Losing as badly as the Suns did Tuesday night at home, their eighth loss out of 10 games to start the year, has a way of bringing attention toward what is missing on the basketball court: What could fix this mess?
Tanking, as aggressive as it was under general manager Ryan McDonough, can steal away the chance to develop rotation pieces found on the cutting-room floor of teams with championship dreams.
The Suns since their last playoff appearance -- despite all the intentional losing -- haven’t had a true player-development success story. Great young teams tend to find one or two diamonds in the rough while they’re investing in youth. Think the undrafted Robert Covington in Philadelphia or second-rounders like Khris Middleton and Semi Ojeleye in Milwaukee and Boston.
You wouldn’t have found a player like that on the Suns roster the last several seasons, because the team’s strategy was wholly different than those Eastern Conference teams who scored big off the scrap heap. The Suns attacked the draft aggressively, trading up two times during McDonough’s tenure. McDonough’s staff tried to rebuild in a hurry, drafting seven first-rounders.
Then, this summer, the switch, according to Owner Robert Sarver, was supposed to flip. We saw that manic finger flicking toward the switch when the Suns overspent on Trevor Ariza this summer and filled its final roster spot with the aged Jamal Crawford.
Crawford played just four minutes in a 104-82 loss at home Tuesday night, while the energetic bench stud who might be the Suns’ first successful reclamation project in years got on the court for 18 minutes. HIs name is Richaun Holmes. You’ve probably noticed him out there.
With 13 points and four offensive rebounds, Holmes continued a solid streak of performances despite losing to Brooklyn. On Sunday, it was five points and three offensive boards in just 11 minutes. He’s earning the coaches’ trust.
“You have to be ready, I’ve worked so hard to prepare for this moment, and I’ll be ready when the team needs me,” Holmes told me after Sunday’s comeback victory.
Holmes has been a part of several bench runs over the early part of the season that kept the Suns in games. His rebounding and block rates have exploded in Phoenix, which has been six points better per 100 possessions on defense when he plays.
“From the bench, you’re going to need that the entire season, especially some nights when the starters are off,” Holmes said. “I think just understanding our role, understanding what we were supposed to come in and do, that’s something we learned, and we got better tonight.”
Guys like Holmes don’t have to be All-Stars -- searching for Hall of Famers is why the Suns drafted in the lottery so often. They feel they have future superstars in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Someone like Holmes just has to complement that talent and maintain positive momentum off the bench. Holmes is just Ayton’s backup, but he’s been great at his job.
Coach Igor Kokoskov is fond of saying energy is a talent. He compliments Holmes frequently for having achieved great success manipulating that talent into productivity. It’s blatantly obvious who’s giving effort when, despite huge deficits racked up by the starters, Holmes is gobbling up rebounds and swatting shots across the court.
After waiving Tyson Chandler, the Suns have offered Holmes a secure role on this team. They gave up a solid second-round pick to get him this summer in a deal that also sent Jared Dudley to Brooklyn. Holmes told me he grew a great deal learning from Chandler, but he’s ready to take his place.
The former first-round pick out of Bowling Green could become a real prize for the Suns in what many call the second draft, when scouting departments prey upon players in need of a second chance. Out of favor in Philadelphia, Holmes has provided a burst off the bench in Phoenix and a potential value piece moving forward. He will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Rewarding Holmes for his hustle when guys like Ryan Anderson and Josh Jackson are struggling so badly is the way teams in the purgatory between winning and tanking come out of it. The Suns are uncomfortable where they are, but securing a talent like Holmes was just one step in building out a young rotation that can grow with Booker and Ayton. Letting him play and developing his talent is the next challenge facing the talent-hungry Suns.
See what Holmes had to say after his standout performance in a loss Tuesday: