2017-18 Preview: Phoenix Suns

By Darryl Howerton #21

For a tanking team, Phoenix returns an unusually large amount of Suns. This differentiates the Suns from the other lotto teams that typically see a lot of roster turnover. It’s quite likely, when the 2017-18 season begins Tuesday, 13 of the 15 Suns will be holdovers from last year’s team. No other bottom rung squad maintains this type of continuity. It is almost as if GM Ryan McDonough and head coach Earl Watson are hoping they can keep this team of veterans (Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe), along with Suns lottery prospects (Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Devin Booker, Alex Len and T.J. Warren) together for the long haul.

Suns 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Eric Bledsoe, Tyler Ulis, Brandon Knight Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Jared Dudley, Derrick Jones Jr., Elijah Millsap Marquese Chriss, Alex Len, Tyson Chandler, Alan Williams, Dragan Bender
Newcomers Josh Jackson, Troy Daniels Anthony Bennett
Gone P.J. Tucker, Leandro Barbosa
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

Offense: The Suns have a lot of dynamic parts that have not come together as a team yet. In Booker, Phoenix has a 20-year-old shooting guard who already leads his NBA team in scoring, averaging 22.1 points in 35.0 minutes per game last season. Booker’s efficiency and productivity should only grow by leaps and bounds in the years to come, but at present day, he toils away for an inefficient Suns’ offense (103.9 points per 100 possession ranks  22nd in the NBA). Though Bledsoe has been able to push the pace as a transition playmaker, lifting Phoenix to second on the pace charts at 102.88 possessions per game, the rest of his athletic teammates have not been able to utilize this style to their advantage, with the exception of last year’s rookie find, Derrick Jones. This year’s rookie hype, Josh Jackson, is another athletic wing who should benefit from pacesetting teammates in transition. Big men Alan Williams and Chandler have also found their niche within this offense, establishing many second-chance opportunities on the offensive boards, helping Phoenix become the sixth-best offensive rebounding squad in the league, grabbing 26.0 percent of offensive rebounding opportunities. With that one nugget aside, the Suns are still better served to play small-ball lineups as much as possible since most Phoenix youngsters lack the toughness and experience to play traditional positional basketball with the rest of the League.

 

Defense: On the flip side, Phoenix has the face of a defensive unit that has yet to create an identity. Oh, they try hard. Watson has every NBA coaches’ respect by how hard his Suns play, whether they are losing in November or tanking in April. That said, they have not been able to build a defensive identity, whether following the lead of Chandler’s rim-protection game or Bledsoe’s ballhawk-and-run pressure D, with Phoenix ranking 28th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. It’s not a surprise, given the fact that defense is what young players entering the League struggle to pick up. In a nutshell, they lack experienced defenders outside of Chandler, Bledsoe, Jared Dudley, Williams and Len. That said, the defensive potential of rookie Jackson and sophomore Jones may give Phoenix a wing stopper unit to build upon.

Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Upside: Do not be surprised if the true standouts on this team are not the hyped top 10 prospects, but the diamonds in the rough prospering under Watson, who came up himself through similar ranks. Both 24-year-old forwards, Williams and Warren, recently signed big contracts. Undrafted Jones had a better rookie season in 2016-17 than either Chriss, a No. 8 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, or Bender, a No. 3 selection. The one outlier lotto pick who is performing true to form is Booker, who now ranks fifth all-time in NBA scoring among all 20-and-under players, trailing only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Andrew Wiggins, while ranking ahead of Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury, Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis.

Durability: Backup point guard Brandon Knight, who tore his ACL over the summer, is likely to miss the 2017-18 season, but if small quarterback Tyler Ulis can do a capable job of backing up Bledsoe, then Phoenix may have a shot at improving on its 24-58 season of a year ago. Booker, Warren and Williams should continue to improve significantly while playing together, while Chandler can give them the center stability they need as long as the 35-year-old Sun can stay on the court (he missed 35 games in 2016-17; 16 in 2015-16; 7 in 2014-15). The rest of the squad, filled with rookies and sophomores, should be as durable as you’d expect from a young nucleus.

Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty Images

 

Synergy: Dudley (10,790 minutes in a Suns uniform and coming off toe surgery), Bledsoe (7,452) and Len (5,261) are the heart of this Phoenix squad, logging enough minutes to join the 5K club. And in 2017-18, they soon will be joined by Booker (4,838) and Warren (3,733) as the rare quintet from a losing team to meet 5,000 Minute Rule qualifications. Only the Warriors, Cavaliers and Spurs already have five men playing 5,000-plus minutes for the same team. That is what makes Phoenix stand out from the other lotto teams when it comes to team-building strategy. These Suns truly do believe in maintaining chemistry throughout every season.

Experience: Chandler, who once pulled off the trifecta of playing on World Cup (2010), NBA (2011) and Olympic (2012) championship teams, is the main Sun with postseason experience. The 35-year-old defender-rebounder ranks 40th among active players in postseason minutes (2,199). He still plays 28 minutes per game, and Chandler’s impact on the court is still stronger than most, even if the 7-1 center is missing more games to injuries in recent seasons. On the court or not, the Suns will glean much knowledge from such a sagacious presence.

Win Frame: 25-30 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

Eastern Conference Western Conference
Atlantic  Central Southeast Pacific Southwest Northwest
Boston Celtics Chicago Bulls Atlanta Hawks Golden State Warriors Dallas Mavericks Denver Nuggets
Brooklyn Nets Cleveland Cavaliers Charlotte Hornets Los Angeles Clippers Houston Rockets Minnesota Timberwolves
New York Knicks Detroit Pistons Miami Heat Los Angeles Lakers Memphis Grizzlies Oklahoma City Thunder
Philadelphia 76ers Indiana Pacers Orlando Magic Phoenix Suns New Orleans Pelicans Portland Trail Blazers
Toronto Raptors Milwaukee Bucks Washington Wizards Sacramento Kings San Antonio Spurs

 

Utah Jazz