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Center of the Sun: The road to the playoffs is all uphill for the Phoenix Suns

The Fantable discusses the obstacles in the team’s long path back to postseason play.

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Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Welcome to the weekly news roundup of your Phoenix Suns.

Just after the Suns’ 2017-18 season ended, Devin Booker said, “I’m done with not making the playoffs. I’m serious. This is probably the last year I’m ever not making the playoffs. That’s putting pressure on myself I need.”

A couple of weeks ago, we ran a poll in which 54% of fans indicated that they believed that the Suns at best were a 30-35 win team this year, and only 12% thought that they might be good enough to challenge for the 8th seed in the West. Most of what I’ve read in the very early 2018-19 predictions have the Suns winning around 27 games, which makes the fan predictions of 30-35 (or more) sound overly optimistic.

So what. I’ll take the fans’ optimism any day over the “expert” opinions. And I’m counting on Booker’s fire and determination (and talent!) to help take this team beyond expectations.

But it’s going to take more than just that for the Suns to overachieve in 2018-19.

Despite the changes that have been made this offseason, the Suns remain a very young team (the average age is 24.0 years) with very little experience (3.9 years average experience level). And, 31 of the combined 59 years of experience (52.5%!) of the 15 players presently on the team belong to Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler. If you remove them from the equation, the average level of experience of the other 13 players is 2.15 years and the average age falls to 22.4, with seven players 21 or younger on the roster.

The Suns also have a rookie head coach. I have a lot of faith in Igor Kokoskov, but we can’t forget that although he is an experienced coach, his performance as a head coach in the NBA is an unknown. Even if he exceeds expectations, he’s going to war this season with a lot of youngsters and question marks hanging over this team.

It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle.

Few Phoenix fans believe the Suns are more than an extreme longshot to make the playoffs this season. Whether or not fans believe that reaching the playoffs is an attainable goal this season, Booker has said that is his goal. I hope that is the team’s goal as well.

While fans can afford to be pessimistic (or “realistic,” if you prefer), the players can’t. They all need the “We’ll show them!” attitude when looking at the expert predictions and go into every game believing that they can win.

But facts are facts and — especially in the West — it’s going to take more than attitude and determination to make the playoffs. In my opinion, a LOT of things would have to go just right for a franchise that has seen way too many things go wrong for way too many seasons for them to even sniff at the 8th seed. So, I asked the Fantable for their opinions on what it would take for the Suns to have a shot at making the postseason this year.


Fantable Question of the Week

With ONLY the players that are presently on the roster, what do you think are the most important things that need to happen for the Suns to just get into the playoff conversation this year?

GuarGuar: I am of the belief this team will take a big jump this season. That does not necessarily mean I think they make the playoffs, however I think we could possibly be in contention. I’m expecting 35-plus wins this season. And I don’t even think 35 wins is THAT big of a jump. Last season’s team was a 30 win team when healthy and trying to win. Our tanking made us look worse than we actually were. However, that’s beside the point.

For us to actually get back into playoff contention, many things have to happen:

1. The point guard production has to be a positive.

This is probably the hardest thing to achieve out of my list. Brandon Knight coming back to Milwaukee form is a tough thing to ask for or expect. However, if it were ever to happen, it’s going to happen now. Knight is healthy again, and Earl Watson is gone. It’s certainly fathomable that Knight’s new mindset and situation get him back on track. It’s asking a lot for Elie Okobo/Shaquille Harrison/Isaiah Canaan to be positive backups too. All three have flaws or problems, and having a good second unit will be huge for taking a leap.

2. Deandre Ayton can’t be a negative defender.

The biggest issues plaguing our team in recent years has been point guard and center play. Chandler has been horrendous on defense the past 2 years while Stone-Hands Len was awful on offense. With Deandre Ayton, we are hoping for a very good two-way big who can be a cornerstone player alongside Booker. He would have to be a plus on both ends for us to be in playoff contention. You need to have a positive defensive presence at the center position with all the pick-and-rolls and floor-spacing nowadays. It’s tough to ask Ayton to be very productive right away, but if this team has eyes on the playoffs, that has to happen.

3. At least one of Josh Jackson/TJ Warren has to take a leap.

Another way to make this statement is “At least one of JJ/TJ has to develop a consistent 3-point jump-shot”. They both have the same flaws. Both couldn’t shoot from distance last season, and both were negative defenders. At least one of these guys needs to make big strides this year.

4. Stay healthy!

When was the last season we had where a major contributing player who didn’t miss significant time?

