May 31, 2017, 11:50 pm
Hoop-Ball’s Post-Mortem series takes a look at the 2016-17 season and what went right and wrong for every team. From coaching analysis to fantasy impact, we dive in to the year that was and make sense of it all. If you’ve missed any, you can find them here.
The Phoenix Suns came into the season with little to no expectations and that is exactly how things played out. They finished the season with a better overall record this season than last season, by one game, but actually fell to last place in the Western Conference with a 24-58 record. Whether they intentionally or unintentionally tanked the season, the results weren’t surprising. Despite the disappointing campaign, there were plenty of players and highlights to build upon for next year. Hoop Ball’s Post-Mortem series takes a look at what happened in the Valley of the Sun.
The Suns kept things intact from the previous season, including head coach Earl Watson. They didn’t add any impactful players to their roster, but did draft some interesting rookies with their two top-10 picks. The Suns were determined to build their frontcourt depth in this draft, picking Dragan Bender with the 4th overall pick and Marquese Chriss with the 8th pick. Watson was given the task of managing a very young roster that also contained several veterans such as Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe, among others. The challenge for the coaching staff was to find ways to develop their young talent while keeping their current veterans happy by staying moderately competitive from game to game.
The Suns have a very respectable backcourt in Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, especially with many NBA players and analysts believing that Booker is the real deal. Beyond that duo there wasn’t much to be excited about, which explains why playoff expectations weren’t there. There were also some issues regarding their “Sixth Man” Brandon Knight, who was supposed to come off the bench and give them a nice spark. With the emergence of Booker at the shooting guard position, Watson quickly ended the two-guard combo of Bledsoe and Knight and he was moved to the bench. Coming into the season Knight embraced his new role but by the end it was clearly a failed experiment for the Suns’ coaching staff.
In order to win, you must first learn to lose, which is exactly what the Suns did. While last season saw Phoenix losing amidst a desire to earn a playoff spot, the Suns executed a proper tank this time around.. After Earl Watson was named interim head coach for last season the team decided to chase wins down the stretch, playing veterans like P.J. Tucker, Ronnie Price and Tyson Chandler for big minutes. By the end of this season, however, the Suns had shut down Chandler, Bledsoe and Knight, giving their younger players like Tyler Ulis, Alan Williams and Derrick Jones Jr. more playing time and experience. They had an opportunity to take a long hard look at players who could be key pieces going forward while at the same time losing lots of games to help their lottery chances.
The team ended up 17 games back of the 8th and final playoff spot in the West but no one was all that surprised. With a final record of 24-58, they had the second highest chance of landing the number one pick in the upcoming NBA Draft at 20 percent. With that being said, the Suns slid down in the NBA Draft order and will once again have the fourth pick this summer. This upcoming draft class is considered to be very top heavy so being in their position isn’t all that bad. Rumors have been swirling about the team trying to get a different point guard to play alongside Booker for the future. There are certainly plenty of options for the Suns to think about, but if they’re looking to go for a point guard, De’Aaron Fox will likely be the best remaining option with Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball projected to go one and two. We are starting to get a sense that the Suns are on the rise and with such a young core, there’s a ton of potential for improvement.
Earl Watson was granted interim head coaching duties near the end of the 2015-16 season after the Suns let go of Jeff Hornacek. General Manager Ryan McDonough liked what he saw from the young coach and decided to give him a three-year contract. This scenario allowed the Suns to not only develop their players but also have the coach develop along with them, building chemistry and trust. The fact that he was formerly an NBA player makes him that much more relatable to his players. The Suns are 33-82 since Watson has taken over but it’s hard to weight that too heavily during a rebuilding process. Low expectations give a coaching staff the opportunity to focus on other areas – especially development of their youth.
