The Phoenix Suns are expected by most observers to win more lottery balls than basketball games next season, armed with a rookie coach and set to become the first team in NBA history to play three teenagers at once on opening night.
According to basketball-reference.com, no team in NBA history has played three teenagers in the same game like the Suns are set to do with Devin Booker (19 until game three), Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender (both 18/19 all season).
Sure, the Suns have incumbent NBA veterans to set a winning tone, including P.J. Tucker, Tyson Chandler, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. But those veterans kicked off last season’s playoff push with a paltry 12-19 record before Bledsoe’s injury put the franchise into a death spiral for the next four months.
The Suns did very little this offseason to improve the team’s immediate outlook. They largely replaced veterans with kids not yet ready to contribute. Tyler Ulis replaces Ronnie Price, while Bender and Chriss replace Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer.
On the veteran front, they added a couple of good guys with Suns roots who can play a few minutes, but are not difference-makers.
Yet, many national outlets are praising the Suns offseason anyway.
The Suns are now in rebuild mode and maximized their position on draft night by taking the two top power forwards. Bender is a super skilled 7-footer who can protect the rim and clean the glass. Chriss was the most athletic big man in the draft and a capable perimeter shooter. The Suns' biggest hole was at the 4 and the addition of Bender and Chriss fill it long term in a big way.
I also loved the addition of Ulis. He's undersized (5-foot-10, 150 pounds) but proved again in summer league that his elite point guard skills can carry him. Dudley and Barbosa provide veteran leadership in the locker room, though if the Suns are smart, it will primarily come from their influence off the court, not on it.
The Suns have quietly amassed a talented group of young prospects. It's going to take them another year or two to figure out how to win basketball games, but the decision to go young should pay off in the long run and the addition of Bender and Chriss add to my bullishness on their future.
Ford has always been about the draft, so it’s no surprise the only times he’s been bullish on the Suns in the past ten years has been the summer of 2013 and this one. At least he didn’t drop an annoying comment about one of the PGs being on the block already.
In other offseason grades, CBSports.com gave the Suns an A- back in July (they liked the draft and Dudley signing) while David Aldridge of NBA.com ranked the Suns with the 7th best offseason in the league.
THE SKINNY: The Suns hope they addressed their forward deficiencies through the Draft, taking fliers on two teenagers -- the 18-year-old Bender, the Croatian wunderkind who played for Israeli power Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, and the 19-year-old Chriss, whose ridiculous athletic gifts were on sporadic display during his one season in college. A combined 13 feet, 11 inches, the two will surely struggle early, but should eventually step in with second-year guard Devin Booker, fourth-year center Alex Len and the Suns' seemingly endless trove of point guards -- which they added further to by taking Kentucky's Ulis in the second round. At some point, GM Ryan McDonough will have to pare that group down via trade, but he now has some real pieces to put together to offer for an All-Star-level talent should one become available. In the interim, Phoenix brought back Dudley and Barbosa for second tours to provide some kind of veteran presence in the locker room along with Tyson Chandler and Tucker. Coach Earl Watson will be able to put his program in fully this season as the Suns continue to rebuild.
The only thing DA got wrong is that this is Barbosa’s THIRD tour with the Suns. Some of you might remember the Blur in the spring of 2014 as an injury fill-in for Bledsoe. LB was rehabbing a major knee injury, and unfortunately suffered additional injuries and ended up barely playing that spring before his career renaissance with the Warriors the next two seasons.
DA makes a good point about the Suns being more poised than ever to acquire a big-name player at some point in the next twelve months. They have more than enough kids on the roster to be able to sacrifice one or two, plus one of Knight/Bledsoe, plus next June’s top pick, plus Miami’s upcoming picks.
Among West teams, DA gave only the Warriors, Grizzlies and Jazz higher rankings for their off season work. I’m not sold on the Grizz off season, but they only have to win 50 games to prove me wrong. Their future is more about Marc Gasol’s recovery more than bringing in Chandler Parsons.
Another offseason grade given to the Suns, this time by SI.com, was a strong B+. They wrote a lot of words on the Suns offseason, all of it ringing true for even us diehards, so give the story a good, long read.
The Suns’ apology tour slash rebranding therefore featured two main prongs: 1) Bringing back some familiar, low-maintenance faces to win back the disgruntled masses, and 2) Adding as many high-upside prospects as possible to inspire hope.
The Suns have played the ‘bring back the familiar nice guys’ card before, only to sour them into ugly separations later.
But this time, they did it right. There’s really no way to have a bad ending with Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. Both are coming in with eyes wide open, fully aware they are on the tail end of their careers and were signed to take back seats when the kids are ready to play.
Dudley has transformed himself into a combo forward the past two years, able to defend big guys down low as well as big wings on the perimeter, while spotting himself up for distance shots on the other end. He is already prepared to hand his starting minutes to one of the young bucks even before everyone deems them ready.
To recap, that’s one A-, two B-pluses, and a 7th overall ranking.
Yet every one of those pundits would put the Suns in the bottom five of an NBA power ranking for 2016-17, even assuming good health from the Suns vets.
The losses will come. The Suns still don’t have any All-Stars. And this exact roster won’t become a playoff contender without some surprises. There will be trades and future draft picks to supplement and/or modify the core for future seasons.
What the Suns are offering is hope. They are giving us front-row seats to watch the acrobats make some highlight-reel plays while they tread inexorably toward a Top-5 pick in a (supposedly) historically good 2017 draft. It’s a formula that worked for Minny the last couple years.
I will vouch that the Suns’ Summer League team which featured many of these kids was a highlight reel in motion. For the first time in almost a decade, I found myself anticipating and being rewarded for great play after great play, regretting the times I looked down at my phone to comment on the last one. A Booker shot or drive. A Ulis steal. A Big Sauce board and putback. A Chriss stop, spin and finish. A Bender bringing the ball up.
Our Suns crowd needs that joy of anticipation. A ball game is so much more fun to watch when you can preemptively stand up on a long three pointer (Booker! Dudley!) or fast break (Warren! Chriss! Bledsoe!), knowing good things are more likely to happen than not.
The Suns will lose a lot of games, for sure.
But at least hope for the future, and some highlight-making talent, has been placed before us to consume.