  • 2017-18: Booker missed 20+ games, TJ missed 17, Knight the season
  • 2016-17: Knight, Chandler, and Bledsoe were “strategically rested”
  • 2015-16: Bledsoe (meniscus) and Knight (hernia) hurt half the season
  • 2014-15: Goran shipped for picks, Knight misses 20 games at end of season
  • 2013-14: Bledsoe (meniscus) out half the season

It hasn’t happened in the McDonough era. Our team last season was not a 21-win team. We would have been close to 30 if Booker stayed healthy. We weren’t a 24-win team either, the year before. Benching Bled/Knight/Chandler is the only reason. So when people say they expect us to be under 30 wins again, I don’t buy it. And frankly, I think a year from now we might look back and say we really undersold this team, because even a 35-win season would only (hypothetically) be a 6-7 win jump. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have high expectations for this team if we are healthy.

Sun-Arc: Count me as one of the people that doesn’t think the FO is as incompetent as they have seemed. We have had a lot of things go wrong, and the FO was behind some of that — particularly with regard to the disgruntled players. But injuries (Bled, Knight, TJ, Canaan, etc.) also played a part. And I believe the plan has been to gain several top-five picks to increase chances at obtaining stars in the draft. The team now has five top-ten picks on its roster plus Booker and TJ, which is a lot of youth. Booker appears to be a star. Jackson has a chance to be one. Ayton has a good chance to be one. Bridges and TJ could be good (possibly very good) players on a playoff caliber team. And picking up Ariza was, potentially, a very good move for all kinds of reasons.

All of the above will likely not translate to sniffing playoffs this season unless my list below comes to pass. But I do feel optimistic about being in the playoffs starting in 2020 — or possibly 2021, if the West stays super strong in its top nine teams.

What needs to go right to make the playoffs in 2019:

  1. Everyone needs to stay healthy.
  2. Knight needs to return at least to the level he displayed in MIL.
  3. Jackson has to play smarter/better than he has thus far.
  4. No drama or disgruntled players (from lack of playing time, etc).
  5. At least three of the young guys (Bridges, Reed, Okobo, Harrison, Chriss, Bender) need to play really well.
  6. Ayton has to be Rookie of the Year.
  7. Kokoskov has to be Coach of the Year.
  8. Booker has to be an All-Star.
  9. The vets (Chandler, Ariza) have to really push the younglings to succeed.
  10. The defense has to be at least average.

And even with all of that, it may also take misfortune to hit a couple of the other teams in the West (Here’s hoping one of those teams is the Lakers!). But the talent level of the team is a lot higher than last season with the additions of Ayton, Ariza and Bridges. The shooting and defense will likely be better. I really don’t expect any more tanking (sitting the best players, etc.), so I’m sure they’ll win more games. Even if they don’t compete to be in the top eight, I really hope the top half of my list happens, just so the team will be far more watchable than the last couple of seasons.

SDKyle: 1. This as an obvious answer perhaps, but to have ANY chance at the playoffs, the Suns can’t afford to lose any starters for any meaningful amount of time. Losing Booker for 12 games, Ayton for 20, or anything along those lines would be a death blow to this slim hope. My reasoning for this is that the Suns’ “depth” is largely replacement-level, and running with Dragan Bender for 32 minutes a night due to injuries is a recipe for a lot of losses.

2. Brandon Knight must play at something approximating his best self. We need to see a Knight who isn’t forcing the issue too hard or too often and who is keeping the turnovers to a reasonable minimum... at least not more than 3.5 a game if he’s playing starter’s minutes. I know some folks are high on Elie Okobo, but in my opinion, he’s not that close to ready for heavy minutes on a contender. Shaq Harrison is a solid deep bench guard but not a solution if Knight falters. Like it or not, a lot depends on how Knight responds to the challenge of this season.

3. Igor Kokskov must prove his mettle. A lot of Suns fans seem to be taking it as a given that Kokoskov is a vastly superior coach to anyone the Suns have had since Mike D. I want that to be true, but until he proves it’s true it remains a major question mark hanging over the franchise.

SouthernSun: This team, as constructed, isn’t going to make the playoffs.

However, if it were going to, the following things would need to happen:

  1. Knight absolutely blows us away. He would need to shoot 40% from three, and completely buy in to Igor’s pass-happy offense. Also, the lesser load he’s carrying offensively (compared to when he last set foot on a court for an NBA game a year and a half ago) would have to translate into him putting forth more effort on the defensive end. So essentially, Knight would have to match his career-best 3-point percentage, become a better passer and defender than he’s ever been before.
  2. Jackson will need to develop a reliable 3-ball, at least league average, look much more under control, and prove that in a slightly more limited offensive role, he is actually a positive contributor. He will also have to live up to his defensive hype.
  3. Bridges will have to look like a very solid player in his rookie year, giving credence to some basketball folks referring to drafting him as being more of a “win now” move.
  4. Ayton will need to be a ROY candidate.
  5. Ariza will need to look just as effective as he did last season, and be capable of playing nearly as many minutes.
  6. One of Okobo, Canaan, or Shaq will need to look like a legitimate backup NBA point guard for the full season.
  7. One of Bender or Chriss will need to show some significant improvement.
  8. Booker will need to take yet another step forward in his progression into the superstar we all hope he will be.
  9. Igor will have to prove himself to be a quality head coach.

