Coming into the 2016-17 season, the Phoenix Suns will be equipped to run in any direction they choose. They could try to fight for a playoff position with a veteran lineup, or they could boldly go young and let the wins and losses fall where they may.
The front office, coaching staff and players are most certainly just as divided as the fans.
Suns head coach Earl Watson has to balance the desires of his professional athletes and innate competitiveness to win today against a player development mantra that focuses on 2017 and 2018 as the years to win.
The Suns have several NBA veterans on the roster, most of them with playoff experience. Tyson Chandler (34 years old), Jared Dudley (31), P.J. Tucker (31), Eric Bledsoe (27) and Brandon Knight (24) all have been in the league for five-plus seasons and all started most of their games last year.
The Suns also have nine - NINE! - players 24 years old or younger: Knight (24), Alan Williams (23), Alex Len (23), T.J. Warren (almost 23), Archie Goodwin (22), Tyler Ulis (20), Devin Booker (19), Marquese Chriss (19) and Dragan Bender (18).
Do you go super-young or super-old with your starting lineup in 2016-17?
Before going any further, let’s get this out of the way: we are only discussing a shuffle of deck chairs on the Titanic. No matter what lineup the Suns put on the floor, their ceiling is very likely only 30-35 wins this season.
The CBSSports.com guys predicted and ranked each team’s starting lineups and benches against the rest of the league. The Suns came in 26th in both rankings. You could quibble with the actual lineups - just as I’m about to do here - but the talent level on this team is the talent level no matter who plays with who.
Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler
Dudley was signed to hold the fort at power forward until one of Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss outplays him on a consistent basis in competitive NBA games. So he’s your opening night PF.
On offense, the shooting trio of Dudley, Tucker and Knight can force the D to guard all along the three-point line, opening up the middle for Chandler and Bledsoe to wreak havoc. And when Bledsoe is doubled, Knight can run some plays as well.
On defense, Chandler can guard the rim while Dudley and Tucker guard the perimeter and trade off defending the post while Bledsoe disrupts the opponents’ best guard.
All in all, assuming good health, this lineup will likely be close to a net 0 on the scoreboard. Maybe, if you dream big enough, they can even be a positive.
But then, if that’s your starting lineup, you’re stuck playing kids the rest of the way. A bench lineup of Len, Warren, Booker, Chriss, Ulis and Bender in the second and fourth quarters has tons of talent and potential, but would get rick-rolled on the regular.
If this is coach Watson’s regular starting unit and bench, that’s a real problem and a recipe for marginal success wasting a lost opportunity.
Bledsoe, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Chriss/Bender, Alex Len
Save yourself a scroll-and-rant. There’s no way in the real world that any coach benches Bledsoe for Tyler Ulis in the starting lineup. So Bledsoe stays no matter what.
But I could definitely envision a training camp and preseason that convinces the coach to do what Jason Kidd did in Milwaukee two seasons ago. The Bucks rolled out a starting lineup loaded with youth, and had the vets come off the bench to steady the ship. This method earned them a winning record in the process (though that was quite short-lived, crashing and burning when they traded Brandon Knight for MCW).
Here, I could see the Suns committing to go young at the tip, with Knight, Tucker, Dudley and Chandler ready to step in for under-performers.
We know that Len, Warren, Booker and Bledsoe won’t get overwhelmed in a starting lineup, but who knows what Bender and Chriss would do with minutes against the league’s very best power forwards.
This extra young starting lineup is unlikely to produce a net-positive, but proper use of the bench could keep everyone sane as the kids develop.
Bledsoe, Booker, Tucker, Dudley, Len
This starting lineup is, in my opinion, the best combination of youth and veterans on opening night.
Booker needs to be in the starting lineup, and he needs Tucker and Bledsoe flanking him to cover for any teenage mistakes and poor defense.
Alex Len needs to be the starter at center, with a clear expectation to stay within himself: rebound, protect the rim, finish at the basket. Nothing fancy. Just hard work and toughness.
Tucker and Dudley could be supplanted in the starting lineup later in the year when they are outplayed by Warren, Chriss and Bender, but having them out their at the tip would prevent consistent 10-15 point first quarter deficits.
With that lineup, the bench has a good mix as well. Knight and Warren would headline the second unit with Chriss, Bender, Ulis, Williams and Chandler available for big or short minutes as needed.
Shuffling deck chairs
No matter what the actual lineups are, this is not a very good Suns team for 2016-17. Earl Watson’s rotations are simply an exercise in shuffling the deck chairs.
Could the Suns surprise everyone and win 40+ games? Sure, it could happen.
Could they disappoint their fans and go 2-28 at one point? Sure, that could happen too.
The real goal needs to be player development. We need to know by the end of the season if Booker really does have All-Star games and Team USA appearances in his future. We need to know if T.J. Warren can be more than a prolific scorer off the bench. We need to know if Alex Len is worth the $18 million per year he will be given in free agency next summer. We need to know if one or both of Chriss and Bender are All-Star caliber some day.
You will get frustrated with Watson’s rotations, no doubt. But as long as those questions are answered by the end of the year, we should consider this season a success.
If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know yet’ to most of those questions, the Suns will have lost a ton of games and happily draft in the Top 5 of one of the best drafts in a decade.
If the answer is ‘yes’ to most of those questions, it doesn’t matter where the Suns draft next year because they will already have young future All-Stars on the roster.
We might experience a painful season. But at least we will get some answers.