When Earl Watson took over the dumpster fire in the desert, no one expected him to be able to douse the flames. All we hoped was for him to bring fresh energy to fight, just as incumbent Jeff Hornacek and GM Ryan McDonough were melting away.
Watson's spends his time with the media talking about the big picture.
"It's not really physical with our team," Watson said after a recent game. "It's more mental and mental toughness is a fragile, unique path that you have to take. I think for our team we have to build it slowly, build it with love, and nurturing because we have been through a lot this year."
He talks about how he wants the players to buy into the "program" of playing the right way and for each other and for the coaches and for the team and for the community more than playing for themselves. He talks about the players becoming a part of the valley, how fans are an extension of their family rather than ticket holders.
That all sounded a bit like empty platitudes when the Suns went 0-9 in February with no real hint of making any progress. But Watson was definitely changing the team's culture. The players were no longer pointing fingers outward. They began talking in more inclusive tones and about collective growth toward the future.
Lo and behold, a month after taking over the team, it appears that Earl Watson is somewhat dousing the fire. And if he keeps on this path, he might just have saved GM Ryan McDonough's job, who in turn may be honor-bound to save Earl's.
The Phoenix Suns have suddenly won three of their last five games, including two against a Memphis Grizzlies team that's fighting for home court advantage in the playoffs next month and another against an Orlando Magic team still fighting to sneak in.
It's not just that they are winning games, though. At 17-46 with one of the worst records in the league and only a month left in the season, no one wants them to win games by hook or by crook. They didn't ask Earl to scrape together wins. They wanted him to bring some life back to the Suns future.
It's HOW they are winning that's exciting. The backbone of the team is now the two youngest, highest-ceiling players: 22-year old Alex Len and 19-year old Devin Booker.
It's Booker and Len getting the most minutes on the team. It's Booker and Len through whom the offense flows most of the time. It's Booker and Len building their confidence and figuring out how to win matchups at the NBA level. Even 21-year old Archie Goodwin is providing solid minutes off the bench from a number of positions.
It's not like the Suns are winning behind Tyson Chandler's 31 points and 15 rebounds, or Ronnie Price's 27 points and 9 assists. What's happening this spring is exactly what needs to happen to allow the Phoenix to rise from the ashes.
Fans can easily see Booker and Len in a winning Suns lineup for a decade to come. We can see that each is just scratching the surface of their potential, and that their ceiling is more reachable than we thought probable a few months ago.
Before assisting in the rise of Alex Len, Watson propped up the outgoing Markieff Morris.
Morris was unleashed before being traded to Washington, and he responded with such good stats for two weeks that he garnered a potential lottery pick in return. A lottery pick that can further add to a rebuild.
Now, thanks to Watson playing the right cards so far, the Suns are still in line for a Top-3 draft pick AND a late lottery pick, to add to a suddenly realistic core built around the future Devin Booker and Alex Len.
No longer is McDonough forced to enhance the team through mid-and-late career free agent signings, or to keep looking for that superstar to be suddenly available via trade.
Watson is ripening the fruit of McDonough's past drafts. Len (2013) and Booker (2015) are showing they can be long-term building blocks and not just complementary pieces, if developed properly. Just a couple months ago, T.J. Warren (2014) looked like a better prospect than Len, before suffering a fractured foot at the end of January to end his season. Warren a highly talented offensive player who has added a three-point shot, but still needs to develop defensive consistency. My guess is he'd be thriving in a developmental environment like this one right now. I hate that he got hurt.
Add in a Top-3 (or so) pick this June, and McD and Watson might just be rolling out all those draft picks as the backbone of a winning team in the near future.
Leading that team will likely be McD's prize acquisition, Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is a rare two-way talent that appears on paper to be a perfect compliment to Devin Booker. Bledsoe can dish a little, and would provide the muscle and tenacity to defend the perimeter without having to absolutely carry the offense as he's done in the past.
With Bledsoe, Booker, Len and the top draft pick in the starting lineup, and Warren and the late lottery pick (and maybe even Bogdanovic) coming off the bench, the Suns have the makings of a strong team with a strong future.
Not done yet
After turning Markieff Morris into a desired trade target, and propping up the confidence of Alex Len, Archie Goodwin and Devin Booker so far, Watson's next project has me chomping at the bit.
Now that Booker has taken hold of the starting shooting guard position for the next decade or two, and with the return of Bledsoe looming next year, we all wonder what's going to become of big-salaried Brandon Knight.
Knight (strained groin) plans to return to practice this week, which means he should be able to participate in the final month or so of games. He will be handed the starting point guard spot for the rest of the season, with a chance to prove himself as a PG of the future. He's still just 24 years old, and has a wealth of untapped talent.
Can Watson get Knight to buy into the team-oriented concept like he has the rest of the team? Will that buy-in translate to the court, where Knight will have a chance to share the ball and be a complimentary piece to the puzzle? Will fans start rooting for Knight to succeed in the same way they root for Booker and Len?
The perfect ending to this Suns season would be for Watson to tap successfully into Knight's immense potential the way he has Morris, Len, Booker and even Goodwin so far.
If Knight can be better in this last month than he showed earlier in the season, the Suns will be in better shape this summer as they continue their rebuild for the future.