My how the Phoenix Suns season has devolved, in terms of playing rotations. You all know that the Suns started off the season as a decent team but thanks to injuries and poor play they have devolved into one of the worst teams in NBA and franchise history.
Despite their three wins in the past five games, the Suns are still just 17-46 with sizzling 2-28 stretch buried in the middle. Remember when Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren were all healthy and Markieff Morris was still roaming the halls?
Sure, they Suns looked better over the past week with young guns Devin Booker and Alex Len playing like strong building blocks for the future. But the Suns team we see on the floor these days looks very little like the team we saw in November.
Let's take a walk back through time.
October 28 - November 29: 8 wins, 9 losses
Remember when the Suns had playoff aspirations? Those realistic thoughts ended - or should have ended - as early as late November. After starting the season 7-5 against relatively easy competition, the Suns lost four straight, including two to the previously almost-winless New Orleans Pelicans.
But the Suns were competitive and healthy, so hope sprung strong. Look at the minutes distribution that month.
Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe were by far the team's best players. Bledsoe put up 22 points per game with 6.3 assists that month while Brandon Knight had 21 points per game and 5.5 assists. T.J. Warren and Markieff Morris were the Suns' third leading scorers with 12.7 points per game each.
The signs of struggle were already there though. Morris was playing terribly and many, including himself, were counting the days until he could be traded. The Suns lost on opening night 3000 points to a decidedly middling Dallas team, and couldn't beat Marcus' Pistons two weeks later.
Their other losses were predictable, except for those Pellies losses, but before November ended they already showed how paper thin the rotation quality was when Chandler and Bledsoe each missed a game or two.
December 1 - December 31: 4 wins, 14 losses
Boom, the lug nuts started popping off. It wasn't even a gradual thing.
The Suns lost four straight winnable games to the lowly Nets, and middling Pistons, Wizards and Grizzlies. Remember that road trip? The four losses were by 3, 5 (OT), 3 and 2 points. Suddenly, the Suns couldn't close out games again. Coaches and players were at a loss, shellshocked.
The Suns then recovered by a small bit, winning 4 of their next 7 games, but that was just a very short recovery. The month ended with 7 straight losses, punctuated by Eric Bledsoe's season-ending knee injury right in the middle of it. The late-month debacle included the humiliating loss to the otherwise humiliated 1-30 Sixers with Jerry Colangelo, Mike D'Antoni and Ish Smith laughing all the way home.
Let's take a look at the rotation in December.
You can see that Markieff Morris started sitting out games while everyone waited for the cleansing trade that never came. Hornacek tried to make up for it by playing Jon Leuer, but the results were no good. Tyson Chandler missed half the month with a hammy injury, coinciding with the beginning of the Suns slide.
Knight and Bledsoe's shooting started going in the tank. Knight shot only 40% for the month (28% on threes) while Bledsoe was hardly better at 43/33. After those two, and with Morris on the bench, the Suns had basically no firepower. Devin Booker was inserted into the starting lineup when Bledsoe went down.
January 1 - January 30: 2 wins, 12 losses
Off the rails.
The Suns went 1-6 with Knight in the lineup, and 1-6 without him. Missing Eric Bledsoe and still dealing with the ticking time bomb of the Morris situation was too much for the fragile team to handle.
Worse than losing was HOW the Suns lost games in January. Giving up 142 points to the Kings terribly inefficient offense. Scoring only 22 first-half points against Lakers' league-worst defense. Losing badly to Dragic, Green and Amare. Losing badly to Isaiah's Celtics. Losing again to Ish Smith's Sixers.
Here's the rotation Hornacek - without his top assistants - had to work with.
The first thing that sticks out is that only Booker, Tucker and Chandler played every game in January, either due to DNP-CDs or injury.
The kids started playing a lot - Booker, Warren and Goodwin all started getting bigger minutes - and the scoreboard results predictably got worse. This is of course where Devin Booker began showing everyone he might have been drafted too low, and Archie Goodwin began showing he could legitimately play in a rotation (but he's not a point guard). Then Warren suffered a broken foot.
Hornacek relied on P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler to provide the veteran savvy and winning attitude, but frankly those guys are not going to win you games. Chandler has lost about 5 steps and P.J. Tucker - while a great hustler - just isn't going to carry your team.
