Phoenix Suns: The Alex Len Dilemma

Phoenix Suns

Feb 8, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) reacts during the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

With Alex Len’s restricted free agency approaching, the Phoenix Suns need to start feeding their backup center more minutes to better understand his long-term fit.

On Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, backup center Alex Len had a decent performance for the Phoenix Suns.

He was hardly the main story of the night, with Eric Bledsoe‘s third career triple-double, another 20+ point performance from Devin Booker and the largest single-game point differential over the Lakers in Suns franchise history taking center stage.

But Len was a quiet bright spot, putting up 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on 5-of-10 shooting, even though it came with six turnovers and six fouls in only 23 minutes of action.

It was the quintessential Alex Len game, in other words.

I thought he had productive games moving forward over the last couple,” head coach Earl Watson said. “[He’s] getting better. The fouls in limited minutes, we have to work on that, but the effort is there.”

If that sounds a little patronizing, that’s because it may be indicative of Alex Len’s lack of an identity on a tanking team in the most important season of his NBA career. It’s an outright dilemma. A “di-Len-ma,” if you will.

Phoenix Suns

Dec 23, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and center Alex Len (21) against the Philadelphia 76ers at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the 76ers 123-116. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Len: Still A Question Mark

Entering the home stretch of his fourth season, the 23-year-old Ukrainian is hardly any less of an enigma now as he was when the Suns selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Though he’s nowhere near as injury-prone or feeble as he was back then, Len’s ceiling is still impossible to project as a backup center who can’t spread the floor on offense, doesn’t make the defense better and is coming off the bench behind a 34-year-old Tyson Chandler.

Can he anchor an average NBA defense? The advanced numbers say no. Is he strong enough to battle the league’s behemoths and seven-foot unicorns on a night-to-night basis? The results are mixed, and the sample size is too small to say. Can he spread the floor to the midrange with a respectable jump shot? The eye test says no, but the numbers say hell no:

Phoenix Suns

Alex Len’s 2016-17 shot chart leading up to NBA All-Star Weekend (via NBA.com/stats)

Not all of his seemingly underwhelming game is his fault, of course, but with restricted free agency approaching this summer, it’s a problem for the Suns front office and anyone else trying to figure out what the hell Alex Len is.

Is he capable of being the Suns’ answer at the 5 as they rebuild with this young core? Or is he just a fringe starter who would start on bad teams and come off the bench for good teams? As much as the Suns have more clearly outlined Len’s duties by simplifying them this season, they’ve blurred the bigger picture in the process.

“We have to say Alex Len is a skilled big, he can’t be a big that just blocks shots and runs the court,” Watson said. “Because he is a skilled big and is talented, we have to make him comfortable on the court, give him jump shots at the elbow, throw him the ball in the post.

“We have to have unconditional love and live with the fact that he will not be perfect, but we push towards consistency.”

In his first season, Len played a meager 42 games because of injuries. In his second season, he played 69 games, but missed time due to injury and only started in 44 games because Miles Plumlee was still a thing. In his third season, Chandler was brought aboard to woo LaMarcus Aldridge, and even when that fell through, the Suns were still thinking playoffs.

Despite Len’s steady improvement every season, he has yet to break through, in part because of his limited opportunities. This year, for example, he’s started a grand total of 11 games — despite his upcoming free agency and Phoenix’s miserable 18-39 record, which indicates the youngsters should be playing as much as possible.

Phoenix Suns

Dec 9, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during a basketball game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Len’s Signs Of Potential

It’s not just about handing Len opportunities because the Suns need to better understand his value; it’s also that Len has quietly earned them.

His averages for the season — 7.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game on 50.2 percent shooting — don’t really stand out. But as we saw last year, when Len gets an opportunity to play with better players (i.e., starters), his individual numbers are on par with what you’d expect from an average NBA center:

  • In 11 starts:  10.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 3.3 PF, 58.4 FG%

Even his Per 36 Minutes numbers are encouraging, though his propensity for foul trouble remains a cause for alarm:

  • Per 36 Minutes:  13.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 5.6 fouls

The problem is, as is the case with any stats for a rarely used player on a losing team, the numbers get noisy when you factor in his -4.9 plus/minus for the year, his -7.9 plus/minus in 11 games with the starters and his -9.1 plus/minus per 36 minutes.

Per NBA.com, his on-court net rating of -11.2 is second-worst on the roster behind only Brandon Knight, his defensive rating of 109.7 is fifth-worst and his offensive rating of 98.5 is dead last. That doesn’t help his case for being a neglected youngster on the rise.

The Suns’ 27th-ranked defense is 1.1 points stingier per 100 possessions with Len off the floor, and their 22nd-ranked offense is 4.7 points better per 100 possessions without him.

