As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Phoenix Suns, who became the third team eliminated from playoff contention Monday night when the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks both won.
Three years ago, Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek came to Phoenix expecting to begin a long and arduous rebuild. The Suns were projected to be among the NBA’s worst teams, right alongside the Philadelphia 76ers, and a contender to win the lottery rather than a playoff spot.
But a funny thing happened: the Suns were pretty good, and wound up only narrowly missing the playoffs despite winning 48 games – a record for a team that finished in the lottery.
Winning that many games, though, may have been the worst thing that could’ve happened in Phoenix. Why? Because the Suns have struggled ever since to figure out exactly what they are.
Phoenix went out and signed Isaiah Thomas to a very affordable four-year contract that summer – but the point guard triumvirate of Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe was never able to coexist. That eventually led to both Dragic and Thomas being traded last year at the deadline, and Brandon Knight being brought in to replace them. Then the Suns bet the house on trying to get LaMarcus Aldridge this past summer – which always was a longshot, given the expectation for months around the league he would wind up signing with San Antonio. Instead they signed Tyson Chandler to a four-year deal, doing so by trading Marcus Morris to clear cap space.
That proved to be the beginning of the end for Hornacek. Marcus’ twin brother, Markieff, spent the summer demanding a trade, and this season the Suns never got off the ground. Hornacek was eventually fired, replaced by recently retired player Earl Watson, and Markieff Morris was traded to Washington at the deadline for a top-nine protected 2016 first rounder.
And, coincidentally, three seasons later than they were expected to, Phoenix is now fighting for one of the top spots in the 2016 draft lottery.
2016 draft picks
First round: Their own, Cleveland’s (top 10 protected), Washington (top 9 protected)
Second round: Their own
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$29.5 million ($52.5 million committed to eight players, including a partial guarantee of P.J. Tucker’s contract; $7.3 million to four picks; $777,777 in stretch payments to Michael Beasley)
2016 free agents
PG Ronnie Price, PG Phil Pressey, SF Chase Budinger, PF Mirza Teletovic, PF Jon Leuer
Five questions to answer
1. Who is in charge of this team next season?
As laid out in the intro, things haven’t gone well the past 24 months for McDonough, the son of legendary sports writer Will McDonough, who was hired away from Boston’s front office in 2013. There already will be a search for a new coach in Phoenix, and it’s possible there could be a search for a replacement for McDonough. Most see McDonough’s job as safe for now, however.
The name to watch here: Steve Nash. The future Hall of Famer and Suns icon recently bought Spanish soccer team Real Mallorca with Suns owner Robert Sarver. And Nash – already the general manager of the Canadian national team, as well as a player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors – has expressed an interest in getting back into basketball full-time. It seems unlikely he’d want to coach. Running a team, though? That seems very plausible.
On the coaching side, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Watson, a respected name in NBA circles, get a shot at this job. But if the Suns expand outside the organization, this job could hold plenty of appeal, given the young talent, plus the potential to add two more lottery picks to that mix this spring.
2. Can Eric Bledsoe stay healthy?
No one would deny Bledsoe, an athletic dynamo and excellent defender, is the kind of backcourt weapon every team can use. But Bledsoe has now played six seasons in the NBA, and missed significant chunks of three of them – including two of the last three with knee injuries.
Bledsoe still has three more years left on the five-year, $70 million contract he signed in 2014 to remain a Sun, and with the salary cap exploding this summer that contract will quickly become a bargain. Because of that, Phoenix would have many suitors if it opted to shop Bledsoe this summer, which makes determining whether he is a guy worth building around a crucial decision for them this offseason.
3. Can Alex Len become a frontline player?
In addition to the risk of signing an aging Chandler, locked up through his age 36 season in Phoenix, it also was a complicated move for the Suns to make because it potentially blocked playing time for Len, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
It’s easy to forget that Len won’t even turn 23 until June, given that he’s already wrapping up his third season in the NBA. But the former Maryland star missed his first season because of foot/ankle issues, and has averaged in the low 20s in minutes per game each of the past two seasons.
The Suns will have the option to try and hammer out a long-term contract extension with Len this offseason, but with him still being a relatively unknown commodity three years into his pro career, it’s hard to see how those negotiations could get very far – barring Len signing a very team-friendly pact.
4. Can Brandon Knight be a building block?
In the Great Point Guard Migration of the 2015 NBA Trade Deadline, Knight’s trade to Phoenix for the Los Angeles Lakers’ top-three protected draft pick was one of the more fascinating swaps that any team made. It’s also one that, at least to this point, hasn’t worked out on the court either for the Milwaukee Bucks – the team that traded Knight away – or the Suns.
Given Knight’s contract is the same as the one Bledsoe signed – five years for $70 million – it, too will become a very movable deal as the salary cap spikes moving forward. That will also make a decision on whether to move on from Knight, or at least the combination of Bledsoe and Knight as a backcourt 1-2 punch, something the Suns would be foolish not to consider moving forward.
5. What is Devin Booker’s ceiling?
Part of the reason the futures of both Bledsoe and Knight could be murky in Phoenix is because of the incredible rookie season begin put together by the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft, Devin Booker. The youngest player in the stellar 2015 NBA Draft class, Booker – who won’t even turn 20 until Oct. 30 – came into the draft thought of as a shooter, but not much else.
And while he’s been a fine shooter, hitting close to 37 percent of his attempts from three-point range, he’s proven to have plenty more to his game than that. He’s been averaging 16.4 points in 36 games as a starter while averaging over three assists per game, and is getting to the line more than four times per game. The latter two stats are both proof he’s more than a simple catch-and-shoot player.
At 6-foot-6, Booker has prototypical size for a shooting guard, and looks like he’ll be a mainstay at the position for years to come. On a team that basically has question marks at every single other spot on its roster, coaching staff and front office, Booker is the one person in the organization who seems like a lock to be there five years from now.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: