Published On: Wed, Mar 7th, 2018

Better Luck Next Year: Phoenix Suns edition

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As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The first edition focuses on the Phoenix Suns.

The Good

Devin Booker’s third-year breakout. Though the Suns’ lousy record and his own double-digit games missed precluded him from the All-Star conversation (he just dominated the Three-Point Contest instead), 21-year-old wing Devin Booker‘s season suggests he’ll be playing on All-Star Sunday soon enough.

For the second straight season, Booker’s numbers spiked. He’s essentially averaged a 25-5-5 on 56.6 percent true shooting for the Kentucky product’s most efficient and prolific campaign to date.

Booker’s defense remains suspect, which means his advanced stats have yet to catch up to his box-score stats – in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, he ranks just 31st among shooting guards, behind such luminaries as Tyrone Wallace and Ron Baker – but his offense has been eye-popping, confirming the perennially lottery-bound Suns have at least one future star.

T.J. Warren’s career year. The jury’s still out on the four-year, $50-million extension the Suns gave T.J. Warren in the summer, but the final season before it kicks in has been a best-case scenario. Warren’s posted a career-high 19.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting, and though he’s putrid as ever from three (21.6 percent), he’s getting to the line four times a game, easily the best rate of his career.

Like Booker, his defense is still questionable and he doesn’t give you much rebounding or passing. It’s also worth asking how efficient an offense built around two high-volume-scoring wings can be (especially when only one can actually shoot) – meaning Warren’s place on a good Suns team might be coming off the bench. But he’s at least proven himself a potent weapon, even if it might take a while to figure out how best to wield him.

Tyson Chandler’s alley-oop buzzer-beater. In one of the most memorable finishes to a meaningless lottery showdown in recent NBA history, Suns coach Jay Triano took advantage of a little-known league rule (which he’d apparently kept in his back pocket for 15 years) to have Tyson Chandler slam down a game-winning alley-oop from Dragan Bender against the Memphis Grizzlies. It looked like goaltending, but since an inbounds pass can’t count as a shot attempt, it was legal, if slightly diabolical.

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star captured the bittersweet nature of the moment during an appearance on the “Lowe Post” podcast: “It’s really too bad that (after) waiting 15 years for this … the best moment you could find to do it is not Game 7 of a playoff series, it’s not to get into the playoffs – it’s a December game against Memphis.”

Josh Jackson’s late-season breakout. His final stat line won’t be much to look at – it’s currently about 12 points and four boards a game, on around 41 percent shooting and 26 percent from deep – but it belies how much more productive Josh Jackson‘s become as the season continues. After scoring 20 just once in the season’s first 41 games, the rookie’s reached that mark an impressive 11 times since, while playing more, shooting better, and turning the ball over less than he did early in the season.

He didn’t have the defensive impact that the Suns might’ve hoped for – sensing a trend? – but the 21-year-old top-five pick has likely shed any premature “bust” characterizations for the time being.

Suns synchronicity. Booker’s 70-point game last season was probably the Suns’ greatest moment of the past five years, but this Twitter video (from an October game against Portland) was the most rewatchable:


The Bad

The opening-night blowout. The tone for the Suns’ season was set by their opening-night performance, when they lost 124-76 to the Portland Trail Blazers at home – remarkably both the worst loss in franchise history and the worst season-opening loss in NBA history. “If the Suns were a Broadway show, they’d close for good after opening night,” proclaimed a particularly catty AP recap of the game; the team replaced head coach Earl Watson two games later.

The defense. Remarkably, all the bad defenders mentioned in the previous section helped Phoenix to a league-worst ranking in overall D, giving up a horrid 113 points a game and holding an opponent to double digits just once so far in the 2018 calendar year. These Suns have taken the Best Defense Is a Good Offense approach to levels even Mike D’Antoni never envisioned – Booker has scored 30-plus in five of the team’s last six, and the Suns have won just one of those games.

The point-guard carousel. A couple seasons after being the butt of a thousand jokes for their alleged point-guard hoarding, the Suns found themselves without a starting-caliber floor general for much of the season after Brandon Knight tore his ACL over the summer and Eric Bledsoe proclaimed that he didn’t wanna be here.

Mike James, Tyler Ulis, and even Isaiah Canaan all got looks at the one, but none really locked the role down. The team dealt for Orlando‘s Elfrid Payton at the deadline – though 10 starts after the team has already gone into full Operation Shutdown is hardly the best way to evaluate his chances of success in the long term.

Marquese Chriss’ sophomore slump. Chriss wasn’t exactly a Rookie of the Year candidate in his inconsistent debut season, but as a sophomore, he’s only raised more questions about his NBA future. His scoring and shooting have gone down, and he’s continued to foul at an unsustainable rate – even fouling out of six games this year, perplexing for a player who averages just over 20 minutes. He’s still even younger than Jackson, but he’ll have to trend in the other direction next season to prove he’s a major part of the Suns’ future.