As one would expect from a coach in his first full season, lack of experience occasionally led to some questionable decisions. It was clear that there was no team strategy and minimal cohesion with both offensive and defensive schemes. The Suns averaged the most fouls per game in the NBA with 25 while also giving up the third-most points off of turnovers and seventh-most second chance points. At some points it seemed like he was letting his players develop themselves and seeing how far they could go just off of pure talent. Nearly half of their made shots were unassisted and showed a dearth of creativity on the offensive end. During Devin Booker’s 70-point performance, the Suns intentionally fouled the Celtics to prolong the game in order for him to reach that mark in a loss – a move that rubbed many people the wrong way.
On a positive note, he did manage his roster better this season compared to last. Their frontcourt showed improvement by the end of the year with Marquese Chriss really blossoming after the All-Star break and Alan Williams simply dominating once Tyson Chandler was shut down. He made sure his team was having fun during the whole process and kept them energetic and upbeat. There were few complaints heard from players who saw their minutes decrease as the season went on, and the same can be said for those who got no playing time when the season started. They seemed like a tight-knit group and Watson was a huge reason for that. Unless a game-changing player lands on the Suns next season, it’ll be more of the same for Watson and the coaching staff.
ADP: 29/35 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 36/53 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 24/38 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 66
Bledsoe is an elite point guard that often goes unnoticed in the NBA. He’s currently 27-years old and is entering the prime of his career. In the previous season, Bledsoe played just 31 games before going down with a season-ending knee injury that required surgery, adding to an already injury-riddled career.
He had a nice bounce-back season, finishing with a respectable 21.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Bledsoe did eventually get shut down again this season with “knee soreness,” but it has to be mentioned that he did not want to be shut down and would’ve still been able to play if not for the coaches’ decision.
It’s not surprising that he can put up big numbers when he’s on the floor, but many question if he’s able to take his game to another level or stay healthy enough to maintain that standard of play. In January he showed us a glimpse of what he’s capable of, averaging 24 points, five rebounds and eight assists on 43 percent shooting from the field.
The Suns seem to be uncertain about him given that his prime doesn’t align with those of the youngsters but it’s hard to neglect numbers like that. Bledsoe is still their lead guard and best all-around player, so it’ll be interesting to see which direction the Suns decide to go moving forward.
Playing alongside a rising star like Devin Booker certainly helps Bledsoe. He’s able to play off the ball more often than before while also having another player that can create his own shot. In terms of fantasy, Bledsoe didn’t live up to his average draft pick and certainly had a down year compared to his 2014-15 season, which was a breakout campaign for him. It’s hard to blame him after coming off of a knee surgery, but he still put up early-round numbers when he was able to go. With Tyler Ulis coming alive late in the season and the possibility of the Suns drafting another talented guard, owners could be looking at a dip in production from Bledsoe next year.
ADP: 56/88 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 57/101 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 71/128 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 78
Devin Booker was without a doubt the most important player on the Suns heading into this season. From the media to the players, the sophomore guard continues to receive hype and attention from all around the league as a future superstar and although he hasn’t reached that level yet, he has shown on multiple occasions that he isn’t afraid of the moments. That being said, consistency was arguably his biggest issue during the season. D-Book was the main feature on offense and got to push the ball up the court to start the play at times. It was his shooting percentage and turnovers that killed him, at times acting as a huge burden on his team and fantasy owners.
Watson is giving Booker more responsibility but at the same time isn’t putting him into good situations or holding him accountable for his mistakes. Besides a dramatic increase in his points per game from 13.8 to 22.1, there wasn’t much overall growth for him as a player. Sure he got exposed to more situations and had explosive games, but that doesn’t change the fact that he shows inconsistent effort on the defensive end while at times forcing up bad shots. There will be plenty of things for Booker to work on during the offseason in order to take the next step.
There’s no doubt that next season Booker will have an even higher usage rate than he did this year. He averaged 22.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and a sad 3.1 turnovers per game. There were a couple of scoring explosions during the season, including a franchise record 70 point game against the Celtics. He is currently a streaky shooter with the ability to light up any team on any given night.
If he is able to develop a consistent shot while also holding his own on the defensive end, he could be something very special. Don’t let his looks fool you – give him a couple of more years and we could be looking at a baby faced assassin.
