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Today’s Fastbreak Roundtable: Trouble in the Desert

February 2, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek reacts during the first quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of drama surrounding the Phoenix Suns right now, so what better time to do a roundtable discussion about the trouble unfolding in the desert?

Jason Patt: This has been a wretched start to the season for the Phoenix Suns, and now Eric Bledsoe is hurt, Jeff Hornacek is on the hot seat and two assistants have been fired. Just looking back over these first 32 games, what’s been the biggest issue? Or is there even one that can be picked out?

Kelly Scaletta: Lack of continuity hurts. Every time you sneeze, they’ve changed something up before you can blow your nose. This is the other side of the whole “do something” argument. There is a proven correlation between continuity and winning. You need time playing together to establish something. As soon as Phoenix starts to put something together the front office makes a trade.

I don’t know how much of it you can put on Hornacek.

Jack Magruder: There are several things that stand out — Markieff Morris has been a distraction since his brother was traded this summer, and the Suns have not seen the best he has to offer. They finally dropped him from the starting lineup a couple of weeks ago in favor of Jon Leuer, who has played well.

The new two point-guard offense has looked good at times, but at others it has sputtered. It is difficult to play full-time uptempo with a big center in the lineup, and the Suns play either Alex Len or Tyson Chandler almost all the time.

P.J. Tucker has been pointed in his criticism recently, saying some players do not seem prepared or committed to their defensive assignments.

Coach Jeff Hornacek also has criticized the effort, particularly on the defensive end, during this awful streak. Hornacek is a good basketball man, and none of this seems like it’s his fault. Maybe the new assistants will help.

The loss of Bledsoe certainly is a blow, since this team is built around him. He missed 33 games after a meniscus injury two years ago. Not knowing the full extent of his injury makes planning difficult, but the Suns do not have to blow up the team now because of the way the West is shaping up. Even at 12-20, they are only a few games out of the No. 8 seed.

That being said, they could try to move one of their centers, and Morris is certainly a trade candidate, although his value has never been lower. The funny thing is, at least before Bledsoe’s injury, the Suns might have been best served to play Markieff at the 5 and commit to run it up and spread the floor every time. After signing Tyson, that was never an option.

Jason: The continuity point is an interesting one. Dragic and Bledsoe seemed to have a good thing going in 2013-14, but then Isaiah Thomas was added to the mix last year and that kind of threw things off. Dragic wasn’t thrilled with that move and then both Thomas and Dragic were gone and Brandon Knight came in. That’s a lot of volatility in that backcourt, and that volatility/lack of chemistry has likely helped result in some of the epic late collapses that have been suffered this season.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe actually alluded to that in his big Suns piece today, as he talked about the disastrous crunch-time offense and how there may be some locker-room issues with the two members of the backcourt. It almost sounds similar to some of the issues the Bulls are going through with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.

Sep 28, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight (3), center Tyson Chandler (4) and guard Eric Bledsoe (2) poses for a portrait during media day at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Jack: An uptempo offense often can have trouble in crunch time, unless you have a Steph Curry or Steve Nash to rise above. That is no secret.

Both Suns guards sometimes seem to force penetration in the final minutes and find themselves with nowhere to go and no bailout calls from the officials. The trick is to surround drive-and-dish guys with shooters. Leuer and Mirza Teletovic can shoot from the perimeter, and rookie Devin Booker has played well in spurts, as has T.J. Warren.

One of their issues is that their best offensive team is not their best defensive team, so there’s that.

Regarding any perceived tension between Bledsoe and Knight, I’m always surprised by the ability to spot issues from 1,000 miles away. Every team that is in a bad period has issues, and P.J. Tucker has delineated them well in our last two stories on the team.

Jason: I tend to believe Lowe’s reporting, but you never know with this type of tricky subject. Anyway, speaking of tension there’s the Morris situation…but we’ll get to him in a minute. How about the Tyson Chandler signing being a bust thus far? I know he’s been hurt, but why other than that hasn’t that worked?

Jack: The Suns guards have had trouble finding a rhythm on Tyson’s pick-and-rolls. The Suns wanted to incorporate that, and it remains a work in progress. We know the signing was an attempt to lure LaMarcus Aldridge, but when Aldridge chose the Spurs it was a big blow.

Tyson has helped mentor Alex Len, who is more decisive defensively now. That’s a good thing. But overall, the four years at $48M looks like a big overpay.

Jason: Yeah, that contract could look pretty awful if there’s not significant improvement, even with the cap going up. I have to think Chandler will come around at some point, but who knows.

So now shifting to back Morris. Is there ANY way he’s on this roster past the deadline? What could the Suns feasibly even get in a trade?

