The upcoming season is an evaluation campaign for the Phoenix Suns in every respect. They will introduce a new offense designed by former Sun Jeff Hornacek, a new defense spearheaded by Mike Longabardi and at least six new rotation players acquired via the draft and trades by new general manager Ryan McDonough.
With the recent trade of Caron Butler – who never played a game for the team – the Suns have only one player in his 30s: Channing Frye, who is all of 30 and trying to return from a heart ailment.
The only bit of continuity is the vaunted training staff, whose job continues to focus on injury prevention, and the relatively low talent level.
Coming off the second-worst season in franchise history, the rebuilding Suns are projected to be the worst team in the Western Conference. Again.
Fot a team that admittedly will be tough to watch, here are five things to watch for.
1. Jeff Hornacek’s offense. The new Suns coach, a rookie at this level, has promised to bring a faster offense. Last season’s team ranked 11th in the NBA in pace, but the Suns were next to last in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions).
The Suns scored less than 96 points per game, a number that Hornacek wants to jump to at least 103 points, a threshold reached by just four teams last season. By contrast, Hornacek’s Suns averaged more than 112 points each full season he and Kevin Johnson shared the backcourt (1988-92).
Can Hornacek reprise those free-wheeling days with this crew? Unlikely, but you can bet Phoenix’s scoring will see a bump next season. There’s almost nowhere to go but up. Hornacek coached the top scoring, highly efficient 7-1 Summer League team that consisted of a rookie and four of last season’s rotation players. That’s got to count for something, right?
2. Mike Longabardi’s defense. McDonough brought a defensive coach with him from Boston to join Hornacek’s staff in Phoenix. Longabardi managed the Celtics’ defense since Tom Thibodeau went to Chicago three years ago.
With the help of one of the all-time great defenders in Kevin Garnett, Boston sported the NBA’s second-, first- and seventh-ranked defense under Longabardi. Without an anchor like Garnett in the middle, there is no way the Suns will enjoy the same results. And playing fast and free on both ends might turn Longabardi prematurely grey.
I am highly intrigued, though, to see if Longabardi can implement a better defense than the Suns trotted out last season, when they were 23rd in efficiency.
Archie Goodwin and Eric Bledsoe are an upgrade on the defensive perimeter next to Goran Dragic. They all have active hands and an aggressive mentality. Marcin Gortat is passable in the middle, though nothing like Garnett. The biggest defensive weakness is the forward positions, but an argument can be made that Longabardi didn’t have much better in Boston.