With the Phoenix Suns’ 2016-17 NBA season over and done with, here are the five most important takeaways from the team’s exit interviews.
Facing a seventh straight year without the playoffs and another season with a win total in the low 20s, the Phoenix Suns are about as far away from a championship as they’ve ever been.
They blatantly tanked to close the 2016-17 campaign, they struggled to win games even when the veterans were playing and for an impatient fan base, the rebuild has taken a new, longer path under general manager Ryan McDonough.
That being said, Suns fans have more to be excited about now than they’ve had at any point since Steve Nash left the organization. With so many young and exciting players earning minutes to close the season, plus a potential top-three draft pick inbound, the Suns are trying to build something sustainable for the future.
Their 24-58 record looks terrible on paper, but the long-term prospects of this roster are starting to come into the light.
On Wednesday, the Suns gave their exit interviews, with McDonough, head coach Earl Watson, Tyson Chandler, Devin Booker and the rest of the team giving their final thoughts on the season and the team’s outlook moving forward. Here are the five most important takeaways from their end-of-season wrap-ups.
5. Suns Will Draft Best Player Available
The Suns have been a franchise with too many talented guards since 2014-15, but despite a backcourt that features Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and even Brandon Knight and Leandro Barbosa, they won’t hesitate to take another point guard in a guard-heavy draft.
“It won’t [affect our draft strategy], we’ll take the best available players,” McDonough said. “Our pick will be 1-5. There will be at least five really good players in this draft. I’ve been in the league since 2003, this is up there in the top two or three drafts I’ve seen in terms of talent.
“There is some talent at the guard position. I think where we’re picking, at the guard and the wing there are a few very talented players. We have depth at both those areas, especially at the guard slots, but we’ll take the best available player and if that guy’s as good as we think he can be, then we’ll work the rest of the roster around that.”
The Suns are currently slated as the No. 2 overall pick, if everything shakes out as expected in the NBA Draft Lottery . The top two prospects, according to most draft experts, are both point guards in Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball.
Fultz is a dynamic and versatile point guard who many believe to be the consensus No. 1 prospect. Ball is a pass-first floor general with shooting range despite an unwieldy release. Either one would help create a tantalizing young backcourt alongside Devin Booker, though defense would be a concern in Ball’s case.
The question is, if the Suns land the No. 1 or the No. 2 overall draft pick and they don’t trade it or use it on a two-way wing prospect like Kansas’ Josh Jackson, what would drafting another point guard mean for Eric Bledsoe’s future?
“If you look at his career, especially since he’s been here, he’s gotten better every year,” McDonough said. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: At the point guard position, guys usually peak a little bit later. The best example of that who played right here was Steve Nash.
“So I think the most likely scenario is to continue to build around [Bledsoe] and Devin and our young core and try to add in guys between 19 and 27 that fit in with that group and add to our talent level.”
Bledsoe is under contract through the 2018-19 season, he’s been a leader for this young team when it comes to organizing offseason workouts and being active in the community, and he was easily the Suns’ best player this year.
But for a 27-year-old with a history of knee injuries, his timeline doesn’t necessarily line up with Booker and the rest of the young core, even with all the chemistry the two built in the backcourt as the season went on.
Coming off a career year, Bledsoe’s trade value may never be higher, and McDonough admitted that hardly anyone on the roster of a 24-win team is untouchable. For a franchise that learned its lesson the hard way with Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, drafting another point guard into a crowded backcourt could be the force that prompts a Bledsoe trade in the near future.
4. Brandon Knight’s Future In Phoenix Is Murky
Nobody within the Suns organization will be disappointed if Eric Bledsoe is still the team’s starting point guard in 2017-18, but there is one Phoenix guard whose future with the team is murky at best.
Saying Brandon Knight’s tenure with the Suns has been disappointing would be an understatement, and it’s no secret that the two parties have been uncomfortable with how the situation has played out. If Twitter group-think had any power of its own, Knight would’ve been shipped off to NBA Siberia already.
