Suns’ future strategy suggests no early exits
PHOENIX — The Suns players that unwittingly invited staggeringly low expectations about seven months ago spent part of their Thursday meeting with coaches and collecting personal effects.
They also invested a few moments fielding inquiries from a large gathering of local reporters. This volume of interest in how the participants perceived this galvanizing — but ultimately disappointing — season underscored how far the Suns have come in the opening stages of their rebuild.
What follows is a player-by-player rundown of this season’s contributions and outlook for the near future.
The skinny: Arrived in a trade from the L.A. Clippers as Chris Paul’s physically gifted understudy, and accessorized by testimony of future greatness from the likes of LeBron James.
Although limited by injury to 43 games, Bledsoe validated what most of the fuss was about. Instead of finally having his own point-guard show to run, however, Bledsoe did have to blend with incumbent point guard Goran Dragic.
When healthy, this combination made the Suns one of the Western Conference’s top teams.
The numbers: 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds in 32.9 minutes per game.
The future: All set to dribble into restricted free agency, Bledsoe used a spin move to dodge questions regarding the likelihood of his return.
"This summer, my goal is to get 100 percent healthy and enjoy my family."
For the record, working alongside another PG doesn’t seem to be an issue.
"You love playing with a player like that who always competes," Bledsoe said when asked about his comfort level playing with Dragic.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough recently told a local radio audience that other teams would be wasting their time signing Bledsoe to an offer sheet his current team will match.
"That’s what we’re planning on doing," McDonough said.
Bledsoe, who scored a combined 59 points in last weekend’s two losses in Texas, seems sturdy enough on his repaired knee to provoke strong interest from other teams . . . despite McDonough’s advice.
The skinny: All he did was sprint from pretty good point guard into consideration for All-NBA honors.
Include Kevin Durant a long list of peers who said "The Dragon" should have been an All-Star.
Dragic’s meteoric statistical rise — especially while Bledsoe was out — included a career-high, 40-point eruption against the New Orleans Pelicans.
"It’s going to be tough to beat this season," Dragic said of his personal performance, "but why not? I love challenges."
As for his team, the relentless lefty expects even more.
"I’m happy that we went out and showed people that we can play," he said. "Next year, we’ll be even better . . . more mature."
The numbers: Ranked sixth in efficiency among NBA PGs, gave the Suns 20.3 points (50.5 percent shooting overall, 40.8 from 3-point range) and 5.9 assists in 35.1 minutes per game.
The future: Dragic, who will be 28 next month, has one more year on his current contract, followed by a player option to test the free-agent market. His annual salary is $7.5 million for each of the next two seasons, so expect him to do some market testing.
Even though it happened before, it’s tough to imagine a change of scenery. Premature (read: contrived) rumors of interest in Dragic around the league included the lure of Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks.
"I don’t listen to rumors," Dragic told Fox Sports Arizona last month, "they mess with your head."
And, like Bledsoe, he seems to have no problem sharing the playmaking roles.
"Every week, every month, every year, we can get better," he said of the partnership. "This was our first year playing together, and we already did so well."
The skinny: In his second season having batted back to the NBA following several campaigns abroad, Tucker joined Dragic in defining the heart and soul of Suns.
Still required to defend the opposition’s top perimeter player, P.J. became a more consistent offensive threat. Now a reasonably reliable triggerman on corner 3s and fiercely rebounding outside his area, Tucker locked down the starting spot at small forward.
The numbers: After averaging 6.4 points per game last season, Tuck bumped that up by 3 points in an average of 30.7 minutes. His rebound average also increased from 4.4 to 6.5.
The future: Tucker, who rose from camp invitee to starter on a minimum-level contract of $884,293, has said he wants to retire as a Sun.
His affection for the franchise that provided him with an opportunity to resurrect his NBA career is genuine.
How much will his value to the Suns translate when weighed by other teams as he hits unrestricted free agency?
And how much will the Suns’ commitment to cap flexibility impact their interpretation of his value to the current team?
The skinny: The Suns’ pick at 13 in the 2011 NBA Draft seemed to be slouching his way toward buster-hood.
But a connection was made with the current coaching staff that translated into ‘Kieff’s candidacy for Sixth Man of the Year.
"When you start to play well and have a long stretch of games when you play well, that becomes your norm," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "That’s where Markiefff is now . . . his norm is playing pretty well."
The numbers: One season removed from providing Phoenix with 8.2 points per game on 40-percent shooting, Markieff averaged 13.8 points and shot 49 percent.
The future: Markieff and twin brother Marcus could be in Bledsoe’s contractual situation next season. If they don’t sign extensions this October, they’ll be looking at restricted free agency next summer.
Having such a close bond, the Morris brothers — despite their impressive rise in performance — could be a difficult financial sell from would-be suitors . . . or the cap-conscious team interested in keeping them.
The skinny: While his ascension didn’t match that of his brother, Marcus went from Lindsey Hunter’s cardboard doghouse to a solid spot in Hornacek’s rotation.
And, like Markieff, an improvement in defensive awareness enabled the Suns coaches to keep him in long enough to show off his offensive skills.
The numbers: Becoming better at recognizing situations helped Marcus lift his field-goal percentage four points (to 44), while earned playing time elevated his scoring average from 5.5 to 9.7
The future: The eventual market for Marcus — whether it’s in Phoenix or elsewhere — depends on which small forwards are on the roster next season. An increase in playing time could lead to another statistical hike . . . and make it even trickier, perhaps, to continue playing on the same team as Markieff.
The skinny: The ultra-talented, extraordinarily bouncy wing man hit town with as the reputed guy who "doesn’t get it."
