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Suns are older now, yet still younger

Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough promised the team would add more veterans to their rotation next year. They’ve done that a little, but not much.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of last season, GM Ryan McDonough promised that the Phoenix Suns would get a little older.

“We think and hope we’ll add some veterans that will take us from 21 wins to whatever next year,” McDonough said. “Playing with some veterans will put these guys in position to be successful as rookies and that’s something we value. We were aggressive (in the draft) and we’re going to continue to be aggressive as soon as free agency starts.”

But so far they haven’t gotten any older at all.

The Suns aggressively added one veteran in free agency in 33 year old Trevor Ariza on a one-year deal, but then subtracted a current veteran by dumping Jared Dudley onto the Nets.

That’s what you call a wash. A net-zero change.

Tyson Chandler is still here, though this year Chandler might get the Dudley treatment where he goes from starting and playing a lot to backing up and playing a little.

Last year, five players over the age of 22 were among the top 10 in minutes played: T.J. Warren (#1), Troy Daniels (#6), Alex Len (#8), Tyson Chandler (#9) and Jared Dudley (#10).

Already gone from that “veteran” list are Len and Dudley, while Chandler, Daniels and Warren have all been bumped into smaller roles by the incoming rookie class.

Chandler will lose minutes to #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton while Daniels will lose minutes to #10 overall pick Mikal Bridges and the return to health of Davon Reed.

Even T.J. Warren — last year’s leader in minutes played — look like his minutes will be squeezed by the added presence of free agent Trevor Ariza and rookie Bridges.

So how can the Suns get older when they’re clearly getting younger at center and along the wing?

Oh that’s because the 2016 draft class is getting squeezed out.

The offseason front court moves — Ayton, Ariza and RIchaun Holmes — have really minimized the impact that former #4 overall pick Dragan Bender and #8 overall pick Marquese Chriss will have on next year’s team.

Last year, Bender played the 2nd-most minutes on the team (2,069) and Marquese Chriss played the 7th most (1,529) — equating to almost 44 minutes per game over 82 games between them — at power forward and center. Those 44 minutes combined to produce 14 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and a block on below average shooting splits, which isn’t terrible by itself, but their defense was quite poor. Collectively, they had a net rating of about -16 points per 100 possessions (i.e. roughly per game).

Next year, they will likely lose many of their minutes to veteran Trevor Ariza. Last season with Houston, Ariza averaged 11.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 34 minutes per game, but that’s why stats are not the end-all-to-beat-all. Ariza provided efficient, low-usage offense and strong defense to post a net rating of +7 points per 100 possessions.

Ariza’s offensive rating (114 points per 100 possessions) for Houston was almost 20 points better than Bender and Chriss (95 each) gave the Suns. And, Ariza’s defensive rating (107) was loads better than Bender and Chriss’ (114 and 109, respectively).

Comparatively, Ariza offensive and defensive ratings matched that of his team overall (league best offensive rating and 6th best defensive rating) while Bender and Chriss dragged down the Suns’ league-worst offensive rating (their 95s made the 103.5 worse), while their defense contributed to the team’s league worst defensive rating (league-worst 113).

For those stressed over traditional positions based on size, and can’t fathom the 6’8” Ariza as a power forward, please note that Ariza was the second-tallest player in Houston’s lineup, the 65-win team that had a 3-2 lead in the WCF before Chris Paul went down. Ariza’s most common lineups included him, Tucker and Capela along the front line, or Ryan Anderson in for Tucker.

I’d say that makes Ariza an upgrade over the combination of Bender and Chriss.

Another “veteran transformation” will take place at point guard. Either the Suns will acquire a starting-caliber veteran point later this summer, or they will roll with veteran Brandon Knight for the season.

Say what you will about 27-year old Brandon Knight’s play style and fit next to Booker, but at least he has years of experience being a starting point guard with the Pistons, Bucks and Suns.

Last year, the Suns point guard starters consisted of 21 year old Tyler Ulis (43 starts, 5th most minutes on team) and 23 year old Elfrid Payton (19 starts, 12th most mins) getting 62 of the 82 starts at point guard for the league’s worst offense.

Other PGs who cycled through include Mike James (10 starts, 11th most mins), Eric Bledsoe (3 starts, 3 games) and Isaiah Canaan (1 start, 19 games). Ulis’ poor start to the season led to James, who was released in December in favor of Canaan, who unfortunately broke his leg soon after, which precipitated the move for Payton. As for Bledsoe... you all know the Bledsoe drama that started all this.

Not one of those playmakers remains on the Suns roster.

Meanwhile, assuming full health, Brandon Knight had never averaged fewer than 31 minutes per game or started fewer than 95% of his healthy games since entering the league in 2011... until he got the Suns flu and missed most of the his three full seasons since being acquired by the Suns.

Knight has played in only 106 of 246 games since the start of the 2015-16 season, his first full season in the Valley, but is reportedly completely healthy at this time and will have no restrictions as the season starts.

In those 106 games, Knight was rarely the primary point guard next to Eric Bledsoe, who has since moved on to Milwaukee.

But on this 2018-19 team, unless the Suns make some kind of trade, Knight will once again get the lion’s share of playmaking duties.

The only stretch of time Knight was the primary playmaker in Phoenix was the spring of Devin Booker’s rookie season after Earl Watson replaced Jeff Hornacek, during which the Suns won three and lost six games.

In that 9-game stretch, Knight averaged 20.1 points, 4.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, making 37% of his threes with a plus/minus of -4.2.

In that same stretch, rookie Devin Booker averaged 20.3 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game, but made just 24% of his threes with a plus/minus of -5.3.

The other starters with Knight and Booker during that 3-6 stretch? How about Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and Alex Len (remember when he was the PF?!?), with Mirza Teletovic, Ronnie Price and Chase Budinger the main subs off the bench.

Booker and Len were the only prospects in the rotation, as fellow young pups T.J. Warren and Eric Bledsoe were both out injured that spring. Bledsoe popped his knee ligaments on December 26, and Warren broke a foot a month later. Yuu membahhh...

By October 2016, Knight was healthy but had lost his starting role as Watson rightly promised the starter jobs to Bledsoe and Booker. Knight grumbled and sulked off the bench for months before going down with the others for “strategic rest” the second half of the year. Then he busted his knee last summer and missed this 2016-17 entirely.

Knight hasn’t taken the floor for the Suns since scoring 11 points and dishing 4 assists in 20 minutes off the bench in a win over the Lakers a year and a half ago.

Now Knight is back, in a good frame of mind, and ready to help the team in any way he can.

“It’s just good to be back out there with the guys,” Knight said to ArizonaSports.com earlier this month.

“Having not played in over a year, it feels good to just relearn those movements and get back out there to basketball-activity. It’s exciting.”

The Suns were excited with his appearance when they ran a mini-camp with the new rookies Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo and George King (on a two-way contract).

“We are thrilled that B-Knight showed up. We didn’t know. I mean, that was really his decision to come here and be part of this group,” Kokoskov said.

“He wants to play right now,” Kokoskov said. “He brought us unbelievable energy and kind of positive energy for this group to understand that our starting point guard is at this camp. His presence here meant so much to these guys and myself and the staff, but also to him to get that little feel for the camp, for the game. I think it was beneficial for both sides.”

And count Knight among Igor’s fanbase already.

“Offensively, I’ve been in situations where the ball gets stagnant and it’s easy to guard stagnant offenses. But with Igor’s stuff it makes it somewhat impossible to be stagnant because there’s so much movement, so much misdirection and it’s difficult to guard,” he said.

“I think it fits in well, not just for myself but for our entire team and it’s going to be difficult for teams to try to keep up with all that action.”

Knight always talked about having a leadership role with the Suns, and now maybe he’s ready to take that baton and run with it.

“Whatever I can bring to the team to help, that’s what I’m here for,” he said to ArizonaSports.com.

“I’m trying to get myself going and get in the young guys’ ear, just so that this year we can hit the ground rolling and be competitive.”

Knight is expected back in the Valley in late August for more voluntary pickup — this time with all of his 2018-19 roster at the same time — ahead of training camp.

Knight worked out with veterans Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson and others in May, then with the rookies in early July.

In August, he will have a chance to play with all of them together while practicing more of Igor Kokoskov’s motion and misdirection offensive schemes we all saw in Summer League.

Did the Suns get older this year?

No, not really.

Did they add more starting-quality veterans to the rotation?

Maybe.

The rotation still looks to have six to eight 23-and-unders vying for minutes, with Knight, Ariza, Warren (now 25), Daniels and Chandler expecting rotation spots as well.

Let’s see how it all shakes out.