Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller are previewing all 30 teams via conversation. Next up: the Phoenix Suns. Find all of the Flanns and Zillz previews here.
FLANNERY: When talking about the Suns, I feel like we're really taking about two teams. There's the one that's been patiently stocked with young talent, from Alex Len to Devin Booker, and T.J. Warren, with new additions Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss joining the fold. The jury's still out on Len and Warren, but Booker looks like a player and Bender and Chriss are just oozing with potential. That's an intriguing mix.
Then there's the team with Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Jared Dudley, and Leandro Barbosa. Hell, even Eric Bledsoe is approaching veteran status. That makes less sense given the amount of youth that Ryan McDonough has stockpiled through the draft, although on paper I'll take all those guys on my team any day of the week.
So, who are they and what are they trying to accomplish?
ZILLER: I gushed about the Suns a year ago and we see where that got me. But I do think this type of building by McDonough is smart.
As you said, the team is stocked with high-potential prospects. Len is at the point where he needs to start putting it together (this is the last year of his rookie deal), but the others are first- or second-year players. The ceiling is really high for the collective groups of kids.
Then you have the two guys in between prospect and veteran status: Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Those guys are your lead ball-handlers and, with Booker, your scorers.
The type of veterans McDonough has put around all those guys is also savvy: positive locker room influences who don't need the ball in their hands. Dudley has seen what success in Phoenix looks like. Chandler is at the end of his career, but is a calming influence (in theory). Tucker is the tough guy who can tell them all what it's like to fall out of the NBA and Barbosa is one of the most joyful humans to grace the NBA with his presence. And none of them will take 10 shots a game, leaving plenty for Bledsoe, Knight, Booker, and whichever kid steps up.
Perhaps best of all is the coach, Earl Watson, who seems like a phenomenal fit for this collection of players. He's endlessly positive and, based on every interview I've heard, a master motivator. I don't think this is necessarily a playoff contender in 2016-17, but I get good vibes out of Phoenix now.
Bright Side of the Sun season preview
Bright Side of the Sun season preview
FLANNERY: Good vibes don't pacify impatient owners though, and that's my concern with this reboot rebuild. It's odd to think that the Suns will be worse in Year 4 of McDonough's tenure than in Year 1, but much closer to actually accomplishing something. That assumes that Len, Chriss, and Bender work out, or at least two of the three, and they didn't have anywhere near the upside talent base when McDonough arrived. That will take time to develop, so let's hope for patience.
There is still one thorny issue that needs to be resolved: What do you do about Bledsoe and Knight? You're one of the bigger BK proponents around, but I'm not sold on him as a frontline player and I don't really think they can be a functioning backcourt. Now that Booker is ready to emerge there really isn't room for all three, right?
ZILLER: The smart play is to keep Bledsoe to play alongside Booker unless you're concerned deeply about EB's knees. Bledsoe has more potential as a high-scoring combo guard, and Booker showed the ability to initiate offense as a low-grade Harden type of two-guard in stretches last season. Plus he can shoot like hell, which alleviates a bit of Bledsoe's deficiency in that area.
The problem is that Knight's trade value is fairly low, despite a pre-cap spike contract. Knight has been rough since coming to Phoenix from Milwaukee; that trade did not work out at all for McDonough. Any chance at salvaging it comes from Knight's potential (he's still just 24) and trade value. Perhaps the Suns can boost that early this season before shopping him at the deadline. (I hold he'd be a nice fit in Sacramento, where a point guard is needed badly due to a lack of depth and Darren Collison's legal troubles.)
It'll be interesting to see how Watson balances getting lots of playing time for the kids against trying to be competitive every night. The Celtics were able to pull that off, but most teams struggle in these situations. As you note, wins, not good vibes, are needed to quell the passions of impatient owners. It's worth noting that Watson has some job security, and McDonough perhaps less so. Winning a bunch of games would help them both, for sure.
FLANNERY: And that's what makes me nervous about these Suns. You have a young coach, a talented GM taking his second swipe at rebuilding, and a nice collection of talent. What you don't have is a path toward the playoffs or even victories at the moment. Let this marinate for another season or two and then let's see what they have.
That's asking too much isn't it?
ZILLER: Ask Jeff Hornacek.
Another year is just what the Suns need. In the interim, though, we and Robert Sarver should get a better idea of what some of these pieces can actually do. As we've mentioned, it's time for Len to start putting it together. There can be further signals of future success without a winning season. Just pray they come and that Sarver is willing to trust them.