ADP: N/A /149 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 105/84 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 92/66 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 66
T.J. Warren was a pleasant surprise for the Suns this season, coming out of the gates firing on all cylinders. He became more than just a scorer this season, improving his rebounding skills, especially on the defensive glass. Warren wasn’t short of confidence when shooting the ball, creating his own shots and cutting to the rim. He increased his scoring average to 14.4 points while adding 5.1 rebounds per game and 1.2 steals per game. Warren showed the ability to get hot and got his touches as the third option while receiving less attention from the other team’s best defender.
The real question around Warren is whether or not he is the Suns’ small forward of the future. By the end of the season, the Suns focused more on the high-flying Derrick Jones Jr. It’s hard to justify moving forward with Jones rather than Warren, but there’s a possibility that the Suns take a small forward like Josh Jackson during the NBA Draft. Many believe that Jackson will develop in a solid 3&D type of the player in the NBA, unlike Warren who sports a lackluster 27 percent mark from deep. He also dealt with a head injury that knocked him out for a month.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the Suns move the 23-year-old to the back burner to make space for a high level prospect – and if he’s wasting away on the bench, other teams will surely come calling. If he stays in Phoenix he should remain a top-120 play but would be hard pressed to perform better than he did this season.
ADP: 69/78 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 277/300 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 250/299 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 54
This was by far Brandon Knight’s worst statistical campaign in the NBA. He was plugged into the sixth man role and by season’s end he was basically missing. His numbers dropped drastically, averaging a career-low 11.0 points per game to go with 2.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Knight never really spoke poorly about his diminished role and continued to support his teammates, though you can bet he would’ve liked to see a move made at the trade deadline. The team shut him down with a vague injury that was really just a way to clear time for other players.
The former first round pick has three years and $43.8 million remaining on his contract, but his future with the Suns in uncertain. The bench experiment was a complete bust and it’ll be hard to justify keeping him with three talented guards on the squad. Whether anyone wants him is another question entirely. He has no value in Phoenix but could get back on the radar if he finds a new home.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 279/268 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 232/214 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 47
Alan “Big Sauce” Williams took full advantage of the opportunity given to him at the end of the season, putting up monstrous numbers down the stretch. Although he averaged just 7.4 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game over the full season, his numbers after Tyson Chandler dropped out of the rotation on February 24th came out to 11.4 points and 9.1 rebounds in 22.6 minutes per game. That translates to 17.6 points per game and 14.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, so he could be a force with the proper playing time.
Big Sauce was a double-double machine that also provided blocks and an efficient field goal percentage, at one point registering seven rebounds or more in 13 of 14 games while collecting double digit boards in 13 of 23 games without Chandler. Both Williams and Alex Len are restricted free agents this summer, so the Suns will have the opportunity to match offers from other teams. Big Sauce is about to make big gains this upcoming year, and the hype could drive his ADP way up. For now he should be a top-120 player with plenty of room for more.
ADP: 140/144 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 149/163 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 189/204 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 82
Although Marquese Chriss was a rookie, he sure didn’t play like one. He was full of confidence entering the league and got even more comfortable as the year went along. Chriss’ playing time spiked from 18.8 minutes to 26.9 per game after the All-Star break, and the rest of the numbers followed. His shooting jumped from .420 to .498, his threes went up from 0.7 to 1.2 per contest, his rebounds climbed from 3.5 to 5.9 and his blocks rocketed up from 0.6 to 1.4 a night. He’s got the potential to be one of those Triple-1 players with his ability to rack up cash counters in bulk. There was a stretch in March where Chriss swatted 21 shots in just eight games, and we’re really just scratching the surface.