The loss to the player-coached Warriors. Steve Kerr provided the media with considerable fodder following a February game against the Suns, when it was revealed that the Golden State coach had let several of his veteran players essentially take the reins. David West, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green all led huddles, and even JaVale McGee helped with the pregame film session. The Suns took Kerr’s experiment as a slight, though after losing to the Warriors by 46, there was only so much they could say about it. “It shows a lack of respect for an opponent,” Suns forward Jared Dudley commented afterward. “And maybe right now we don’t deserve respect.”

The Questions

Who’s coaching next year? As previously mentioned, Watson was canned after the team’s 0-3 start, replaced as interim coach by assistant (and former Raptors bench boss) Triano. Aside from the Chandler alley-oop game-winner, Triano hasn’t done a ton to establish himself as the Suns’ coach of the future. Phoenix went 4-1 in the first five games after he assumed control, but 15-43 since, failing to develop an identity or even a stable rotation.

For his part, Triano would like to stay on: “Now that I’ve had the opportunity (to be head coach), I’d like to see this through and see where we go,” he told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “There’s not one thing I dislike about what’s happened so far, except the losing.”

What will they do with their three first-round picks? The Suns have an impressive bounty in this year’s draft – they don’t just own their own pick, a likely top-five selection, but also the Heat’s (currently No. 15) from the Goran Dragic trade, and the Bucks’ (currently No. 16, though it’s protected 17-30) from the Bledsoe trade.

The Suns are (and have been) so overflowing with youngsters that it’s hard to imagine them adding three more to their rotation for next year. It’ll be interesting to see if they try to package a couple of picks together to either move up in the draft, or deal for a productive veteran to provide some much-needed stability. And, of course, they could use a future star to pair with Devin Booker; local big man Deandre Ayton out of Arizona would certainly be the dream.

Is Elfrid Payton the point guard of the future? After dealing a second-round pick for Payton to the Magic at the deadline – a fraction of the cost Orlando paid to land Payton on draft night four years ago – the Suns have received decent production from their floppy-haired point guard, who’s averaged nearly 16-8-8 on almost 47 percent shooting in his 10 games for Phoenix.

The team’s gone 1-9 over that stretch, however, and questions linger about how effective a lineup can be that’s led by a point guard without a reliable jumper (especially if it also includes Warren and a paint-locked center). Payton is a restricted free agent this offseason, so the Suns need to determine whether he’s shown enough to invest in him as their long-term PG.

Who’s going to play center? Phoenix made a big splash in 2015 free agency by signing veteran center Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52-million contract – a deal intended, in large part, to entice fellow free agent LaMarcus Aldridge to the Valley of the Sun. That part of the plan failed, and so has the team: In the three years he’s been in Phoenix, the Suns have gone 66-164. Chandler is no longer the paint-locking, rim-running force he was in his Defensive Player of the Year days, but he’s still decently productive at age 35; one has to hope that he doesn’t spend what could be his NBA twilight attempting to anchor the league’s most wayward defense.

Behind Chandler, 2013 lottery selection Alex Len remains, enjoying something vaguely resembling a breakout season: nearly 15 points and 14 rebounds per 36 minutes, while upping his assist rate and lowering his turnover and foul rates. But his playing time has remained inconsistent, his contract is up this summer, and the NBA has started to move away from centers with his limited offensive skill set – not to mention that Alan Williams, the backup who ate into Len’s minutes last season and signed a multi-year deal in the summer, is expected back from knee surgery this fall.

And the draft is chock full of bigs this year – not just Ayton, but Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Texas’ Mo Bamba, among other options the Suns could explore with their top pick if they don’t feel the best answer is already on the roster.

How much longer does Ryan McDonough have? After being hired as general manager in 2013, McDonough oversaw a rebuild almost as aggressive as Sam Hinkie’s higher-profile overhaul. Determined to build around youth and the draft, he traded vets Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, and Marcin Gortat for various assets and prospects. His immediate return on investment was stunning: The Suns went 48-34 and nearly made the West playoffs while still sitting on a gold mine of picks, appearing to be as well-prepared for the future as any up-and-coming squad in the league.

Things haven’t been as idyllic for McDonough or the Suns since. A combination of questionable trades, underwhelming draft picks, injuries, and poor player relations have all but sapped the team’s vitality and relevance. The Suns have now gone eight years without making the playoffs, and don’t seem much closer to a return than they were when McDonough took over. Was his bow five years ago impressive enough to buy him more time, or will someone new get to execute their own vision for the team’s next half-decade?

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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