The Phoenix Suns entered 2016 hoping there was no way to go but up. They’d endured a self-imposed disaster of 2015 and prayed that 2016 was going to head in the other direction.
While the drama did eventually subside, the Suns ultimately endured the worst calendar year on the court in franchise history: only 21 wins against 50 losses.
A New Hope
This is the Bright Side of the Sun after all, so why not look back at what I said on January 1 last year about the Suns’ bright future?
The year 2016 should start bad, but might end very well.
Getting most of the minutes these days are the teams youngest players, from Brandon Knight to Devin Booker to T.J. Warren to Alex Len. Each of them is inconsistent, leading to ugly losses (Spurs) sandwiched by moral victories (Thunder, Cavaliers).
Unfortunately, both Knight and Warren went down with season-killing injuries within weeks of the turn of the year, sabotaging the Suns attempts to “play young”. But at least that helped ensure a top-5 pick.
Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, Brandon Ingram and Dragan Bender all can be very good power forwards in the NBA - the one place the Suns have no prospects for the future.
Six months later, the Suns did in fact add Dragan Bender at #4, who is young and talented but also raw and in need of years of seasoning to become a star. The Suns also added Marquese Chriss at #8 as well. More on that later.
I encourage you to click through all these links if only to see your own comments from back then to see how your thinking has or has not changed. It’s fun!
Sarver blasts millennials
In one of the most ‘dude what you thinkin’?’ moments of the new year, Suns owner Robert Sarver decided to explain to Dan Bickley of azcentral.com why thinks the Suns were having trouble with Markieff Morris.
"I'm not sure it's just the NBA," Sarver said. "My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can't seem to recover from it."
Of course, these comments from Sarver only crystallized the void between Morris and the Suns front office.
The coaching carousel
Jeff Hornacek has some short-comings as a coach, and the Phoenix Suns ownership and front office have some shortcomings in team building. They both failed each other after being seen as the bright light of the future just 18 months ago.
Today, Hornacek and Jerry Sichting are in New York coaching a winning team, and Mike Longabardi is in Cleveland with a championship ring on his finger and another waiting to be fitted.
When the assistants were fired in late December, rumors were already swirling that Earl Watson was the pick to replace Hornacek when he left. And guess what, that’s exactly what happened.
Looking back on this now, the Suns fired Sichting and Longabardi a month before Hornacek to avoid the coaching revolt that hit the Suns in January 2013 when Dan Majerle and Elston Turner both quit the staff when they were passed over for Lindsey Hunter in the wake of the firing of Alvin Gentry.
Earl Watson made it a lot longer than Hunter did, but Watson is going to have to improve as a coach to make it past the “hold the fort!” phase of this rebuild.
The more things change, the more they stay the same though: Hornacek was fired mostly because he couldn’t get his mismatched roster to win enough games.
A year later, Watson’s biggest challenge is trying to balance a different but still-mismatched roster.
Markieff Morris, team leader
After months of discontent, new coach Earl Watson hung his hat on Markieff Morris from the day he took the full time job as Suns coach.
"He is the main focus of our offense moving forward, we know that," Watson said of Morris, who'd spent more time on the bench than on the floor all year. "That's part of talking about your role with this team, he went out there every play and that was his role, to lead us. He accepted that."
What could possibly go wrong?
Ten days later, the Suns new team leader decided to show his leadership by grabbing Archie Goodwin by the throat and throwing him down in a timeout of yet another loss.
Again, I encourage you to click these links. It’s fun to remember the good ol’ days, and see your own comments on the matter at the time now that you’ve got some hindsight.
Turns out, the Suns and Morris’ mutual agreement to showcase him to other teams worked. He was finally traded on February 18 to the Wizards. The Wizards missed the playoffs, while the Suns eventually turned the pick into Marquese Chriss.
Ryan McDonough later gave credit to Watson for making Morris tradable, saying he’d have traded Morris months before if only another team had offered a first round pick earlier.
Alex Len, #1 scoring option
After trading Markieff Morris, and in the wake of injuries to all the team’s top scorers, new coach Earl Watson turned to Alex Len to become the Suns top scoring option.
"I texted him today. I said, ‘hey Len, are you ready to start?'. He texted me back, ‘whatever you want'. I said ‘it's time. It's time for you to make that step forward. It's time for you to be our number one option.'"
Len responded with 22 points and 16 rebounds, including 8 impactful points in the 4th quarter to answer Grizzlies scores that could have served to crumble the Suns' confidence.
To be fair, Len was the most likely candidate on the roster Watson was given. You don’t declare free-agent-to-bes Mirza Teletovic or Jon Leuer your future. And you don’t hang your hat on 33-year old Tyson Chandler.
So Alex Len it was. Sorry, Alex.
