For the past two days the staff of Valley of the Suns has in our own time sat in quiet contemplation meditating on the Phoenix Suns’ 2016-17 season thus far.
We considered The Highs (beating San Antonio), The Lows (losing to teams with worse records), The Strange (signing Jared Dudley to a large contract, then benching him), The Funny (PJ Tucker’s blown dunk then Shaqtin’ a Fool Golden Ticket gag), The Unexpected (the release of Archie Bradley), and so on.
This season has been one of great excitement, yet still somewhat of a letdown. For instance, Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe are playing at All-Star levels. If it were not for the fact that the guard play in the West was so deep and competitive, at least one of them would be able to break the longest non-All-Star drought in franchise history of three years. At the same time, the team isn’t gelling as a whole as much as fans would have probably liked. The Suns’ current 13-28 record is exactly where they were after 41 games last season and they once again sit in the same 4th-worst position in the league.
In a half-season of ups and downs, we all have an opinion. So without further ado, here are the thoughts of the Valley of the Suns staff as we look back on the first half 2016-17, and look forward to the second 41 games.
As mentioned above, the first thing that stands out to me about this season is the play (especially recent play) of guards Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker. Undoubtedly their contributions to the success of this team are more critical than any others, tantamount in the minds of fans to making or breaking the season. Their occasional inconsistency though has been frustrating, although conistency issues roster-wide has plagued the team as a whole.
A roster not actually that young, the Suns ‘got younger’ by starting Marquese Chriss over Jared Dudley, then by playing Dragan Bender by benching the veteran all-together. Those decisions have allowed the two rookies to receive not only extended playing time but now more experience in clutch situations, giving them greater opportunities to grow on the fly hopefully expediting their learning process.
This first half of the season has been personally disappointing to me because I believed then as I do now that this roster is better on paper than they are showing on the court. That being said, I still watch every game with equal enthusiasm. I get excited when I see Bledsoe, Booker, Bender, Chriss, Warren, and Ulis on the court. There are still plenty of reasons to watch and lots of potential to look forward to. However, as the 2016-17 team has the exact same record through 41 games as the 2015-16 team, this season is basically a wash. For that I give the first half results a C. But because of the excitement of the roster nonetheless, I will add a plus.
I’m encouraged by Devin Booker’s growth and his ceiling. He’s had some truly great games and I think he’ll have an even better second half of the season. Bledsoe is playing near All-Star level, but I’m not sure if he’s the best fit to play alongside Devin. The rookies have shown some promise and their future growth and development should be fun to watch.
I’d like to see Earl Watson play the rookies more consistently in the second half of the season, particularly Dragan Bender. I think Bender may be this season’s Devin Booker, a rookie who could have a big impact in the second half of the season.
I’m also excited to see what moves the team will make at the deadline. I expect to see at least one deal between now and then. A nice move or two could change the expectations for the better moving into next year.
The team has been more competitive in the last week and a half, I’m eager to see if that continues as we finish out this season.
To grade the Suns performance appropriately, you have to remember that we want the team to build a true championship contender, not just be competitive. Given that perspective, it has been a mediocre few months. Tyson Chandler, Leandro Barbosa, PJ Tucker, and early in the season Jared Dudley, have all been better than expected, but that’s the problem: they’re not in the long-term championship plan and the fact that they’re out there racking up big minutes hurts the team. Brandon Knight, who is on the bubble of being on a key contributor has completely fallen apart and crushed his own trade value.
The young guns haven’t been given the floor time to develop. We still don’t know if Alex Len or TJ Warren are long-term fits. All three rookies have shown promise but haven’t had room to grow. The only player being allowed to blossom is Booker who is streaky as hell and looks like he will spend a career challenging Steve Nash for title of worse defensive guard in Suns history.
The team lacks a clear commitment to the kind of player development needed to build a contender and for that reason, they deserve a C grade for the first half of the year.
At the halfway mark I want to evaluate the Suns based on how they are performing compared to projections. Before the season, 538 projected the Suns to win 31 games and at the most recent update projection, the win total had dropped to 28. So the slight decline is troubling, but not catestrophic.
I have enjoyed the play of Eric Bledsoe, who is having a career year especially offensively. I would like to see Bender and Chriss play more than their current averages of 12 and 18 MPG. Booker is playing well but his numbers are delflated by a slow start. Overall, the Suns are performing slightly worse than expected but not terribly given roster composition and predicatable growing pains.
The current strategy of letting young talent develop is all fine and good. And yes, the Suns have a lot of young talent that could eventually translate into more wins. It’s just not happening fast enough for this season to mean anything – besides playing time for the kids.
It’s a shame to watch the extremely talented elements of this team fight so hard night after night to get a win, knowing that they most likely won’t. They just don’t have enough talent in their starting lineup to overcome even mediocre NBA teams. Eric Bledsoe has been a force, and deserves to be an all-star. Devin Booker is an all-star talent now. Tyson Chandler and Alex Len have been a two-headed monster at center, and TJ Warren has been a good small forward when he’s healthy and in the lineup. But rookie Marquese Chriss at power forward? No. It’s great that he is getting the playing time and experience. But the Suns have to know they are facing another year of irrelevancy that becomes a deeper black hole to climb out of year after year.
If the second half of the season is anything like the first, we may as well start looking at lottery picks now. But the Suns are only three games in the loss column out of the final playoff spot. Can their young talent develop fast enough to get them there? We’ll see.
First Half Grade: C-
Valley of the Suns fans! What grade would you give the Phoenix Suns for the first half of the season? Leave your comments below!