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Phoenix Suns Season Preview: Training Camp Style

Identifying the big changes this season for the Phoenix Suns, and answering some pressing questions about their potential

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Team Name: Phoenix Suns

Last Year's Record: 23-59

Key Losses: Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price

Key Additions: Dragan Bender (R), Marquese Chriss (R), Tyler Ulis (R), Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

After trying and failing to lure LeBron James and LaMarcus Aldridge in successive off seasons, the Suns did not target any top-level free agents this July. They instead focused on getting the most out of the NBA Draft and, having succeeding there, used free agency to sign placeholders and locker-room good guys Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa, who were teammates on the last Suns playoff team in 2010.

The biggest move the Suns made in the off season was to trade up in the first round of the Draft, parlaying several extra picks into a second Top-8 selection Marquese Chriss to pair with Dragan Bender in an attempt to speed up the rebuilding process. The Suns then may have lucked into a second round gem in Tyler Ulis, whose biggest NBA obstacle is being undersized.

The downside of the power moves is that both Bender and Chriss profile best at power forward, though the Suns think their skills are complementary enough to co-exist. Couple the PF logjam with the perennial point guard logjam and the Suns roster is still a mishmash of duplicative talent.

The other significant move made in the off season is the return to health of three of their top scorers, who each missed nearly half the season due to injury. Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren missed 51, 31 and 35 games, respectively.

“We're a young team again,” Knight said this summer. “We had a lot of injuries last year. We're trying to find a way to stabilize ourselves and build with the roster that we have."

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Most would point to the Suns’ (over)loaded back court of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker as the team’s biggest strength.

But an equally important strength for this team is low expectations, making it less likely to massively disappoint its fan base for the third straight year. Despite the players and coaches promising they are “tired of going home in April”, nothing about this team looks like a playoff team. Only the Sixers and Lakers project to win fewer games than this Suns team, so the vast majority of potential outcomes point upward from the bottom.

Led by fledgling coach Earl Watson (armed with three-year contract), the Suns have the opportunity to embrace the ‘process’ of developing young players rather than playing for wins. A coach can be tempted to play his reliable veterans to improve the team’s win chances, but this team is much better served letting the young players show whether they can someday be stars. It’s a blessing in disguise that P.J. Tucker might miss a few weeks of the season with a back issue, removing one of those trusted veterans from Watson’s holster.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

The biggest weakness on this Suns team has not changed since Steve Nash’s talent and health faded: this team lacks a star player or two or three. Even the 48-win team of 2013-14 was led by unsustainable overachievement.

Unfortunately, the Suns highest picks in 30 years have come in the worst drafts. The 2013 Draft lacked top-end talent, and the 2016 Draft lacked star power as well. From those drafts, the Suns have Alex Len (#5, 2013), Dragan Bender (#4, 2016) and Marquese Chriss (#8, 2016). None of them profile as sure-fire All-Stars. In fact, it’s likely that T.J. Warren (#14, 2014) and Devin Booker (#13, 2015) have better NBA careers than any of those Top-8 picks.

Booker is the Suns best chance at a star. He surprised the league with his talents last spring amid the Suns rash of injuries, which garnered the attention of many of the league’s best players. Booker could be a career 20-points-per-game scorer, though he’d have to improve either his playmaking, rebounding or defense to raise himself to All-NBA level some day.

After Booker, the Suns have no one in the wings as a future star, though it’s possible that one of the young players could ascend like Booker did.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Verbally, the team says their goal is to make the playoffs just like it is for every team before games start. But since the playoff format only includes 16 of the league’s 30 teams, the Suns are virtually certain to be one of the 14 going home in April again.

Realistically, the goal is to come out of 2016-17 knowing whether their current stable of young players is good enough to carry the team back to contention, or whether further retooling is needed. Philadephia and Orlando have so far shown that having tons of young players at once does not guarantee success.

