Last season: Believe it or not, the Suns actually had playoff aspirations when the regular season began. The front office believed that Michael Beasley would be different in Phoenix than he had been anywhere else, and mandated that he be given a chance to be a difference-maker in the lineup. Once it became clear that Beasley was a bust and that the team was headed nowhere but the draft lottery, the Suns parted ways with head coach Alvin Gentry in the middle of the year, and gave the interim tag to Lindsey Hunter.
That was essentially a disaster, as Hunter was directionless during his time in charge, and alienated veteran players while never gaining command of the locker room in the process.
The offseason saw Beasley bought out of his contract, GM Lance Blanks let go, and a new general manager in Ryan McDonough and a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek brought in to lead the rebuild back to respectability.
Signature highlight from last season: There were so many to choose from … OK, not so much. But what struck me when revisiting Suns highlights from last season were the three different times (plays 9, 8, and 2 in the clip below) that Goran Dragic found a teammate with a bounce pass through a defender’s legs for the finish.
Key player changes: The Suns began the rebuilding process by making some moves geared more toward the future than the present, but managed to pick up a nice asset on a rookie contract in Eric Bledsoe while doing so.
- IN: Bledsoe came over in the deal that sent fan favorite and consummate teammate Jared Dudley to the Clippers. Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green were acquired from the Pacers in the deal that sent Luis Scola to Indiana. Slava Kravstov and Ish Smith were acquired from the Bucks by trading Caron Butler, who came over with Bledsoe in the deal with the Clippers. Malcolm Lee is on the roster as a result of the draft night trade Phoenix made to move up to be able to select Archie Goodwin. Alex Len is the other rookie in place, selected by the team with the fifth overall pick in this summer’s draft. It’s worth noting that the Suns have 16 guaranteed contracts in place at the moment, and will need to get down to 15 players before the season begins. Lee would appear to be the odd man out.
- OUT: Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, Scola, and Dudley.
Keys to the Suns season:
1) Developing Eric Bledsoe: The explosive reserve guard who showed flashes of brilliance for the Clippers playing behind Chris Paul last season was coveted by many teams, but the Suns were the ones creative enough to come up with an enticing package (and involve a third team) in order to secure Bledsoe’s services.
Bledsoe is athletic and speedy, and on the defensive end he lives in the passing lanes. But he’s still raw offensively, and developing him into a consistent player on both ends of the floor should be the primary goal in Phoenix this season. It’s worth noting that Bledsoe is essentially in a contract year — the Suns can extend him a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent following the season, thus having the right to match any offer he may receive. Even a bad year is likely to net Bledsoe some pretty significant offers, so the Suns need to see what they have in him before committing cap space and huge dollars over the next several seasons.
2) Trade bait: The Suns are by no means done dealing considering their rebuilding situation, and the team has players in contract situations that will be appealing to other teams around the league, especially as the trade deadline approaches. Marcin Gortat and his expiring $7.7 million deal is at the top of that list, and even he knows it. Another interesting name, though, is Channing Frye, who is back after sitting out all of last season with a heart condition. If Frye returns to form as a high-percentage shooter from three-point distance, his ability to stretch the floor will be highly-coveted for his relatively low price. Frye is on the books for $6.4 million this season, and has a player option for $6.8 for the following season.
3) Building a foundation: The most important thing for the Suns to do this season is establish an identity and a direction under new head coach Jeff Hornacek. Once the wheels fell off a season ago, there was no leadership from either the front office or from the interim coach on the sidelines. McDonough appears to have a long-term plan in place from a management standpoint, now that needs to trickle down to the players on the floor. The holdovers from last year have responded extremely well to Hornacek thus far — his challenge will be to keep everyone focused and engaged on improvement over the long grind of the season, especially in the face of tallying few wins against so many losses.
Why you should watch: The Suns aim to play uptempo offensive basketball under Hornacek, and that should be a blast with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe pushing the pace in the starting lineup.
Prediction: The oddsmakers have set the over/under for season wins in the 21-22 neighborhood, and that seems a bit on the low side given the guys in place and the effort we’ve seen thus far during the preseason. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of losing in Phoenix, but if there’s good news surrounding that it’s the franchise having a plan in place and a head coach that seems well-suited to the challenge of rebuilding that lies ahead. As long as Hornacek keeps his players on the path of continual improvement as the season progresses, the year will ultimately be viewed as a success.