Emeka Okafor

Phoenix Suns Season Preview

Nearly six months on from their second worst season in franchise history, the Phoenix Suns are preparing to begin a new campaign, and the beginning of a new era in the organisation.

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Last season’s team was bad for many reasons, and not just the playing personnel.  A lack of clear direction and identity was all too obvious to onlookers. Steve Nash had been shipped to our hated rivals in LA for draft picks and Grant Hill joined him in the city with the Clippers via free agency. These two guys had been a huge presence in the organisation, Nash being a two time MVP and playing his best basketball years in Phoenix, the most famous and best loved Sun since Sir Charles himself. Grant Hill, despite his more limited offensive production, had been the team’s best defender and a leader on the court as well and in the locker room.

So the front office decided Michael Beasley (stop laughing) would be the right signing and the type of guy to lead the franchise back to playoff contention. Goran Dragic signed on for a second stint, who would prove to be one of the few bright spots in a dreadful season that saw Alvin Gentry lose his job and Lindsay Hunter take the reins for remainder of the season, ensuring just 25 wins

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“So guys, can Michael Beasley really lead this team?”

All this led to big changes. General Manager Lance Blanks was fired, and Boston’s Assistant GM Ryan McDonough, who had been courted by a few franchises prior to Phoenix, was installed to run the show and begin the rebuilding of the franchise. Lindsay Hunter was not retained as Head Coach leading to the popular former Suns shooting guard Jeff Hornacek arriving from Utah.

The Suns roster was a mismatch of players: veterans and pros that don’t belong on losing teams. Hornacek spoke of getting back to the style that he first played in Phoenix under the late Cotton Fitzsimmons in the 80’s. Fastbreaks and high scoring, the exciting brand of basketball that the franchise was always known for, but adopting some of the hard defensive systems he learned at the Jazz from Coach Jerry Sloan. For this Phoenix had to get younger, beginning with the NBA Draft in June.

In a surprise to some, Alex Len was selected with the 5th pick, overlooking some of the more ‘sexy picks’ in Ben McLemore and Nerlens Noel. Len had undergone ankle surgery for a stress fracture, and later revealed he would have a similar op on the other ankle as a preventive measure. Archie Goodwin was selected at 29; the 19 year old Kentucky guard was seen as a sleeper in the draft and a youngster with a high upside, very athletic with an ability to get to the basket, although a streaky jump shooter.

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During the offseason a number of players were traded, and released. Solid swingman Jared Dudley was traded to the Clips, in exchange for exciting PG Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler (who was later traded to the Bucks for Ish Smith and centre Slava Kravtsov). The key to the Butler deal to the Bucks was freeing up 5 mil in cap space, which enabled them to waive Michael Beasley who contributions in less than a year in Phoenix amounted to a gun charge, possession of marijuana and an alleged sexual assault. (He did have one outstanding game versus the Lakers though). Luis Scola was shifted to the Pacers (great move for him) with Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a 1st round ‘14 draft pick going back to Phoenix. Jermaine O’Neal signed with the Golden State Warriors, and Wesley Johnson with the Lakers as a free agents.

This past week saw Marcin Gortat, Malcolm Lee, Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall traded to Washington in exchange for Emeka Okafor and a 1st round pick for next year’s draft. Gortat didn’t belong on a team intent on rebuilding. At 29, he belonged on a team making the playoffs and good luck to him in Washington, it’s a move that is good for both teams. Okafor’s contract is expiring, as was Gortat’s, and if he gets fit enough to play this season, could be traded or Phoenix could see the benefit of saving the further cap space next summer. The real prize was receiving another 1st round draft pick, and the shedding 4 players.

The roster has gotten much younger, faster and athletic, although far more inexperienced.  Miles Plumlee will now be trusted as the starting centre (Frye is not fully up to speed yet after 16 months out with an enlarged heart), with rookie Len earning his minutes from the bench. Plumlee has only played in the region of 50 minutes of NBA game time in his career, but Hornacek has stated he is the player he has been pleasantly surprised by the most in preseason. Markieff Morris should be the starter at PF, he can rebound well and hit shots all the way back to the 3pt line, but can be wildly inconsistent and picks up fouls too easily. His twin, Marcus, is a better shooter although not as physical and will fight it out with PJ Tucker for the SF spot. PJ showed last season he is the team’s best defender, and will provide more in effort and tenacity than in scoring.
Gerald Green will fill between the SF and SG spots, he showed a couple seasons back for the Nets that he could shoot but needs to be kept on a leash otherwise he will be the next Shannon Brown but with even worse shot selection. Archie Goodwin will see limited time to begin the season, as the backcourt is where the Suns have their only two stars.

 

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The early talk from Jeff Hornacek is Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe will form the new backcourt tandem for Phoenix, sharing the ball handling duties. Neither are great shooters but they both like to push the ball in an up-tempo offense (remember they played behind Steve Nash and Chris Paul as backups), and have excellent passing abilities as well as driving to the hoop themselves. For Bledsoe this is a huge season. He finally has the starting spot on an NBA team, and has the opportunity to make himself the franchise player for the Suns future. I’d expect him to be tied down with a contract extension soon; otherwise the market will set his price as a restricted free agent next summer. His shot blocking ability as a guard at just 6’ 1” is remarkable. He has quick hands as well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him leading guards in blocks and being close to his former teammate Paul in the steals category. Dragic was excellent last season after the All-star break, averaging 9.5 assists per game and 16 points per game on an awful team. If he carries on that type of form, McDonough may have a tough decision on his hands. Trade him while value is high, or keep him if a partnership with Bledsoe looks like a winner and the young team shows progress.

It’s certain that Phoenix will be in the bottom 3 teams in the West next season. They will suck, that’s not in doubt. There is no outside shooting threat, unless Frye or Green has a hot streak. The interior defence is also questionable now Gortat has departed. However they will be at least playing what the head coach describes as ‘Phoenix Suns basketball’, high tempo, exciting at times to watch, and will get the odd good win against bigger teams (and the Lakers).  This year gives Hornacek a chance to identify which young guys can play in this league and develop, and also the players that can’t. This season is about the building blocks for the future of the organisation.  Get them in place and add to it. Having four first round draft picks for next year is a very good start, coupled with a good chunk of salary cap space, Phoenix have an excellent chance to grow providing they draft well and continue to make good moves as shown by the new GM this offseason.

Player development, not tanking.

Not yet anyway…..It’s only October.

*Waves back

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