But with Knight’s trade value at an all-time low and the unhappy guard not suiting up since the All-Star break, McDonough will have a hellish time trying to move the remaining three years and $43.8 million on his contract.
“I think our first priority is figuring out how to put him in a position to be more effective,” McDonough said. “How we do that remains to be seen. These last couple of years it hasn’t gone as we’d hoped for him or for us, just being frank. So we’ll look at his situation to figure out what we can do to make him be more effective.”
This past season, Knight posted career-lows in scoring, assists, field goal percentage and three-point percentage, averaging 11.0 points and 2.2 assists per game on appalling .398/.324/.857 shooting splits.
Suffice it to say he did not adjust well to coming off the bench behind Devin Booker. When Bledsoe was shut down with 15 games left in the season and the Suns turned to Knight as the team’s starting point guard, he told them he had back spasms.
The fall from his career year with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014-15 to being completely out of the rotation for a 24-win team is striking, and it’ll make it hard for the Suns to find a willing trade partner.
“I think a lot of people forget how young he is at just 25 years old,” McDonough said. “He was a borderline All-Star just two years ago. All that talent didn’t just go away, it didn’t disappear. But we need to figure out a way to bring it out of him and to get it back.
“Brandon works extremely hard, he’s in great shape, he works on his game, works his body year-round, so we just need to figure out a way to put him in position to put him in a role to be effective and be successful and that’ll be one of the key points of focus for us this offseason.”
That might as well have been a public sales pitch to conjure up some interest around the league in a player with diminished trade value.
So will Knight be on the roster next season?
“We always assume, especially with guys under contract for multiple years, that they will be here,” McDonough said. “Now, what opportunities will potentially present themselves — usually trade talk heats up around the draft and into summer and free agency in July — we don’t know.”
Essentially, it’s the same scenario we saw around the trade deadline: The Suns will most likely be active in trying to move Knight to a better situation this summer, but struggle to find any takers without some sort of sweetener attached.
3. Tyson Chandler Will Re-Evaluate His Future With The Suns
When the Suns first brought Tyson Chandler aboard, it was with the intention of landing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. When that fell through, playoff aspirations eventually dissolved and Chandler’s importance on the roster shifted from helping Phoenix win games to helping the youngsters develop.
“He’s just the ultimate professional,” McDonough said. “As you can imagine there was a decent amount of interest in Tyson before the trade deadline and we had a pretty honest conversation with him about what he wanted after going through a second difficult season in a row in terms of wins and losses.”
Chandler was averaging 8.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game on 67.1 percent shooting before he was shut down after the All-Star break.
He clearly still has plenty left in the tank, and at his age, most players are hoping to land on a title contender and make one last championship push before their time in the league is done. So why would Chandler want to stay in Phoenix with a rebuilding franchise?
“I like the young talent here,” Chandler said. “I think we have a couple of guys here that really have the capability and the potentital to carry a franchise. The potential and the good spirit and the guys that are just willing to learn. They kind of become your young brothers and it makes a decision like that difficult. So when I had to opportunity to leave, it just didn’t feel right to leave these guys halfway through the journey.”
Not leaving at the trade deadline under that kind of mindset makes sense, but for a guy who said he wants to play for 20 years in this league, sitting out the final 25 games of the season might have changed things.
However, Chandler has seen this type of situation before, where the veterans pave the way for a team’s younger players to get hands-on experience, and he learned a lot from being on the other end of it during his early years with the Chicago Bulls.
“I was once on the other side of it,” he said. “I remember with Charles Oakley and Scottie Pippen and those guys sat out later in the year for myself, and Jamal Crawford was there at the time, Brad Miller and Kirk Hinrich, so for all of us to develop. We took our lumps at the end of the season.
“It was pretty much identical to this situation where we lost a bunch of close games. But next season we came back and we ended up making the playoffs because we had that experience and we had a bunch of film to break down and we were able to see ourselves and the mistakes that we made.”
