Expectations were generally low for the Suns coming in to the season. The roster is young, the veterans are not necessarily stellar - the perfect recipe for a 30-35 win season.
The Earl Watson-led Suns came up just short of those expectations, modest as they were.
In a rebuild, it is hard to place the blame for a poor season at the feet of the coach. The coach represents only one small piece of the puzzle.
That being said, there are some things on which Watson deserves to be evaluated:
- Youth development
- Roster management
- Overall team strategy
- Team chemistry
If the team was not expected to win, from the very beginning it was expected that they would focus on improving the talents of young players; on building strong lineups featuring those young players; on developing offensive and defensive schematic foundations that can carry forward to future, more successful seasons; and on maintaining a positive culture in the locker room, even in the face of poor results.
Youth Development -- B-
The Suns are a young team. The team had 8 players 24 or under on the roster. Youth development is a key part of the job for Watson, and when he was hired it was a key part of what Ryan McDonough and the front office saw in him.
The development of young players was a bit of a mixed bag. The Suns’ young front court players actually showed improvement. Marquese Chriss came on strong after the All-Star break: he improved his shooting efficiency (from 49.7% to 58%) and his rebounding efficiency (from 10.3% to 11.5%). Despite the increasing frustration of the fans, Alex Len showed strong improvement from his 2015-16 campaign, with notable improvements as a shot blocker and in offensive efficiency. There was additionally strong play from Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams, though perhaps not a ton of growth across the season from either.
On the flip side, I ding Watson quite a bit for what was a season of limited growth for Devin Booker. Booker is undeniably the most important piece for the Suns going forward. And, like many young players, he has weaknesses to his game: inconsistent effort on the defensive end, a propensity to force bad shots, a need to play the enforcer. These are all things that should have been improved upon in the offseason. But for much of the season, they continued to be a problem. And, honestly, largely this was a function of Watson, who often failed to put Booker into good situations and/or reign in those bad habits.
So, on the whole, Watson did okay here. There was some growth from the young players on the roster. But Watson’s inability, or unwillingness, to reign in some of Booker’s bad habits are a mark against him in my book.
Roster Management -- B-
When I speak of roster management, I mostly mean how well Watson did finding managing lineups. This is no easy task, and Watson deserves credit for keeping the players at least modestly happy.
That being said, Watson was slow to make adjustments when lineups obviously were not working. He relied heavily on his veteran players, giving big minutes to PJ Tucker, Tyson Chandler and, most frustratingly, Brandon Knight. Obviously, we do not know exactly why these players got so many minutes - it is entirely reasonable to think that the front office encouraged Watson to play these potential trade chips in the hopes of finding a partner.
His hesitance early in the season to use Ulis, Williams and Dragan Bender was honestly perplexing, and frankly did not make sense given the team’s purported focus on developing young players. There was also a weird unwillingness to experiment with the roster - until after the All-Star break, many of the young players had very little if any shared court time. For instance, Bender and Chriss played only 108 minutes together this season and Booker and Ulis just 550. These numbers might seem high, but keep in mind there there are almost 4000 court minutes per season. Even accounting for injuries and rest periods, it was odd.
Like I said, I’m not comfortable blaming Watson for all of the pre-trade deadline roster shenanigans. And I give him credit for his adjustments after the All-Star break. But I can only give him so much credit.
Overall Team Strategy -- D
This was honestly, for me, the low point for Watson this season. I have never expected Watson to be a great Xs and Os guy, largely because he’s still pretty young, and I think that is a skill that takes time to develop.
That being said, it was honestly hard to watch the offensive and defensive schemes of the Suns this year. Or, more honestly, the lack thereof.
Lets start with the defensive end. First, the Suns were incredibly undisciplined, averaging 25 fouls per game, the most in the NBA. They also gave up the third most points of off turnovers per game, and the seventh most second chance points. Beyond discipline, there just often seemed to be a lack of a real defensive plan, particularly when one of the veterans were not on the court.
On the offensive side of the ball, things were worse. The team relied on fast-break points for a staggeringly large 18% of their overall points, just behind the Warriors. Unlike the Warriors, however, the Suns devolved into isolation ball outside of fast-break situations. 49% of the Suns made field goals were unassisted, the second highest rate in the NBA. We were the sixth highest turnover team; the second highest pace team; and the team with the worst overall assist-to-turnover ratio.
What really galled me about the offense was how the lack of a plan devolved into Devin Booker hero-ball. And Booker, being the young, confident player he is embraced the role. But he never should have been put into that position; a position that required him to take 18 shots per game, 13 of which were two-pointers. Many of those two-pointers were isolation plays, called out or fallen into after the offensive set collapsed. Like I said earlier, Booker is a player with some bad habits, like most, and for him to reach his full potential he needs to learn to work around his bad habits. I really, really worry about him going forward if he is put into an offensive system like this again next year.
Team Chemistry -- A
In some ways, Earl Watson is a miracle worker. I don’t know how he managed to keep this team as upbeat and spirited as they were throughout the season. We heard nary a peep from Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight as their minutes disappeared after the All-Star break; didn’t hear complaints from Ulis and Bender as they languished on the bench; didn’t hear any news of locker room discontent when the team lost game after game.
Managing team chemistry is a key part of what a head coach does, and so far Earl Watson has done an excellent job here.
Overall Grade -- C+
Watson was put in a poor position this season, and to his credit he kept his head up throughout it all and came out of it as upbeat as ever. He seems to have done a masterful job of maintaining the spirit of the players. Going forward, for his benefit and the teams he needs to do a better job of implementing a functioning offensive and defensive system. Some of that will obviously come with personnel changes and the further development of the young Suns. But no coach gets an infinite horizon to grow, and I fear that if some of these things are not shown to have improved relatively early next year, Watson may be on the hot seat.
How would you grade Earl Watson’s first full season on the job?
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