The Phoenix Suns had an awful year last year, finishing with only 23 wins against 59 losses and “earning” the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft for their misery.
In the middle, as they lost 28 of 31 games, they also lost their spirit, their coaching staff and many of their best players to injuries while failing to trade their disgruntled power forward until well after the season was destroyed.
“I don’t think I had a very good year last year,” GM Ryan McDonough said in an understatement.
Over this most recent summer coming off a 23-win season, McDonough once again has not made any trades outside the draft process. The offseason focus has been about roster stability and youth. He drafted three rookies good enough for playing time and now has as many as nine players 24 or younger who could be in an NBA rotation this year. Among the veterans, he’s only replaced journeymen with other journeymen.
That strategy smells strongly of a true rebuild.
McDonough feels better about the team this year than he did a year ago, but does not go so far as to expect to win as many games as he thought last year’s team would win.
“I don’t want to put a number on it,” he said at Media Day. “But I think we will win a lot more than 23 games. Maybe something like 26 and a half.”
The Las Vegas odds put the Suns at 26.5 wins this season, and many other qualitative and quantitative sites have pegged the Suns anywhere from 24 to 28 wins. A slight improvement over last year, but not much.
Yet the players were steadfast on Media Day that they feel this team will be a playoff team.
“I know what people say,” now-healthy Eric Bledsoe said of win projections, “But I got ourselves being Top 5, even higher, in the Western Conference. I believe in it.”
The Suns have won their fair share of games in the three years Bledsoe has been a starter on the team. The Suns were 28-13 in 2013-14, 39-42 in 2014-15 and then 12-19 last year before he went down with his second major knee injury in three seasons.
Looking at those records, you could say his impact on the team is going in a negative direction. But that would be too simplistic, as the talent level and off-court distractions made a much bigger dent on the team’s record while Bledsoe has improved as a player year over year. Bledsoe had the team’s best plus/minus a year ago, for example, and the 28 losses in 31 games were almost entirely after Bledsoe went down.
“This is a big season for us,” he said. “We just… we don’t want to have a season like we did last year, as far as everything that went on.”
After seasons of 48 and 39 wins, last year’s team had so many things go wrong. The basest wrong was keeping Markieff Morris around for three months of the season. Several players have hinted that’s been a huge difference since he left.
So you can’t hold it against Bledsoe to believe that he will be healthy (“I don’t remember the last time I got hurt,” he joked, feigning amnesia) and that the Suns will be successful if he can stay in the lineup.
“All I got to do is get the team on the same page as me, and make them believe and we’ll be fine,” he says.
Center Tyson Chandler believes too.
“I think this team realistically is a playoff team,” he said. “Some things have to happen in order for you to accomplish that goal, and it’s tough with youth. But it’s definitely something we can accomplish.”
Asked what it would take to be a contender for the playoffs, Chandler said, “Health, and guys really locking in and being dedicated. There’s going to be guys that are going to have to make sacrifices in order for us all to accomplish the common goal, but I think that will happen.”
Chandler himself might be one of those guys making sacrifices, just as he did last year. He’s lost a step or three defensively, and the Suns want to be an active, switching defense with their bigs when the opponent sets picks. That style lends itself more toward smaller players and/or more active players. Chandler might give way to Alex Len and small ball lineups more often than not this year.
Veteran forward P.J. Tucker, the only guy left from the pre-McDonough era and now entering his 5th season with the Suns, is confident in the team’s potential as well.
“Remember two years ago we were supposed to win 17 games and we won 48,” Tucker said. “It’s all about us coming together as a team. I think they’ve done a good job, ever since Earl’s got here, of making it more of a family atmosphere. To have everyone back at full strength, it should be cool to see.”
The common themes of confidence: (1) everyone at full strength and (2) players making sacrifices for the good of the team.
Alex Len and Tyson Chandler are a bit duplicative at center, and might both be benched often if the Suns find small ball success with Bender and/or Chriss in the middle.
Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss have to join a forward rotation that includes reliable, predictable veterans Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker and third-year scoring maestro T.J. Warren.
And of course there’s the glut of guards. Not only Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker, but also Tyler Ulis and Leandro Barbosa.
“It won’t be us three,” Bledsoe said of the competition. “It would probably Tyler, it would probably be Barbosa some nights. You can’t say it’s just us three. We got so many talented players on the team that you got to sit some games and be happy with the other player.”
The team is deep. Not top-heavy with stars, but rather deep with players of varying potential who all want to play. Bledsoe has more words on that.
“This team is talented, want to play and should be playing,” he said. “You can take that from Barbosa in Golden State. He had one of the best runs up there, but he rode the bench most of the time. He didn’t complain, he came in and did his job. That’s the most important thing is to have fun with it. At the end of the day, it’s still basketball. Just go out there and have fun with it.”
McDonough recognizes that it’s better to have more talent on hand than to try to pre-placate the players with clear roles and less competition for their jobs entering camp.
“We found out last year painfully, that you can’t do it the other way,” he said. “You can’t have just enough talent and hope that you max out Eric Bledsoe, and you max out the guys you have and you’re able to withstand injuries and foul trouble. You need talent.”
Media Day, when the team is four months removed from a disaster and the slate is wiped clean, is the perfect day to predict greatness. Every team in the league thinks they can make the playoffs. The players themselves are eternal optimists.
“I’m always confident in my team, Paul,” Tucker said with a chuckle when asked how he can be so confident. “I can’t come up here and say ‘ahh I don’t know what we’re going to do this year’. “
Tucker went on to explain his confidence is based on team health and how much time they spent together this summer.
The bottom line, though, is that Tucker has no interest in yet another losing season. He’s already been on the losing end in three of his four seasons in purple and orange.
“Just win. Just win. That’s it,” Tucker said. “I know how special that was (in 2013-14). We got to get back to that. I remember how it was around the arena, everybody excited. I just want to win. We got everybody back healthy, it’s time to win.”
The World of Earl is succinct about his expectations for the season.
“No more going home in April,” Watson says.
The Suns are in training camp this week as they install a brand new offense (Portland style, courtesy of Jay Triano) and defense in coach Earl Watson’s first camp as the team’s head coach.
There is an open scrimmage on Saturday at noon in Flagstaff at the Walkup Skydome, free to the public. And the team’s first preseason game at Talking Stick Resort Arena is Monday night at 7pm.