For a player who’s already won an NBA championship, a gold medal and a Defensive Player of the Year Award, staying with his new, young brothers in Phoenix still has some allure for Chandler.
However, that’s not to say the future is set in stone for him either. Alex Len‘s restricted free agency will be one factor to keep an eye on, but Chandler mentioned that he will re-evaluate his situation over the summer.
“Now that the season’s over I have the summer to analyze things and think about things,” he said. “I think with a few tweaks and some pieces here and there on the roster, I feel like this franchise and this team could be in the mix, and at that point it would be pointless for me to go elsewhere.”
But what kind of tweaks is Chandler looking for?
“A couple pieces, a couple more veterans, a couple middle-of-the-pack guys around here,” he said. “I think the young talent is here, the core is here. We have a high draft pick, so seeing what that’s gonna be could also bring some help. We’ll see how it plays out.”
That’s not quite the same ringing endorsement Chandler had been giving the Suns up to this point, but there’s no question he thinks highly of the young talent.
What remains to be seen is whether McDonough is willing to add some of those middle-tier veterans to make the team better when the roster is clearly all in on the youth movement.
2. The Suns Believe Devin Booker Will Be A Superstar
For those outside of the Valley of the Sun, Devin Booker is either a talented young player with potential, or he’s a cocky, overhyped youngster who’s simply putting up good numbers on a bad team.
For those who have been following the team closely, he’s Kobe Bryant reincarnate, only this time, wearing a Suns jersey. Within the organization, the question is not if Booker will be a legitimate superstar and face of the franchise, but when.
“I think when you have a 20-year-old score 70 points in a game that makes you feel pretty good that he’s going to be pretty good in the future,” McDonough joked.
Booker’s historic 70-point game certainly put him on the map, but the second-year phenom was having a very good season even without it. After shaking off an early toe injury, Booker went on to average 22.1 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game for the season, shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from deep.
He wasn’t the most efficient player, and his defense still needs work. But once Booker’s three-point shot started falling he was one of the more dangerous offensive weapons in the league at his position, regardless of age. Since the calendar flipped to 2017, Booker averaged 24.5 points per game on .436/.390/.836 shooting splits.
“With what he’s done at his age — not only in terms of his play on the court, but the excitement he’s brought to the fan base and the community, how he’s handled himself on and off the court, and just the fact that he’s up there with the legends of the game and future Hall of Famers, I think he passed Kobe Bryant the other day to go into the top four for scoring by a player under 21 — that’s unique,” McDonough said.
Every new accomplishment Booker adds to his individual resume puts him in similarly rarified air, and his 70-point explosion made him just the sixth player in NBA history to reach that threshold.
Booker led the league in 20-point quarters with six, he stole the spotlight from Russell Westbrook on a night where the MVP frontrunner was supposed to make history and he seems genuinely dedicated to restoring a once proud franchise to its winning ways.
“I never set a limit on myself,” Booker said. “People always ask me that after my 70-point game, they didn’t think I could score 70 points in a game and I always said I never set a limit on my game. It’s good, individual accomplishments, but at the end of the day I’m here to be a winner and to turn around the franchise and turn us back into where we used to be, and that’s winning a lot of games. So that’s my focus right now.”
At 20 years old, Booker is already the face of the Suns, which he believes he’s built for. From being active in the community to carrying himself well off the court to his actual on-court performance, Booker has the makings of a superstar and seems willing to take on the burdens of that responsibility.
So what’s the next step for a future superstar? McDonough said the Suns will be working with Booker over the summer to strengthen his lower body in order to help him get in better defensive stance so he’s able to slide and guard his position better.
But even though he relishes the chance to be the bad guy on the court (and even off it, with his comments about Troy Daniels being a recent example), Devin Booker is not taking anything for granted.
“It means a lot [to hear that praise],”he said. “Those are living legends, guys that I idolized and tried to make my game after them. You always hear stories about LeBron, you hear stories about Kobe and it’s all about their work ethic, their competitiveness, their will to win and those are all similarities I see in myself. It’s a big statement coming from them but it just shows you I’m on the right path, but I still have a lot, lot more to go.”
