Nobody will dispute that the Suns will be in the lottery for the 2017 NBA draft, but there are a lot of encouraging signs coming from the team early in the 2016-17 season. One of the most encouraging is how well 23 year-old small forward T.J. Warren has been playing so far. Through 11 games Warren is averaging career-highs in almost every statistical category, including his scoring (20 points per game), rebounding (5 rebounds per game), and steals (2.1 steals per game). He’s also averaging a career-high 35.7 minutes per game in his first season as a starter. While his season is coming as a surprise to most, to anybody who’s been following Phoenix the past couple years this shouldn’t come as a shock. Devin Booker has garnered most of the attention coming into the year following an impressive rookie campaign where he was on the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team after averaging 13.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and .6 steals per game. And while Booker has completely overshadowed Warren in the media, their numbers through the first 11 games of the year aren’t much different. Booker is just edging Warren in points by .2, averaging 20.2 per game to lead the Suns in scoring and is averaging only a percentage point more steals per game and only 3 rebounds – in contrast to Warren’s 5. Warren seemed to just be finding his stride last January when a foot injury cost him the rest of the season and has picked up where he left off and then some. Currently the Suns are one of only four teams to have three players averaging at least 18 points per game, with Eric Bledsoe averaging 18.4 per contest to join Warren and Booker at that level of scoring. Two of the other three teams with three players averaging at least 18 points per played each other in the Finals last year, so it’s safe to say the Suns are in good company.
Phoenix’s 3-8 record may not impress, but the play of this young crop of guys they’ve got together there seems like a sign of good things to come. It’s worth noting that Brandon Knight isn’t exactly thriving in that sixth man role the Suns have him in this year – averaging just a hair over 11 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting an abysmal 24% from beyond the arc and just 34% in general. The additions of former run-and-gun Suns Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa may have been blips on the radar of this past summer’s free agency, but the veteran presence these two bring to the table will be important in molding a young rosters into professionals. Rookie Marquese Chriss brings a lot of energy with him when he’s on the court, even if he’s only getting about 14 and a half minutes per game. His highlight reel dunks are becoming routine and he’s already earned himself 4 starts early in the year with more surely to come. Alex Len and Tyson Chandler are combining for about 20 rebounds per game, the kind of inside presence Phoenix hasn’t had since the days of Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Earl Watson has done a great job coaching these guys and deserves credit as well for a lot of these promising signs (including Steve Kerr saying they’re “a team that’s going to be interesting to watch over the next couple years.”). Watson’s confidence in the team showed in his comments after their loss to Golden State Nov. 13th, “Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, five years from now, you’re going to say Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren, Devin Booker.” That may be a bold prediction, but it isn’t quite far-fetched based on their play early on this season.
A top candidate for Most Improved Player in T.J. Warren, a strong start to Booker’s sophomore season, Bledsoe’s consistent play, and a head coach who’s over the moon about his guys – yeah, things are starting to look up for the Phoenix Suns.
As you may have heard, over this past weekend the Suns added some more talent to their already prolific backcourt after a sign and trade with the Kings sent Isaiah Thomas To Phoenix. Many might be questioning the move following Goran Dragic winning the 2014 Most Improved Player Award and being selected to the 2014 All-NBA Third Team and with Eric Bledsoe still on the market; but this trade all but guarantees that Phoenix will have a starting caliber guard on the court all game long. In my eyes, this move benefits the Suns a lot more than potentially trading away either Dragic or Bledsoe. There have been rumors of Phoenix potentially trading Dragic to the Pacers for big man Roy Hibbert, but this move sounds, what’s the term for it… ill-advised. Trading away a guard with tremendous upside for a center who went scoreless four times in the postseason the Suns are so desperately trying to get back to does not bode well for the Suns. For Indiana, if this move ever went through, it would be a fantastic move – not so much in Phoenix.
The Suns received Thomas for Alex Oriakhi, the 57th pick in the 2013 draft, in a sign and trade and locked him up with a fairly cheap (a 4 year deal worth around $27 million) following a breakout year. Thomas averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game last season with Sacramento, all of those numbers being career highs for him. Despite his great season, the Kings still failed to make any noise in the Western Conference last year, so now Thomas will have the chance to fight for the postseason with the young Suns. Phoenix’s backcourt certainly looks to all be moving in the right direction with Dragic, Bledsoe, and Thomas all coming off of terrific seasons. Although the Suns have lost Channing Frye to Orlando, they were able to retain forward P.J. Tucker and by adding Thomas and keeping Tucker, this offseason should be looked at as an improvement period for the team. Not to mention, after the younger players (Goodwin, Warren, Len, Brown, and Ennis) get more experience playing together this summer, imagine how much more success this team can see come October.
In other words, as much as people want to scratch their heads over Phoenix hoarding as many skilled guards as they can get their hands on, their depth will make them a formidable opponent for any team in the NBA.
