It's not always sunny in Phoenix. Additional misfortune has befallen the Suns as Eric Bledsoe will miss the remainder of the season. What's next? Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller discuss.
FLANNERY: This was going to be the year the Phoenix Suns broke through the cracks in the Western Conference and made a run at that playoff spot that has eluded them these last few years. They had a nice young core built around a shiny new backcourt, a decent number of solid veterans and old head Tyson Chandler to hold everyone accountable on the defensive end. You believed in them in so much you convinced me to believe in them even though I already kinda/sorta did believe in them already.
Now, it's a huge freaking mess. We've got a coach in Jeff Hornacek operating under the last year of his contract who has already benched players, had a towel thrown in his face (what is it with Phoenix coaches and towels?), saw half his coaching staff let go and lost his best player (Bledsoe) to a knee injury (again). This doesn't look good on any level.
Ironically, it may be their location that saves them. For two years, we've been talking about how unfair it is that teams like the Suns get screwed because of geography. Now that the West is flat, maybe Phoenix can still sneak into the postseason. Maybe?
ZILLER: I take all blame for the F+Z Joint Belief In The Phoenix Suns. (I would also have taken credit if it had worked out. Alas.) It would appear that we either vastly overrated that 48-win team from two years ago, that we vastly underrated Goran Dragic or that Markieff Morris is that bad. Quite possibly all of the above.
I'm eager to hear your thoughts on Hornacek's culpability in this. He tried to be a hard-ass last season by benching players for complaining to refs, yet now he's got the resident problem child throwing towels at him. Not great, Bob.
What's striking to me is how bad the defense has been. Knight is a better defender than Dragic, they still have P.J. Tucker getting inside the central nervous system of opposing wings, plus Chandler has arrived to anchor the paint and, as you say, hold people accountable. What fueled the 48-win season was that defense, so we know Hornacek can coach a top-10 unit. Yet, here they are at No. 20 in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. It makes no sense ... unless the team has tuned out Hornacek. Tell me I'm wrong.
FLANNERY: That's what it looks like from several time zones and 2,500 miles away, and if not Hornacek, then his coaching staff. Here's the thing with an underperforming defense: it only takes one guy to mess things up, but it takes all five to execute it. There's so much to blame to go around here and no saviors in sight.
There are two questions: Is it the talent or is it the coaching? The Suns are trying to have it both ways by shaking up the staff and rolling with what they have, but I think that's the right play for now. They are not that far out of the race, they do have good individual talent and a head coach who has won recently. We also have about seven weeks until the trade deadline, so there's a lot that can change.
The 2013-14 team was a bit overrated in that it clearly didn't have staying power, but the cracks and fissures that arrived in 2014-15 have not been patched. This is a team trending downward, but there's still a decent bit of good, young talent on hand. Let's say Ryan McDonough cleans house at the deadline. How do you feel about the developing prospects?
ZILLER: The thing is that everyone important other than Chandler (who arguably hasn't actually been important) is young. What does cleaning house and rebuilding even entail, especially considering they flipped their single most valuable rebuilding tool (that lightly protected Lakers pick) for Knight? I'd get rid of Morris pronto, but the damage to Hornacek's tenure may be done. Is Earl Watson ready for those shoes? It's not an optimal way to begin a coaching career, but they also can't get much worse now.
Neither Bledsoe nor Knight should go anywhere. Finding a home for Chandler is likely to be difficult. Perhaps the play is to boot Morris on the first plane to Houston (try throwing a towel in J.B. Bickerstaff's face, man), de-emphasize Chandler and Tucker, elevate Watson, let Bledsoe take the rest of the season off and play the kids like Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, Devin Booker and Alex Len as much as possible. There's not a huge upside in going playoffs-or-bust, playing Chandler big minutes and praying for a chance to be obliterated by Golden State.
I sense you might disagree on the odds and value of winning the No. 8 seed.