He exited the season as one of the league’s most exciting players (but not just for dunking purposes) and one of its most improved.
A long list of accomplishments includes scoring 25 of his career-high 41 points during the third quarter of a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The numbers: With accuracy numbers of 45 percent overall and 40 percent from 3, Green went from bench-riding Indiana Pacer to 13.8-points-per-game scorer for a 48-win Phoenix team.
"They gave me an opportunity, they gave me a chance," Green said of the Suns. "I just went out there and took advantage of it."
The future: Green, who has one more season — at $3.5 million — on his contract, could create more difficult decisions for the Suns (and around the league) if his improvement continues.
"I feel like I haven’t done anything yet," he said. "I have to try to get better."
To reach what he termed "the next level," Green must become much more proficient at attacking off the dribble.
During an exit interview with reporters, he said that will be his workout emphasis this summer.
The skinny: After missing last season with an enlarged heart, the veteran stretch four became the only Suns player to start every game.
That’s not bad for a guy the coaching staff viewed as a "maybe" entering camp.
In addition to providing the young Suns with a veteran voice, the former St. Mary’s High and University of Arizona star gave the Suns that floor-spacing threat Dragic reminded us of about once a month last season.
The numbers: Frye made a solid 37 percent of his 3-pointers and — ceding much of the crunch-time minutes to Markieff Morris — still managed to average 11.1 points per game.
The future: With one more season on his current deal, Frye has said he’d love an extension with the Suns. His shooting ability creates driving lanes for Dragic and Bledsoe, and his length allows Hornacek to play Frye at center.
The skinny: Plumlee, who played less than an hour of real time with the Indiana Pacers as a rookie last season, became the starter in Phoenix when the Suns traded Marcin Gortat.
Plumlee’s ability to jump high and run fast made him an alley-oop funhouse for Suns fans and point guards.
But after showing unexpected low-post chops early in the season, Plumlee struggled to make his jump hook once the word was out and the defense was more prepared.
His bounce, strength and smarts did give the Suns some rim protection and pick-and-roll resistance on defense.
The numbers: In a tick under 25 minutes per game, the former Duke center averaged about 8 point and 8 rebounds.
The future: With three more seasons on a pedestrian rookie deal, the hard-working Plumlee is an asset the Suns will want to keep. Such variables could make him attractive as part of a trade package, as well.
The skinny: Bad wheels and prolonged team success prevented the Suns’ selection with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft from hitting the rotation.
The numbers: Len, who played in only 42 games, averaged 8 minutes, 2.4 rebounds and 2.0 points.
The future: Although the Suns are poised to make talent upgrades, the most important player to their potential rise could be Len.
At 7-foot-1, he has the length to protect the rim, enough crustiness to compete on the glass and more than enough offensive skill to be an above-average scoring threat.
When asked about Len’s potential, Hornacek said, "Alex is going to be a great player for us."
To propel his improvement, Len has this in mind: "I’m going to take a few weeks off, come back here and just grind," he said. "I’m just going to be playing in as many pickup games as I can. Missing last summer really hurt me."
The skinny: Goodwin left Kentucky after an up-and-down freshman season, eventually landing in Phoenix as the 29th overall pick.
With a jump shot that still mitigates the effectiveness of an uncanny ability to reach the rim, Archie spent most of this season on skill work and D-League runs.
He did have a few nice moments for the Suns, including a 29-point salvo against the Sacramento Kings in Game No. 82.
The numbers: Goodwin played in 52 games, putting up 3.7 minutes across 10 minutes.
The future: If that jumper becomes more consistent, get out the sunglasses.
"I want to be one of the best to ever play," Goodwin said one day after hitting 11 of 14 shots against the Kings. "It was big to go out with a bang and now come back strong next season."
What about that jumper?
"It’s important to get to where I can shoot it comfortably."
The skinny: A journeyman point guard with blistering speed and quickness, Smith beat out former Suns lottery pick Kendall Marshall to seize the role of caddy for Dragic and Bledsoe.
His ability to come off the bench and goose the tempo to Hornacek-approved levels made Ish quite valuable. Smith, who also is very clever with the ball, didn’t shoot well enough to keep defenders honest and teammates well fed.
The numbers: Smith played in 70 games and averaged 3.7 points in those, but shot .043 from 3-point range.
The future: If the Suns — who hold his option for next season — make multiple draft selections, one of those could be used to make Smith obsolete in Phoenix. But his energy, attitude and ability to guard the ball also could keep him here.
The skinny: Returned to the Suns to provide backcourt scoring insurance without sacrificing Hornacek’s quick tempo.
Never much of a drive-and-kick guy, Barbosa (who broke his left hand a bit later) was less equipped than Smith to get playmaker minutes when Bledsoe went down.
The numbers: "The Brazilian Blur" averaged 7.5 points in 20 games but made only 28 percent of his 3s.
The future: With a logjam on the Suns’ perimeter and draft-pick flexibility, it probably won’t be in Phoenix.
The skinny: The 27-year-old veteran of several international pro leagues earned a camp invite by playing well for the Suns’ summer league team in Las Vegas.
The numbers: Christmas played in 31 games, getting 6.4 minutes and 2.3 points in those.
The future: He’s not under contract for next season but is well thought of by the Suns and could return.
The skinny: As a late-season replacement for Slava Kravtsov, Randolph’s experience put him on the court for spot duty ahead of Alex Len.
The numbers: Randolph averaged 6.8 minutes in his 14 appearances, giving the Suns 1.4 points and 1.8 rebounds.
The future: Up in the air, but not too high.