I expect at least several of these things to happen. I just have little hope that all of them will. Which is why I still project 33 wins.

Please, please, please, prove me wrong. I want to be wrong SO badly.

Alex Sylvester: The most important thing for the Suns to make the playoffs is for the entire Pacific division to be moved to the Eastern Conference...

Just kidding. Well, sort of.

In order for the Suns to get into the playoff picture, there will be to be a number of things to happen. People like lists; let’s make one!

  1. Brandon Knight has to have a Comeback Player of the Year-type season.
  2. Devin Booker becomes an All-Star (not just play like an All-Star... actually become one).
  3. DeAndre Ayton needs to be in the top-three ROY conversation.
  4. Josh Jackson takes a big leap, building off the second half of last season.
  5. The Suns make a move at the trade deadline.

I could make a longer list, but this seems to be a fair assessment of what it would take for the Suns to take a massive leap from last year.

Is it possible? Sure.

But I doubt every single thing happens on this list. Hell, I’d take two of those five things in a heartbeat!

Many thanks again to our Fantable - GuarGuar, SDKyle, Sun-Arc, SouthernSun and Alex Sylvester - for all their input!


2017-18 Season Highlights

Oklahoma City Thunder vs Phoenix Suns Full Game Highlights / Jan 7 / 2017-18 NBA Season

Dragan Bender Full Highlights 2018.01.07 vs Thunder - 20 Pts, 6 Rebs, 4 Assists, 3 Blks!

Josh Jackson Full Highlights 2018.01.07 vs Thunder - 17 Pts, 10 Rebs, 5 Assists!


Quote of the Week

”Just keep maturing as a player, especially defensively knowing our terms and being in the right spots. I think that’s going to help me out throughout this whole process.” - Mikal Bridges (on his goals for his rookie season)


Interesting Suns Stuff


News & Notes

Mikal Bridges is Working Hard and Waiting for his Opportunity. Basketball Insiders

Phoenix Suns: Every team needs a ‘Lineup of Death’. Luke Swiatek/Hoops Habit

Suns slotted to win 27 games by ESPN’s projections. Kevin Zimmerman/Arizona Sports

NAZ Suns announce two open tryouts in September. Brian Bergner/Daily Courier

USA Today: Phoenix Suns’ ‘young core is in place’. Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports

The 2018-19 Phoenix Suns are here to compete. Luke Swiatek/Hoops Habit

The Rookie Curve: Deandre Ayton, at a Fork in the Road. Jonathan Tjarks/The Ringer


Suns History in Video

1993 NBA Playoffs: Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers


Suns Trivia

Only three 7-footers in NBA history have shot over 36% from 3 in their sophomore seasons: Dirk Nowitzki, Karl-Anthony Towns and... Dragan Bender.


Previewing the Weeks (and Months) Ahead

August ? - 2018-19 NBA Schedule released. (The 2017-18 schedule was released on Aug. 14, 2017.

August 31 - Last day for teams to waive players and apply the stretch provision to their 2018-19 salaries.

Aug. 31 thru Sept. 15 - 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup (China).

September 5 - Last day for teams to issue required tenders to unsigned second-round picks; those players become free agents on Sept. 6 if not tendered.

September 7 - Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2018 Enshrinement Ceremony.

September 21 - First allowable date for players participating in preseason NBA Global Games to report to their teams (no earlier than 11 a.m. local time).

September 22 - Training Camps open for all teams participating in preseason NBA Global Games.

September 24 - First allowable date for all other veteran players to report to their teams (no earlier than 11 a.m. local time).

September 25 - Training Camps open for all other teams.

October 1 - Phoenix Suns vs Sacramento Kings, 7:00 pm AZT

October 3 - Phoenix Suns vs New Zealand Breakers, 7:00 pmAZT

October 5 - Phoenix Suns vs Portland Trail Blazers, 7:00 p.m. AZT

October 8 - Phoenix Suns @ Golden State Warriors, 7:00 p.m. AZT

October 10 - Phoenix Suns @ Portland Trail Blazers, 7:00 p.m. AZT

  • Home games will be streamed live on Suns.com through the RISE Network.

October 12 - NBA Preseason ends.


Last Week’s Poll Results

The poll was “If you could somehow bring back a former Suns’ PG - in his prime - to play for this years team, who would it be?”

80% - Steve Nash.

11% - Kevin Johnson.

08% - Jason Kidd.

01% - Another Suns PG.

There were a total of 365 votes cast.


This week’s poll is:

Poll

When do you think the Suns will finally return to the playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    2019.
    (76 votes)
  • 60%
    2020.
    (208 votes)
  • 11%
    2021.
    (41 votes)
  • 6%
    2022 or later.
    (21 votes)
346 votes total Vote Now