If the team wins 35-45 games while all of Tyson Chandler (34), Jared Dudley (31), Leandro Barbosa (33) and P.J. Tucker (31) are playing 25+ minutes every night while the rookies ride the bench, the season will have been a massive waste of time.

Conversely, if the team wins 20 games but a clear path to the future emerges with Devin Booker likely becoming an All-Star and one or both of Chriss and Bender show equal top-end flashes, the season would have been a huge success.

5. Will Brandon Knight hold Devin Booker back?

Brandon Knight, just 24 years old himself, has been starter his whole five-year career and arguably has still not peaked as a player. He is finally heathy entering a season and is saying all the right things about being a good teammate and doing whatever the coach asks. But he’s an 18-point, 5 assist producer with no incentive to just hand Devin Booker his starting shooting guard position without a competition.

“I’m here to work hard, be a great teammate,” Knight said at Media Day. “Do what I have always done as teammate. I’m happy to be healthy. I’m happy to be here.”

Knight’s problem is a lack of pure position. He’s a shooting guard in the mold of Jamal Crawford but he’s stuck in a point guard’s body. On top of that, he’s got a lot of pride and does not want to sacrifice his own game just to make room for someone younger and bigger.

Booker, meanwhile, has taken on more of a leadership role - at least with the young players - over the summer and looked like far and away the best player in Summer League this July in Vegas. He profiles like a Klay Thompson, with even Klay himself and new Suns player Leandro Barbosa seeing the similarities. If Booker indeed plays like a future All-Star in preseason, how can you have him come off the bench behind a combo guard like Knight?

Knight knows there’s a logjam and he’s coming into training camp with eyes wide open.

“We got a lot of talented guys,” Knight said of the competition. “It’s just a matter of coming together and win games. That’s the biggest thing. As long as winning is our common goal, which it is, that’s the best thing.”

6. Can Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender co-exist?

The Suns couldn’t be satisfied with one potential problem, so they added another. The scouting staff fell in love with the top two power forward prospects in the Draft, and ended up maneuvering to acquire both. So now they must live with the reality that the two may not be able to maximize each other’s skills on the court together.

GM Ryan McDonough believes they can.

“I would say the two guys we got in the lottery are so unique, so versatile,” McDonough said at Media Day, “that we don’t view them solely as one-position players.”

Coach Watson is also confident they can eventually complement each other. Despite being taller, Bender is more of a facilitator on the floor while Chriss is much more the flashy finisher. Watson envisions a super-tall “small ball” line that features both Bender and Chriss stretching the floor with their shooting while being big enough to defend and rebound. The Suns hired former All-Star Mehmet Okur to help develop the big men. Okur’s NBA game resembled the profile that the Suns see in Bender (good shooting, 17 points, 9 rebounds per game at his peak).

But still, and especially this season as they both try to develop, Bender and Chriss first have to servicable usable NBA skills out of their big toolboxes. Former top pick Alex Len is still trying to define his NBA role after two years of trying everything at once - inside scoring, outside scoring, post ups, rebounding, defense, shot-blocking, running the floor, passing, and on and on.

“I feel like with Alex we asked him, maybe, too much too soon,” McDonough said. “Or threw too much at him too quickly and expected him to pick up all of it as he goes. With Dragan, Marquese, Tyler, we’re going to pick a few things, say 3-5 things, we want them to be better at in April than they are today.”

Let’s hope they can develop as the year goes on.

7. Can the Suns make history with three teenagers on floor together?

Not confirmed with Elias yet, but we are pretty sure no NBA team has ever played three teenagers on the floor at the same time in the same game.

The Suns can make history in either of their first two games, as Booker will still be 19 until October 30. (“He tells me he’s the best teenager in the world,” Watson declared on Media Day, with Booker in ear shot.) Forwards Chriss and Bender will be teenagers all season, with Chriss not turning 20 until next summer and Bender still just 18 years old until mid-November.

That’s your 2016-17 Suns season in a nutshell: the best possible highlight of opening night on October 26 against Sacramento is the chance to see the Suns get shellacked while playing three teenagers at once.

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