Len did post a few big games, including a 31-point, 15-rebound game and he did go on to become one of only a few NBA players who averaged a 10+ points and 10+ rebounds in the second half of the season.
But along the way, Len also showed he’s not a long-term top scoring option, and very nearly avoided the ignominious honor of worst FG% in league history for a 7+ footer.
Devin Booker, future star
I could post a hundred links on this topic, but you don’t need them. Booker was the brightest side of 2016 for the Phoenix Suns and still remains in that position today.
As the 2015-16 wound down, and the summer dragged on, All-Rookie First-teamer Booker remained the one light that couldn’t be dimmed in the Phoenix Suns’ future.
Alex Len and Archie Goodwin came and went, to varying degrees. T.J. Warren keeps suffering injuries at the worst time. Same with Eric Bledsoe.
It’s Devin Booker’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
Earl Watson, permanent coach
In a surprising move, the Suns kept all their eggs in the one basket named Earl Watson. Throw this decision in with the several years of head scratchers.
Despite zero coaching experience on any level beyond one year as an assistant in D-League and three months coaching the Suns to a 9-24 record, Watson got the job.
On the plus side, the players love Watson and asked Suns management to bring him back. On the minus side, they didn’t even interview anyone else!
It’s okay to hire the guy you want. It’s not okay, in my opinion, to refuse to even interview other candidates. At the least, you get to hear how THEY would handle the roster in place. It’s all part of gathering information. Information is power, and helps you make better decisions.
It might still work out long term for the Suns to have hired Watson. But the Suns rolled the dice there.
Here’s me drinking the Kool-Aid.
In this humble blogger's opinion, the Suns need to have a season where they focus on development in earnest instead of gunning for another elusive eighth seed. Given that he has already made an impact on this locker room, I'm hard-pressed to envision a better candidate for right now.
I still don’t disagree with this take. It’s just more difficult to experience the rebuilding than it is to envision it.
Suns win draft?
There’s no point lamenting not getting Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram or Jaylen Brown in the 2016 draft. All were taken before the Suns’ #4 overall pick.
But after that, all bets are off and the Suns had better have won the draft thereafter. The worst team in franchise history needed an infusion of talent in the worst way. This wasn’t a good draft, top-end talent wise. But even in a bad draft like 2013, there were All-Star level talents like Giannis Antetokuompo and Rudy Gobert for the taking.
Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, and maybe even Tyler Ulis, are hopefully the steals of the 2016 draft. They were at least all rated very well pre-draft.
But of course the drafting of both Chriss AND Bender leads to even more hand-wringing and head-scratching as people wonder how the heck the two best power forward prospects available to the Suns could co-exist in the future?
If not, that’s just one more nail in Ryan McDonough’s eventual coffin.
Suns get older while also getting younger
Things started to get muddier and muddier when the Suns spent their free agent money to add two MORE 30-somethings to their young roster.
By the end of July, the Suns had four 30-somethings under contract to counteract the two handfuls of 23-and-unders.
Dudley, in particular, brought skills to the table that the Suns needed. And still need.
Dudley knows exactly who he is - a supporting player there to make others look good. He spaces the floor (42% on threes), provides tertiary ball handling (2.1 assists playing more than 90% of his time at the 4 or 5), and defends with his heart and head and sliding feet.
Jared Dudley was signed to hold down the PF fort until Bender and Chriss were ready for minutes.
As we know now, that’s happened sooner than Jared thought it would. More on that later.
Watson juggles lineups
Let’s skip forward to today, as Earl Watson leads a 10-24 squad into the new year.
Rookie head coach Earl Watson has a hard enough time coaching, let alone managing egos on a weird roster loaded with too many playable players and not enough stars to make a hierarchy.
Watson has had to make tough decision after tough decision and now he’s stuck between a hard and a hard place while McDonough fails to relieve some of the burden by lightening the roster load.
Early in the season, Watson leaned toward giving the veterans their deserved, and well-earned minutes while sprinkling in the kids. He ended up with playing the “oldest” rotation the Suns have had on the court in years.
But Christmas came right on time for Bender and Ulis, who now join Chriss, Warren and Booker in the regular Suns lineup. All at the expense of veterans Jared Dudley, Brandon Knight and Leandro Barbosa.
Year in review
A year ago, I kicked off 2016 with hope that a core of Booker, Warren, Len and Knight - along with 2016 top pick - could lead the Suns into the future.
The Suns record in 2016: 11-36 last spring, 10-24 this season = 21-50.
That’s the worst year of Phoenix Suns basketball in franchise history, folks.
Today, the future core still includes Booker and Warren, but Len and Knight look like they are more likely on their way out than not. At the least, they aren’t core players.
Now, the Suns future core looks like Booker, Warren, Bender, Chriss and whoever they draft top-5 in the 2017 draft.
What will it look like a year from now?
Hopefully, the Suns will have a brighter future by then.