Before Phoenix’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks in early February, Watson touched on the difficulty of getting Len on the court due to an old school skill set that features little shooting range and an inability to defend the perimeter.

“It’s just the way the NBA’s going — small,” he said. “If you start a seven-footer in the first unit, you really don’t have one to back up.

“It’s kind of unique how the game has just flowed in a different way. So it’s not that the minutes aren’t there, it’s kind of hard for him to guard DeMarcus Cousins on the perimeter. It’s just unique and he has to learn that skill.”

The problem is, how will he ever hone those skills if he’s stuck behind Chandler’s 27.6 minutes per game? That doesn’t seem like a staggering amount of minutes, but they’ve limited Len to 19.7 minutes per game — a negligent amount with his impending free agency in mind.

Phoenix Suns

Dec 23, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (right) against Phoenix Suns center Alex Len at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the 76ers 123-116. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gauging The Free Agency Market

On the one hand, you could argue the Suns are sneakily setting his market value lower by tethering him to bench duty.

Maybe no one will bid on him if they hardly get to see him play, right? Or maybe if they see him do s**t like this, his market value will be lower?

Perhaps. But teams with tons of cap space and nothing to lose will come calling for young players — even restricted free agents — in the wake of the NBA’s booming salary cap. Remember last summer when the Brooklyn Nets made it rain offer sheets for Tyler Johnson (four years, $50 million) and Allen Crabbe (four years, $75 million)?

Heck, another relevant example might be Bismack Biyomobo, who was 23 last season when he approached unrestricted free agency, shined in limited minutes off the bench/when called upon as a starter, and earned a massive four-year, $72 million payday from the Orlando Magic.

Just look at how similar Biyombo’s stats are from him final season with the Toronto Raptors to Alex Len’s 2016-17 numbers:

  • Season numbers:  5.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 2.7 PF, 54.2 FG%
  • In 22 starts:  7.2 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 3.1 PF, 54.8 FG%
  • Per 36 Minutes:  9.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 4.5 fouls

Biyombo’s contract was massively inflated, and we should also note that, unlike Len, he was A) unrestricted and B) actually a plus for the Raptors when he was on the court. But you get the picture: Teams may be willing to pony up for a young big man in restricted free agency, especially if they suspect Phoenix’s interest in re-signing him for the long haul is lukewarm.

Timofey Mozgov got four years and $64 million sit on the bench of a tanking team as a “veteran” presence. Joakim Noah committed highway robbery with his four-year, $72 million deal. We somehow live on a planet where Miles Plumlee got paid $52 million over four years. Hell, even a washed up Al Jefferson got three years and $30 million.

The point is, big men still have plenty of monetary value in this league, and at only 23 years old, Alex Len and his strong Per 36 Minutes numbers could coax an offer out of someone desperate for frontcourt help. If and when that day comes, the Suns had better be damn certain they know how much they’re willing to pay to match for his services.

Phoenix Suns

Mar 14, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) and Tyson Chandler (4) against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Timberwolves 107-104. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Most Important Stretch Of Len’s Career?

With Dragan Bender sidelined for another 3-5 weeks, the Suns probably won’t get another look at a Marquese Chriss-Bender pairing in the frontcourt this season, which is a seemingly premature yet important aspect to consider when weighing Len’s future fit.

But with two 19-year-old rookies unlikely to flash long-term potential together anyway, the Suns could at least attempt to answer their lingering frontcourt question by giving Alex Len’s starter’s minutes. It’s not just about giving him more action; it’s about playing him against other starters and seeing how he holds up in extended time.

A Tyson Chandler trade would simplify everything, and even reward Alan Williams for all his positive attitude as he tries to crack an NBA rotation. But if general manager Ryan McDonough doesn’t move one of the team’s best locker room leaders, it could be as straight forward as, you know, just starting Len already.

From avoiding fouls to putting up respectable numbers to not tanking the defense to seeing if his body can physically hold up, there are plenty of reasons Alex Len needs to be on the court — ahead of Tyson Chandler — as the Phoenix Suns enter the home stretch of a developmental season.

“The truth is, we have to put him in a better position,” Watson said. “It’s not always just the player, it’s the coach allowing the player to go through his challenges as well throughout the minutes of the game and that’s what we decided to do through the rest of the season is pan off.”

Will Watson stay true to his word? Only time will tell, even as the mounting losses continue to make it clear that the youth should be priority No. 1.

One thing is for certain though: Coming out of the All-Star break and heading into such an important free agency decision, it’s probably time for “the quintessential Alex Len game” to take on a new meaning.

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