The Phoenix Suns are trying something new in coach Jeff Hornacek’s third season.
They’ve plugged the middle.
The Suns have been able to count the number of rim-protecting post men they’ve had on one hand in the 47-year history of the franchise, but this year will be different. If free-agent 7-footer Tyson Chandler plays to his resume, and there’s no reason to believe he will not, he could go right to the top of the list.
However it plays out, it’s a good step for a team that habitually plays well on the offensive side of the ball — see Charles Barkley, Steve Nash — but has issues at the other end.
Hornacek is in the final year of his three-year contract, and general manager Ryan McDonough has two years remaining on his deal. Hornacek was the runner-up to chatty Gregg Popovich as NBA Coach of the Year in 2014, when the Suns surprised most with a 48-34 record. The Suns would be well-served to recapture some of the chemistry that marked that team this year.
What Happened Last Year
It’s hard enough to compete in the powerful Western Conference without any distractions, and the Suns had plenty last season.
Intentions were good when the team added guard Isaiah Thomas following a sign-and-trade deal with Sacramento worth $27.5 million over four years. Thomas was to play with holdovers Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe and give the Suns a potent perimeter attack all game every game. Thomas could score from the outside, and his addition also made sense because of the uncertain status of Bledsoe, whose desire for a long-term deal was met with reluctance until the Suns finally agreed to a five-year, $70 million contract late in the offseason.
It just didn’t work out. Despite a 28-20 start, the Suns never seemed comfortable with the three-headed backcourt. All were primarily point guards, and all needed the ball. Running the offense was one thing, defending an opponent’s off-guard was another. It got so bad that good guy Dragic said he wanted to be traded because he no longer trusted the front office. After Dragic was sent to Miami at the trade deadline, McDonough fired back to fans and media who said the Suns had sacrificed their best player for a couple of first-round draft picks: “Our response to that, I think,” he said, “is that Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris are still in Phoenix Suns uniforms.”
The redo didn’tt stop there. The Suns also acquired Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks and sent Thomas to Boston in separate trades. The Suns called Knight the best player in all their trades, although Knight played only 11 games with them before suffering an ankle injury that required April surgery. He’s fine, and the Suns signed him to a five-year $70 million contract this summer.
The drama didn’t help. While the Suns were in contention for a playoff spot after their hot start, they won only 10 of their final 34. In a conference loaded with seven of the league’s 10 50-victory teams, it wasn’t nearly enough.
What Happened This Summer
The Suns’ addition of Chandler was overshadowed by the stir created by forward Markieff Morris, who demanded to be traded and said he never would return to Phoenix after his twin brother Marcus was traded to Detroit. Markieff was miffed that he wasn’t kept in the loop.
That deal coupled with the Chandler signing enabled the Suns to make a strong play for LaMarcus Aldridge, who gave Phoenix serious consideration before signing to play with Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
Shooting guard Devin Booker was added in the draft, and he showed well in the Summer League games in Las Vegas. He’s only 18, but the Suns saw a maturity in his game that leads them to believe he can contribute right away.
Oh, and Markieff did return. Both he and the Suns said all the right things at Media Day.
The standard line is that Chandler has had a good, solid career since joining the NBA out of Dominguez High in 2001. Closer scrutiny shows that he’s better than all but the most ardent observers might know while averaging 8.8 points and 9.3 rebounds in his 14 NBA seasons.
According to the algorithmic set, Chandler has been the most efficient offensive player in the NBA in four of the last five seasons. His career shooting percentage (59.1) is the highest in NBA history among qualifiers.
He will play all season at 33, and the numbers indicate he’s found the fountain of youth. Chandler has averaged a double-double — 10.2 points, 10.2 rebounds — while shooting 65 percent from the field over the last five seasons, two with Dallas sandwiched around three with the Knicks.
Chandler’s value is enhanced by the steady, calming presence he brings to a team, a trait Suns players said they noticed at the start of summer workouts. Chandler also will help third-year center Alex Len with the finer points, and the Suns have talked about pairing the twin 7-footers in certain situations.
With Knight, Bledsoe and Morris — who has improved his scoring averages in each of his four seasons — the Suns will score. They had trouble from the three-point line, but Booker should help there. He was as good a spot-up shooter as there was in the NCAA Tournament.
Chandler will defend, rebound and be used in the pick-and-roll. The Suns will let Bledsoe and/or Knight push and penetrate, and expect Morris to score both from the perimeter and rolling to the hoop, something he hasn’t done much of before. Morris is athletic and a good passer, and Suns believe the can exploit that.
The elephant in the room is Morris’s previously stated desire to be traded. Is that forgotten, or is it simply hidden behind closed doors? Morris has a team-friendly contract and it doesn’t make business sense to trade him.
The West is so deep and talented that the Suns must be at their best to have a chance at the playoffs, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.