Judging from the reactions from many of their fans, the Phoenix Suns have had a very effective summer.
This perceived optimism has been generated by the widespread notion that the franchise has a more palpable direction. As we’ve noticed the past couple of years, the direction of choice had been sideways — with an unintended downward skewing.
But the new direction we’ve witnessed is directly backward — as in taking one step to the rear in an effort to make several hops forward.
The almost giddy reaction to the Suns’ maneuvers over the past month or so was propelled by new general manager Ryan McDonough and those employees he’s added to his lineup of deep thinkers.
So, while waving bye-bye to the notion of harboring decent veteran role players in a hasty reloading intended to chase the eighth playoff seed, Phoenix is unashamedly hording assets. And now that most of the finagling (we presume) has been executed, the Suns are left with two crazy-athletic ex-Kentucky guards (Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin), a talented-but-currently-hobbled young center (Alex Len), a couple of affordable ex-Indiana Pacers and a boatload of first-round draft picks.
Center Marcin Gortat and his expiring contract — according to management’s public summer stance — will stay put for now, but he remains the franchise’s lead veteran asset during this rebuilding phase.
With an expected bonanza waiting in the 2014 NBA Draft and the Suns having a chance to have three first-round picks during this derby, fans seem content to watch the young talent mature while the team closes in on another high lottery pick.
But new coach Jeff Hornacek and his staff — while charged with developing the kids — will of course do what they can to win as often as possible. So how does the asset-collecting plan dovetail with the desire of a coaching staff to prove its value? Will veteran Shannon Brown receive more meaningful fourth-quarter burn than precocious rookie Goodwin? Will the use of newly acquired veteran small forward Caron Butler be tempered (along with winning potential) so the Suns can find out how well Marcus Morris can play the position?
With seemingly reasonable thinkers agreeing that those issues trump standings-related drama, that’s what will hold interest of Suns fans in the coming season.
Until these answers begin to arrive, we can review how the summer moves have transformed the roster. Let’s look at the on-court breakdown.
We start begin in the backcourt, where McDonough recently said, “It’s not Dragic or Bledsoe … it’s Dragic and Bledsoe.”
He was referring to a plan to play the aforementioned Bledsoe with Goran Dragic in a combo package of talented Suns who happen to be more point-guard-oriented (if we’re defining within the positional box) than anything else.
They will be supplemented by Goodwin, veteran two-guard Brown, second-year point guard Kendall Marshall and recently added ex-Pacers swingman Gerald Green. It has been speculated that Marshall, the pre-McDonough pick at No. 13 last season, will be moved, but please note that Dragic and Bledsoe may be required to sit simultaneously. That would create some time for Marshall, who hasn’t exactly inspired other teams to stand in line seeking his services.
With the Suns sitting at 16 contracts (not counting second-round pick Alex Oriakhi and Diante Garrett), it’s quite possible that Malcolm Lee and his $854,389 in seasonal pay will be waived. Lee was added to the roster in order to enable the Suns to trade up to No. 29 (from No. 30) to get Goodwin.
NBA teams can open the season with 15 players on the roster, suggesting Lee, Garrett and Oriakhi could be goners.
But the Suns are pretty crowded at the position of 6-foot-9 forward. They currently check in with the Morris twins (Marcus and Markieff) and Michael Beasley, who’s still on the books for two more seasons. Beasley’s $6 million for this season is guaranteed; half of the same amount is guaranteed for the following campaign.
Phoenix could use what is known as the stretch provision to rid the city of Beas. While Beasley’s best position may be stretch four, this particular stretch would enable the Suns to take what they owe him and spread the payments out over twice the length of his current contract remainder plus one season. In that case, they would have to pay him for five more seasons, but it would reduce what goes on their cap per season. More importantly (based on what we’ve experienced), he’d be an ex-Sun.
Anyway, with the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt all set, two veterans (Jared Dudley and Luis Scola) removed and a 6-foot-9-guy logjam, it’ll be interesting to see how good (or bad) this season’s team turns out.
Butler, who arrived from the L.A. Clippers with Bledsoe and an expiring contract of $8 million, should start at small forward, with defensive ace P.J. Tucker serving as his stunt double. Butler will provide some veteran savvy and one of the few semi-reliable 3-point strokes on the team.
Markieff Morris figures to open his third pro season as the starting power forward and will have the opportunity to flourish without Scola around. Beasley likely will be his backup, while Marcus Morris (who thinks of himself as more of a three) might work there in certain matchups. Channing Frye, who missed last season with an enlarged heart, could be the wild card in this rotation — if he’s cleared to play.
With Len expected to ease into rookie relevance at center, Gortat will be able to (in theory) boost his market value between the first tip and the trade deadline. Although McDonough has said there’s no plan to trade the Polish Hammer Machine, once Len appears ready for extended duty, he and recently added ex-Pacer Miles Plumlee should be able to hold down the middle in a developmental capacity.
While McDonough has preached patience in the rebuilding process, touting the changing (wait for it) culture as the first order of business, everyone’s wondering how many wins this roster can produce. But a lot of Suns observers are just hoping for reasonable progress that provides a little hope without sacrificing draft position.
With picks aplenty and the potential for cap room, the expectations will be much loftier a year from now.