The 2015-16 Suns actually looked like it could be a fairly strong team before the season began.
The starting lineup featured Eric Bledsoe (PG), Brandon Knight (SG), P.J. Tucker (SF), Markieff Morris (PF) and Tyson Chandler (C). On their bench they had T.J. Warren, Alex Len, Mirza Teletovic, Ronnie Price, Jon Leuer, Sonny Weems, Archie Goodwin and a very young rookie sharp-shooter named Devin Booker.
But the season started going wrong long before a single game had been played.
As the free agency period began that summer, the Suns had quickly signed veteran center Tyson Chandler to a 4-year, $52 million contract in hope of luring his close friend, LaMarcus Aldridge, into also signing with the Suns. Aldridge, then a 4-time All-Star (7x now) and 3-time All-NBA (5x now) player said he seriously considered signing with the Suns before ultimately signing with the rival San Antonio Spurs instead.
If Aldridge had signed with Phoenix, he would have immediately been slotted into the Suns lineup as their starting power forward. Markieff Morris - who had started at power forward for the Suns in all 82 games the previous season - would have likely been traded or at the very least demoted to a bench role. Markieff’s twin brother, Marcus, was also traded to Detroit (along with Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger) to trim down the roster and create cap space to sign Aldridge.
Both these things left Phoenix with an extremely unhappy Markieff Morris who would later let his unhappiness turn into lackluster play on the court.
The Suns still started the season off fairly well with a 7-5 record in their first 12 games. Morris’ level of play became more erratic as time went on which led to his benching early in December. This coincided with Chandler missing 8 consecutive games with a hamstring issue.
By Christmas, the Suns were 12-19 and on December 26 they suffered another terrible blow. Eric Bledsoe suffered another knee injury (torn meniscus) that would sideline him for the rest of the season. Shortly after this, Jeff Hornacek’s two lead assistant coaches, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting, were suddenly fired leaving Hornacek with a severely depleted coaching staff. A month later, Brandon Knight who had lingering groin injury problems was also lost for all but 10 of the Suns’ remaining games and wouldn’t return to the court until mid-March. T.J. Warren was lost for the rest of the season due to a broken bone in his foot. Head coach Jeff Hornacek was fired on February 1 and assistant coach Earl Watson was named as the interim HC. Markieff Morris also finally got his wish and was traded to Washington at the trade deadline in mid-February for Kris Humphries (waived after 4 games), DeJuan Blair (waived immediately) and the Wizards’ 2016 1st round draft pick (which the Suns eventually used in a trade with Sacramento to acquire Marquese Chriss).
All this left the Suns without their starting backcourt, no real starting caliber power forward, no backup small forward and a very inexperienced head coach for the rest of the season.
The Suns would win only 5 of 33 games during that period of turmoil (late Dec. to mid-March) resulting in a record of 17-47. By then, the Suns had tried all sorts of lineups, including an extended period of a “twin-towers” starting lineup with Chandler at center and Alex Len at power forward and Archie Goodwin (no longer in the NBA) as the starting point guard.
The Suns finished that season at 23-59 and often the only thing that kept fans watching near the end was the exciting play of the rookie that, initially, no one really expected a lot out of: Devin Booker.
A lot of things went wrong that season, injuries being the most prominent. The mishandling of the Markieff Morris situation played a big part too. Morris made it obvious that he no longer wanted to play in Phoenix long before the season started but he wasn’t traded until the trade deadline. This created problems that could have been avoided... both on the court and in the locker room.
If more things had gone right instead of wrong during that season, the Suns might have actually been able to make it back to the playoffs in 2016. Three teams in the West (Dallas, Memphis and Houston) made it to the playoffs that year with only 42 or 41 wins. The Suns had 39 wins the previous season with what could be argued to be a more poorly constructed roster.
On paper, the Suns started off the 2015-16 season with a pretty good team. Even with the Markieff Morris drama, they might have been good enough to have sneaked into the playoffs if not for all of the injuries. Without it, they certainly would have had an even bigger chance... especially with a surprisingly good rookie that would have not only earned lots of rotation minutes but quite likely could have moved into the starting lineup before the end of the season.
It was a “snakebit” season for the Suns which could have been much better than their 23-59 record indicates... with just a few good breaks.
If only all of those injuries hadn’t happened. If only Markieff Morris had remained locked in and played his best. If only LaMarcus Aldridge had signed with the Suns instead of the Spurs.
Just imagine what might have been if the Suns had started that season with this starting lineup:
- PG - Eric Bledsoe
- SG - Brandon Knight
- SF - P.J. Tucker
- PF - LaMarcus Aldridge
- C - Tyson Chandler
And then imagine what sort of damage they might have done after discovering the offensive weapon they had on the bench in Devin Booker.
There are a lot of “if only’s” not only for that year but in the Suns’ past ten years, many caused by a lot of wrong turns, bad decisions or just plain bad luck.
Hopefully, there won’t be many more of those in their future.