1. Patience Remains A Virtue
Tanking is an ugly practice for many, and it doesn’t get much better for the NBA’s fourth all-time winningest franchise that’s never won a championship and just so happens to be located in a city where sports fandom can be as fair-weather as the sunny sky itself.
But as Phoenix enters its 50th season without a title, McDonough has gotten the organization on the path he originally set out on in 2013-14: poised to rebuild through the draft.
The Suns may be facing their seventh straight season without the playoffs, which is the longest drought in franchise history, but with a young core showing signs of promise for the future, the more patient approach makes sense.
“It’s not always a linear progression,” McDonough said. “If you look at Oklahoma City’s model, which we’ve studied, if you look at Golden State’s model, which we’ve studied, I think a lot of people wouldn’t realize how few games Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson won their first few years. Obviously if some of our guys end up in the stratosphere of those MVP candidates, then we’ll have done well and that bodes well for the future.”
Aspirations to be like the Warriors and Thunder may seem lofty, but the point still stands: Building through youth is sustainable, and the progression could be very rapid when you’ve got a future star like Booker (and maybe even Chriss) getting hearty minutes at such a young age.
The Suns only improved on last season’s win total by one game, but the team also rested Bledsoe, Chandler and Knight after the All-Star break.
With the Suns breaking NBA records for the youngest starting lineup in league history, it’s not surprising they struggled to win games down the stretch. The trial by fire was good for the youngsters, but similar methods from other young cores like the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t yield very different results.
“Let’s not sugarcoat it: It suppressed our win total a little bit,” McDonough admitted. “How long does it take? It’s a good question, I don’t know. This is a multi-year process. However, if we’re good over the next couple years I think we’ll be good for the next 10 years after that.”
Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, T.J. Warren, Alex Len, Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr. and Alan Williams are all under the age of 24. The Suns will be adding a top-three pick to that core in a loaded draft this summer, plus they could very easily land more assets in a trade involving Eric Bledsoe or Tyson Chandler.
Phoenix will be hoping Chriss or Bender turns into a future star to pair with Booker, but they could very easily locate another one in the draft this year.
“It’s happening in front of your eyes and it’s great to watch,” Watson said of the youth movement. “I’m not sure if our true fans don’t see it. Maybe the fan that comes in every once in a while might question it, but the fans that have been a part of the process and have unconditional love for these players, they see it happening immediately.”
Those more casual fans may be fixated on ending the playoff drought and getting back to the postseason, but McDonough’s latest approach requires a more deft hand and a more patient fan base.
The goal is not to just sneak into the playoffs, but to actually bring Phoenix its first NBA championship.
“If you look at the top of our conference, the top four teams — what do they have in common? They all have multiple future Hall of Fame players in their prime,” McDonough said. “So that’s what the competition is, and it’s daunting. To get to that level — not only to just make the playoffs but to have a chance to win in the playoffs — that’s what you need. It’s a process.”
Most people shudder at the word “process” based on the Philadelphia 76ers’ ongoing rebuild, but McDonough was quick to point out the team won 48 games and missed the postseason as recently as 2013-14 — the second time in NBA history 48 wins wasn’t good enough for a playoff spot.
With so many young pieces, all of their own future first round draft picks and a pair of first-rounders coming from Miami, the Suns have the assets to swing a franchise-altering trade if the right opportunity presents itself. So far, that just hasn’t happened.
“That’s the age-old dilemma and I don’t have a perfect answer for you,” McDonough said. “I think the most likely scenario is we continue to draft and develop and be patient, but this year, especially around the draft, we’ll have a lot of options to accelerate our timeline if we want to do that. If we are patient and we get to where we think we can go, that’s more sustainable.”
The Suns’ roster may look different in 2017-18 based on what happens with Bledsoe, Knight and Chandler this summer, but more than likely the dedication to patience and the youth movement will remain.
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