We are now approaching an age, thanks to last season’s championship Spurs team, where individual dominance is being surpassed by team excellence; and this is making players like Jodie Meeks worthy of a 3 year/19 million dollar deal because teams see the importance of versatile role players. What this could potentially mean this offseason is one of two things: either role players will be vastly overpaid or star players will be underpaid. At any rate, the Phoenix Suns have two of the most coveted free agents this summer not named Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony – Eric Bledsoe and Channing Frye. Phoenix will do their best to retain both of these players as well as make some additions to their already talented roster while also doing their best not to overpay. Bledsoe has certainly garnered a lot of attention from around the league with his breakout year and career highs in almost every statistical category, and this may force Phoenix to dish out a max deal to the up and comer. Reports in from Cleveland are that the Cavs are set to offer former Jazz guard Gordon Hayward a max deal after the 24 year old continued his upward trajectory on a less than stellar Utah squad. If this is any indicator of what kind of money Phoenix will have to spend to keep Dragic’s partner in crime, then we can expect Bledsoe to get a fat deal this summer. While I think Hayward is a good player, without a doubt worthy of raising at least a few eyebrows as a free agent, for him to be given a max deal, I feel, is a slightly steep price. Especially in Cleveland where he won’t be a number one option or a number two option most nights, a max contract might be overpaying. Bledsoe came in clutch in many games down the stretch last season for Phoenix, as the Suns just narrowly missed the playoffs, and his value was clearly displayed. Not only was Bledsoe instrumental in the Suns’ near-50 win season, but Channing Frye was also very important to the success of the young Phoenix team. His comeback from sitting out the 2012-13 season with an enlarged heart was the feel good story of the desert this season, and he has plenty of teams calling him up for a visit. His jump shot and ability to play either the center or the power forward while operating in the pick and roll make him a valuable asset for any team this summer. He has become a fan favorite ever since joining the Suns in 2009, but his team prior to joining Phoenix – the Portland Trail Blazers – are also pursuing Frye in free agency. He may not command as much money as Bledsoe will, but there very well may be an upcoming bidding war between the Blazers and Suns this offseason. It should be interesting to see how Phoenix handles the possibilities of these two signing elsewhere and the options of adding other pieces to this young roster.
The Suns woke up today with the seventh seed in the west today, and one game back from the sixth seed – following losses by the Mavs and Warriors last night. Although this position looks great for a team many expected to barely get to 20 wins, they still have work to do before they can pop any champagne.
Tonight Phoenix has to play San Antonio before wrapping the season up with two of their last three games against the two teams right behind them in the standings (Dallas and Memphis).
It’s hard to imagine Golden State missing the playoffs, especially with no games left against the Suns, Mavs, or Grizz, but if Phoenix wins out they could certainly pose a threat for the sixth seed. This next week is going to be a brutal one for one team and an exceptionally rewarding one for two teams. It should be a great week of basketball with everybody going all in for one last hand.
Iggy showing he’s still got it against his former team. The Nuggets are currently leading the playoff-bound Warriors behind a career night from Moscov. A great game from the NBA on TNT tonight.
The race for the 8th seed never seemed like must-see basketball, but the Suns are aiming to prove otherwise. Today they find themselves on the outside looking in with the same record as the current 8 seed Grizzlies. This just goes to show how close the Suns really are. While going 7-3 in their last 10 games, including a terrific outing against the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, the young Suns are facing the reality of how tough the Western Conference really is. To put things in perspective – if Phoenix took their current 45-31 mark to the Eastern Conference, they’d be the number 3 seed and about ten games up on the 8th and final seed.
Now of course it is notable to mention that Phoenix would be the 3rd seed in the East, but the solid play of both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies is just as notable. The Memphis Grizzlies have won 11 straight games at home and are 6-4 in their last 10 and the Dallas Mavericks are winners of their last two – which includes a quality win against the Clippers and a Blake Griffin triple-double.The Suns still have six games left to clinch a playoff birth, and in the NBA that’s plenty of time.
Phoenix has a very difficult schedule to close out the regular season, with a game against the Thunder tomorrow and a trip to San Antonio to take on the Spurs next Friday. Although their upcoming schedule is difficult, they still have a road game against the mathematically eliminated Pelicans and a home game against the Kings. For the Suns to make the playoffs, they will need to capitalize on those two games against noncontenders because among their final six games are crucial matchups against Dallas and Memphis.
The Suns will hope to see more games like their last win against the Trail Blazers where they outscored Portland 30-13 in the fourth quarter. Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris each had over ten rebounds in the victory (16 and 11, respectively). Two very huge pieces to the victory were Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green. Bledsoe finished with 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists, and Green finished with 32 points and 5 rebounds off the bench.
Down the stretch look for production from every player mentioned above and of course Goran Dragic as Jeff Hornacek coaches this young bunch to a potential playoff birth in his first season in Phoenix. Whether or not the Suns end up in the playoffs, Hornacek certainly looks like as good a candidate as any for Coach of the Year.
While the NCAA is currently stealing people’s attention with March Madness; March in the NBA is certainly madness. Phoenix finds themselves a half game back from the 8th seed in the West. Although with the way the 1st seed Spurs (winners of their last 13) are playing, that 8th seed doesn’t look like paradise.
The Suns have won their last three games partially thanks to Eric Bledsoe’s return to form in the past two. Bledsoe is averaging 22 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in their last two wins while also contributing 2 steals against the Pistons and 1 against the Timberwolves. Bledsoe is not the only factor, as Markieff Morris has increased his productivity as well. Markieff scored 25 on 10-13 shooting and snatched up 8 boards as well. His twin brother Marcus Morris contributed 11 on 4-6 shooting and grabbed 3 rebounds himself.
For the Suns to win their contest tonight against the Hawks, they’ll need two things: production from their skilled backcourt and production from their bench and role players. Should the Suns win this game, it’ll bring their winning streak to 4 games and tie them up with the Mavericks for the 8th seed. Should be a good game between two teams each battling for playoff positions in their conferences.