Phoenix’s most recent game against the Denver Nuggets.
In the 1st half of that game, Len came off the bench and had a plus/minus of -13 for his trouble. He fumbled the ball, missed shots, and generally reverted back to the awkward player who cannot assert himself. Coach Earl Watson chose to have Len replace Marquese Chriss to begin the 3rd quarter, and Len transformed, finishing the 2nd half with a plus/minus of +16.
Plus/minus is a notoriously finicky stat to make judgments by, but anyone who saw the game cannot deny Len looked like a different player in the 2nd half. So what was the secret? Well, chalk it up as speculation if you must, but it’s hard to look past the spike in his play when he was no longer looking over his shoulder. Chandler was playing alongside him. Chriss was in Watson’s doghouse. Dragan Bender and Alan Williams weren’t much threat to take his minutes. And Watson had already moved away from a small lineup in that game. In other words, Len was ensconced in the lineup, and that knowledge seemed to resonate in his play — just as it did in Chandler’s absence.
For Len’s part, he sounded as though coming off the bench when Chandler returned was no big deal, telling azcentral’s Paul Coro, “Starting was a great experience to get myself in the flow and rhythm. Even if I go back to the bench, I’ll be fine.” Fine, maybe. But fine isn’t good enough, not when everyone saw he can be more.
Len remains something of an enigma. Despite his up-and-down nature, he has always been loaded with potential, and that potential seems closer to the surface than ever before. As of Nov. 27, Len ranked 20th in the NBA in rebounds per game (8.4), 16th in blocks per game (1.6), 9th in defensive rebound percentage (28.4), 16th in total rebound percentage (18.9), and 7th in block percentage (5.1) — and that is all with him still trying to figure out how to resemble a basketball player half the time.
With the added consideration of Len’s impending free agency, the Suns need to figure out if their young center’s strong play as the starter was just another transitory flirtation with success or a legitimate breakthrough. It’s a potential 80-million-dollar question, and Phoenix cannot afford to get it wrong. There can be no cheating to get the answer, either. No twin tower lineups like last season. Len has to start over Chandler, but more than that, Len has to believe he is the main center. It can’t be a grey area. There can be no wiggle room, no equal distribution of minutes. If Len believes he is on a short leash, the experiment will fail.
This move is a necessary one but would have been made so much easier had Len simply surpassed Chandler. He hasn’t. At best, he has pulled even with the veteran, and it is unfair to force Chandler to the bench when his replacement hasn’t proved more suited to the task.
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.
That’s the cliff, and it’s coming. No matter what he has preached in the past about earning your time, circumstances require that message be adjusted. Chandler is 34 years old and not getting any younger. He likely has two years left max in Phoenix before he rides off into the sunset. He does not fit the timeline, and for as good as he has been, it is not pragmatic to prioritize his present happiness over the long-term future of the team.
According to Watson himself, Chandler had opportunities to be traded elsewhere over the summer. The two met in LA, talked for a while, and parted ways with Chandler himself saying, “Man, I love you. I love the vision. I love the young guys. I don’t want to go anywhere.”
One would assume that conversation included the impending youth movement and the ramifications it would have on the veterans. If so, Chandler’s words are encouraging, sounding of a man who sees the big picture and is willing to take a back seat to put the team above himself. If Watson deflected that talk, however, allowing veterans like Chandler to believe in a reality that Watson had to know didn’t exist, then the onus falls on him to set the record straight, no matter how uncomfortable the talk.
Is it fair for Chandler to lose his role to someone who hasn’t proven to be better than him? No, of course not. Was it fair that Steve Nash and Grant Hill weren’t permitted to finish their careers in purple and orange? Was it fair to have Goran Dragic playing a position he didn’t sign up for? Was it fair to break up the Morris twins after they agreed to their wink-wink contract discount?
The NBA doesn’t operate on fairness. It’s no utopia; it’s a business, and a cutthroat one at that. The Suns franchise has no obligation to Chandler outside of making sure the paychecks clear.
The Suns’ only obligation is to do what’s best for the team, and what’s best for the team now is to look to the future. Of Chandler and Len, only one has a chance to feature prominently in that future. The time is now to begin determining how much of a chance.