Sonny Weems provided nothing off the bench. Lorenzo Brown, Bryce Cotton and Jordan McRae came out of the D-League to play backup at guard, but didn't provide much (as is to be expected).
You'll notice how different the roster looks at the end of January than it did just two months prior. No Bledsoe. No Knight. No Warren. They just happened to be the team's top three scorers in November.
Coach Jeff Hornacek was finally relieved of his duties after a 4-game road trip full of bad losses.
February 2 - February 27: 1 win, 9 losses
Enter Earl Watson, interim coach.
The month began with Earl pointedly showcasing Markieff Morris for a trade and giving even more minutes to the team's youngest players. Booker and Goodwin continued to get big minutes, while Alex Len was finally freed after the trade deadline to play 30+ minutes a game too.
The Suns scorers in February, after the Morris trade, were Archie Goodwin, Devin Booker and Alex Len being topped only by sniper Mirza Teletovic. It's a damn shame that scoring maven T.J. Warren broke his foot and couldn't join the kiddie parade.
You'll notice all of these scorers began the season coming off the bench. And for good reason.
First Markieff Morris and then Devin Booker were named the team's top scoring options. Morris handled it well until he was traded, but Booker started missing a lot more shots. Especially after the trade deadline when he was the team's ONLY real scoring option. He also likely hit the rookie wall around this time, especially after his emotional stint at All-Star weekend.
A look at this roster shows just how thin the Suns were this season with usable, winning parts off the bench in case of injury. Although, I'm not sure how many teams could survive long-term injuries to all three top scorers with a fourth being in the doghouse all season.
March: 2 wins, 2 losses so far
The Suns may have already hit rock bottom and are now bouncing back. Counting their February-ending win, the Suns have won three of their past five games.
They are bouncing back with a very different set of key players and coaches than the ones that started the season. Gone are November's top scorers, Bledsoe, Knight, Warren and Morris. In are Teletovic, Booker, Len and Goodwin. And that's by design, given the injuries that have taken place.
The right players are playing well, and the future is looking brighter. They are marching toward the finish line of the season prepped to give their youngest players bigger minutes, and supporting them with old-guard effort and hustle guys in Chandler, Tucker and Price, along with Mirza Teletovic's shooting.
You might notice the extreme age difference among players in the primary rotation. All are either 22 and under, or 30 and over. There's no middle ground among the top seven minutes-getters.
You might also notice that P.J. Tucker is getting worn out - having led the team in minutes since December after Bledsoe went down. The Suns don't have any other small forwards, so Chase Budinger, 27 years old, is being signed to replace Sonny Weems and give the Suns a few minutes off the bench to spell Tucker.
I expect Chase Budinger to be in uniform with the Suns on Wednesday if/when he clears waivers— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) March 5, 2016
But regardless of Budinger and Tucker sharing minutes, or Jon Leuer being pushed even further down the bench, the Suns are focusing on their young guys from here on out.
Booker and Len, in particular, are looking like big huge building blocks for the future. Archie is still trying to find his way, and that way will be even further blocked when Brandon Knight returns later this month.
In his last 10 games, Alex Len is averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds per game - punctuated by a 31/15 game on Friday that's the first of its kind among Phoenix Suns since Amare Stoudemire in 2008.
After Sunday's win over Memphis, Len now has the Suns first run of five consecutive double-doubles in points and rebounds since Marcin Gortat in spring of 2012. And no Phoenix Sun has had 5+ double-doubles at the tender age of 22 since Shawn Marion had 11 straight in November of 2000.
Devin Booker, while his shooting is up and down, is placing himself firmly among the best Suns rookies of all time. His 34 points on Thursday night made him one of only a handful of NBA players ever to post more than one 32+ point game as a teenager. And then his 27 points and 9 assists on Sunday was a first for a Suns rookie since Michael Finley did it 20 years ago. That 27/9 game as a teen puts Booker in a small handful of NBA players ever to post that line as a teenager.
Let's hope Archie finds his niche too, and that Len and Booker find consistency over this last month of the season.
That's all that matters from here on out.