He’s an athletic big that really gets after it, hustling to block shots and dive for loose balls. Chriss has shown the ability to protect the rim and knock down the 3-point shot, making him a solid stretch-four in today’s game. With the Suns likely handing him the power forward job, he’ll make for an interesting pick in fantasy leagues next season. Chriss is loaded with upside and could very easily turn out to be one of the steals of next year’s drafts.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 257/276 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 256/283 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 61
It’s true when they say height can’t measure heart. The 5’10″ Ulis, much like Alan Williams, went bonkers after the All-Star break and took full advantage of the opportunity given to him. With Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight both shut down for the season, it was the Ulis show. He averaged a stellar 12.7 points and 7.3 assists after the All-Star break and while his .421 shooting could use some improvement, he authored one of the best moments of the year with an unbelievable game-winner against the Celtics. He certainly made Suns basketball fun again and one of the highlights of the season had to be the jump ball between Ulis and Isaiah Thomas that had the crowd fired up.
It’s clear that the Suns want him in their future, so getting rid of a guard seems to be inevitable. As a side note, he did undergo minor surgery on his right ankle but is fully expected to be ready for camp. Until we get clarity on the depth chart it’ll be tough to assess Ulis – he’s clearly behind Bledose but might be able to carve out low-end value as an assists specialist even in that role.
ADP: 100 / 139 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 133/136 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 163/165 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 77
Len was supposed to win the starting center job from Tyson Chandler but couldn’t wrestle the gig away on a full-time basis. By the time Chandler was out of the picture Alan Williams had stolen our hearts, leaving Len to a quietly productive yet disappointing year. He actually saw 12 fewer starts this year (34) than last and saw his playing time cut down by three minutes per game.
Considering he averaged just 20.3 minutes, his 8.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks look okay. Len made huge strides in efficiency, shooting .497 from the floor after posting a poor .423 mark last season. If he can keep that up there’s no reason he can’t produce low-end value in a 20 minute role, though he would obviously benefit from more time on the court. The division of playing time between Len, Williams and Chandler will essentially decide who has value and who can toil away on waivers.
ADP: 140/137 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 186/174 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 78/70 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 47
Tyson Chandler is one of the few older veterans that always seems to be relevant in fantasy leagues. His ability to out-rebound his opponent will always be his best attribute while low maintenance role on offense makes him an easy guy to plug into different lineups. He was actually asked if he wanted to be traded away from the team in order to receive more playing time but decided to stay with the Suns and play a mentorship role in the locker room.
He may very well end up on another team next season with the Suns looking to develop Alan Williams and Alex Len. Possibly a contender? Either way, if Chandler gets adequate minutes he’s a cheap double-double nearly every night and is consistent enough to use so long as you accept the risk of an early shutdown.
ADP: 140/148 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 360/364 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 382/386 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 43
Bender joined the Suns as the fourth pick in the draft but had plenty of competition for the starting gig, ultimately winding up as a reserve for all 43 of his games. With so many mouths to feed (especially before the trade deadline when P.J. Tucker was still around), it was a struggle for the rookie to get consistent playing time. He picked up seven DNP-CD’s and only hit the 20 minute mark twice in his first 15 games.
He picked up an ankle injury in late January and eventually underwent surgery in February that was expected to end his season. While he made a surprise recovery and returned for the final five games of the year, Bender made little impact on the stat sheet with averages of 3.4 points, 2.4 boards, 0.2 steals, 0.5 blocks and 0.7 threes on just 35.4 percent shooting. That came in 13.3 minutes per game and he’s not going to be a single-season fantasy asset unless he carves out a real role in the rotation.
Depending on what happens in the offseason, we may very well see the exact same outcome for the Suns next season. With the fourth pick in the NBA Draft coming up, the organization has plenty of decisions to make. Getting rid of Brandon Knight should be a primary objective for the offseason as it would clear cap space while also opening up a role for Tyler Ulis or another rookie. The likelihood of Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz being up on the board by the fourth pick is fairly slim, so De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson are the more likely targets. Either would suit the Suns well but pieces would have to be moved depending on exactly who they pick. It will be up to Earl Watson to continue developing the team while giving extra care and attention to Devin Booker. The Suns will have to add a few pieces to their roster in order to start contending and until Booker can take the reigns as the team’s best player to lead Phoenix into a new era, the sun will never fully rise.