FLANNERY: It's not my opinion that's important, it's the owner's, and it sounds like Robert Sarver really wants to make the playoffs. That's all fine and good. (I do think The Basketball Internet too easily dismisses goals like that as hollow, but that's a different F+Z topic.)
The bigger issue for the Suns is "are they making progress?" and that answer is obviously no. They've regressed. Salvaging a playoff bid may offer some temporary balm of good feelings and a couple of postseason gates never hurt anyone, but it doesn't address the fundamental question that we all have about the Suns: Who are they?
The young core is interesting, maybe even intriguing, but there's not an All-Star to build around here. That was supposed to be Bledsoe, but he hasn't been able to stay on the court long enough for us to take a full measure of his place in the game. I know you love Knight and he's grown on me, but he's not your 1 or even 1-A option. The logical play is to retrench, take your Ls, add a few more assets in a veteran fire sale and hope to nail a lottery pick that could be in the top 10.
I don't disagree with delaying that decision, though. There's no rush on that unless someone has to have Chandler or P.J. Tucker. I'd keep Chandler around, for what it's worth. I still think he can be a valuable contributor on a good team and it's not like the Suns are going to blow things up and start over from scratch. They've already done a lot of the heavy rebuild lifting. It just hasn't worked out the way they wanted.
ZILLER: The good news is that the two best players on the roster, Bledsoe and Knight, have lots of time left on their contracts. We're in agreement then that there's no real need to fire sale this baby beyond losing Morris and perhaps shopping the others to assess value.
The unresolved question, then: do you let Hornacek ride this out? My thing is, is that I see no chance he'll be back next season after the staff shakeup, barring a playoff run. It's worked for Dwane Casey and Randy Wittman, but I just don't see a team interested in or capable of saving Hornacek's job.
FLANNERY: Sarver and the front office held meetings with everyone to see if they could identify the root of the problems and Hornacek survived, so it doesn't look like we've reached that point of no return yet. Perhaps trading Morris (we all assume that will happen eventually) will help things along. The problem with firing Hornacek is that no coach who's in demand wants to clean up someone else's problem. If you go the interim route, you've already dumped two of your most important assistants, so what's the point?
The Bledsoe news is disheartening to say the least. He's not old, but 26 isn't exactly young either. The crazy thing about the exploding cap is that a starting-caliber guard at $15 million per season won't be that much of a salary drain, but Bledsoe will have to alter his game if this latest surgery robs him of his athleticism. There will have to be some serious soul searching in the offseason as to what kind of team this should eventually become.
I'm just not convinced that early January is the time to do it yet.
ZILLER: I tend to agree that once you can the top two assistants, it's hard to replace the head coach midseason. But we've seen some strange situations (like the Mike Malone-to-Ty Corbin-to-George Karl dance in Sacramento last year). Hell, Sarver himself greenlit one of the stranger shuffles when he fired Alvin Gentry for Lindsay Hunter in 2013.
There really are no good answers when things go this sideways. I'm less worried about Bledsoe over the long-term simply because we've seen guys with repeat meniscus issues thrive. (Russell Westbrook is the best reason for hope here.) But I just don't think the Suns can stay within reach of the other teams vying for No. 8 with Bledsoe out.
Before the season, I thought this was a solid, strong team. Every bit of evidence provided this season points to the opposite.
FLANNERY: Hence the soul searching.
In a way, this is not the worst outcome. Winning 45 games or so would have clouded the picture. There's opportunity in the West now that didn't exist when McDonough started this makeover. They have a decent collection of young players, they have draft picks, they have cap room (like everyone else, but still you have to have it). The Suns don't have to start over, but they do have to settle on a direction.
Honestly, I don't see any reason why they can't regroup with a few solid moves and be back in the mix next season.
ZILLER: Totally. Now there's just the waiting. And the towel-throwing, I suppose.
Wait a minute. Did YOU just get ME to believe in the next iteration of the Phoenix Suns? Dammit, Paul.
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