Jack: After the towel toss, it seems impossible that Morris will stay. He has value, and his points and rebounds have increased every year. Scouts know his talent. Certainly teams will try to buy low, thinking the Suns must move him. We’ll see if they can hold out. Not sure what the market will bear.

The best for the Suns would be if some team, a playoff contender, developed a need between now and the deadline. It is worth hanging on to him in the short term in case of that eventually.

And as I mentioned before, if the Suns really wanted to commit to run-and-gun and were of a forgiving mind, Markieff could play as the ‘5,’ with one big man on the bench as defensive protection against the Drummonds, Jordans et al.

Kelly: Less is better than Morris, at this point. Whether it’s throwing in the towel or addition by subtraction, the whole thing is unsustainable. I wonder if the question now is more about who will take him and whether the Suns will have to offer up something to offload him.

And I’m with you on the Bledsoe/Knight thing, Jack. People need to talk for some reason, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Jack: I think you are right about Morris, Kelly.

Probably working right now trying to put a package together. He has a very affordable contract, signing a four-year, $32 million deal before last season. It is another reason he has a beef with the Suns, since he and Marcus signed thinking they would play together for the duration.

Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris has been suspended.

Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports

Jason: The whole Morris thing is weird. I get they signed their contracts together, but did they really expect to play together forever? The NBA is a business and the Suns were trying to get a star player. Could they have handled things better? Maybe. Either way, it’s better for both parties if a trade is made. Fresh starts are needed.

Jack: The crazy thing about the Morris’s deals — Suns VP Lon Babby told their agent the two could have $52M over four years, and it was up to them to split it up. So Markieff got $32M and Mook got $20M. Maybe the Morris’s believed the deals would keep them together with the Suns for four years, but there is no record of the Suns making any public promises.

Some in the industry believe the Suns should have handled it better. Some believe the Morris’s got jerked around. Whatever, they and their agent agreed to the deals.

Jason: Agreed. They should know how all this works.

Looking toward the coaching staff, do you think this assistant coach shakeup will fix anything? What has to happen for Hornacek to get fired? The next three games are against brutal opponents (as in very good teams), so not sure things get any better soon, especially with Bledsoe gone.

Jack: The Suns won’t win the next three games without Bledsoe if they play the way they have been playing for two weeks, so they could be 12-23 starting the new year.

The two elevated assistants are considered good basketball minds, and Earl Watson was a point guard in the league just two years ago, so his expertise should help.

Jeff, who is in the last year of his contract, should not be blamed for what is happening now, but owner Robert Sarver has been known to misjudge his leadership personnel.

Former GM Steve Kerr, former assistant GM David Griffin and former coach Mike D’Antoni are three of the top quality basketball minds he has let go. Kerr and Griffin opposed each other in the NBA Finals last year.

So, who knows?

Jason: Who knows is a good way to put it. The Suns have been low-key pretty dysfunctional in recent years, and you have to wonder how much ownership is to blame for these situations.

Jack: In my view, it always starts at the top.

The Suns were in very, very capable hands when Jerry Colangelo ran the show.

Now they aren’t.

Former agent Lon Babby made some awful moves when he was made general manager a few years ago.

Hornacek coached his overachievers to a great record in 2013-14, but the Thomas signing the next summer did not turn out well. Thomas needed the ball and thought he should have it, and that wasn’t about to happen with Bledsoe/Dragic in the backcourt. Led to problems. Now, more.

Jason: Yep, and it’s hard to see how all these problems get fixed this season. I guess you just have to hope the team rallies around Hornacek and steps up in the wake of Bledsoe’s injury. Even then, I’m not really sure what the “best-case” scenario is. A first-round beatdown against Golden State? Getting in the lottery would probably be more ideal.

Jack: Good call, Jason. Hornacek is a good coach and the players care. I think winning is always better than losing, even if it gets you a first-round playoff match against Golden State.

The Suns were 17-16 without Bledsoe after his meniscus repair in 2013-14, but Markieff was playing well, Dragic was at point and Gerald Green had a career year. We’ll see what Knight and the crew can muster this time around. Sometimes adversity brings out the best in a group of competitors.

It will be interesting to see how things unfold.

Kelly: What Jack says is my impression from a distance. Seems like a lot of careers have gotten better when he was coaching them. The Suns weren’t supposed to be as good as they were as fast as they were. It goes back to that continuity thing. Suns management seems like that cook that keeps adding spices trying to fix things before they have a chance to simmer, so it comes out awful. You can’t blame Hornacek for the front office’s meddling. To me it strikes an interesting contrast to the Bulls’ situation, but that’s another roundtable.

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