Goran Dragic had the best season of his career, Eric Bledsoe lived up to the potential his biggest fans envisioned and both Markieff Morris and Gerald Green were in the running for Sixth Man Award.
Now entering their second season together – with a new key piece – the Suns have lofty expectations. Anything short of the playoffs will be disappointing, even in the loaded Western Conference.
Let’s review five things to watch this season for the Suns.
1. Can point guards Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas get along? Those three guards and long-range bomber Gerald Green (15.8 points per game, 40 percent from three) give the Suns one of the deepest backcourts in the league. But are there enough minutes to go around?
Last season, the Suns got along fine with Bledsoe, Dragic and Green as the primary guard rotation because there wasn’t any competition for minutes. Against the preseason advice of pundits, point guards Dragic and Bledsoe both started and thrived. Green came off the bench when they were healthy, then stepped into a starting role for half the season when Bledsoe was injured. With all three in the lineup, the Suns were 23-11.
So, with everyone back healthy, why sign former Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas to join them?
The Suns signed Thomas for several reasons. Some cited insurance against Bledsoe leaving (this year) or Dragic (next year), while others cite injury concerns for those two. Both concerns are valid. When Dragic or Bledsoe went down, the Suns could barely tread water with a 25-23 record.
But even when Bledsoe and Dragic were healthy, they could only share the court about 20 minutes a game because coach Jeff Hornacek needed to rotate them the rest of the time. The other 28 minutes each night, the team was much more average.
Thomas was signed so the Suns could always have two playmakers on the court at the same time. Green will slide between small forward and guard to take the leftover minutes. If everyone is healthy, it will be Green fighting for minutes behind the three playmakers and the small forwards.
2. Can the Suns replace Channing Frye? Starting power forward Channing Frye only produced 11 points and five rebounds per game last season, numbers that were eclipsed by backup Markieff Morris (13 points, 6 rebounds). On the surface, he should be easy to replace.
Yet, Frye was one of the most effective players in the NBA last season, according to several advanced statistics. Frye and Goran Dragic formed the league’s most lethal pick-and-roll duo last season, producing 1.3 points per play. Offensively, Frye was second in the league among power forwards. Dragic used the pick to turn the corner and drive, while Frye would roll back to the line for the kick out, drawing the opposing big man with him. Their chemistry and feel for the play was fun to watch.
Can the Suns replace Frye in that role? Yes and no. Yes, they can approximate the role by simply inserting Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Shavlik Randolph and Anthony Tolliver into the play. All can pick and pop, especially Tolliver. But the question is their consistency, and the threat to force the opposing big man to remain on the perimeter. Phoenix’s returning big men will have to force that action.
3. The Suns want to push the pace … The Suns led the NBA in fast break points last season but finished just eighth in pace, which measures possessions per game. That means when they weren’t running, they were slogging. Part of that was a maturation process for Eric Bledsoe, who often took a breather by walking the ball up the court on offense if the break wasn’t there. Bledsoe worked so hard on defense, he just couldn’t go full bore on both ends for an entire game.
Another reason for the slogging pace was the lack of a true playmaker behind Dragic when Bledsoe was hurt. Dragic eventually slowed down with ankle injuries and body soreness after playing the most minutes of his career.
With Thomas added to the fold, the players won’t have to pace themselves this season. They can go all out for 30 minutes a game on both ends without worrying about conserving energy. Hornacek wants the Suns to finish in the top three in pace, putting the pedal to the metal on every possession and running other teams off the court.
4. …while playing good defense. The Sixers played with great pace last season, but at one point lost 26 straight games because they didn’t play any defense. For the Suns to succeed at breakneck speed, they will have to play respectable defense. Last season, the Suns did just that. The Suns finished 15th on defense – right in the middle of the pack – even while missing their defensive catalyst, Bledsoe, for half the season. Bledsoe ranks far and away as the best defender at point guard in the league.
Miles Plumlee was a revelation at center, averaging nearly a double-double despite being a relative rookie (he played just 55 minutes in his first season in Indiana). P.J. Tucker was a demon on the perimeter, checking the opposition’s best wing scorer every game. While Tucker didn’t shut them down, he allowed the Suns to play straight up D across the court without double-teaming.
Hornacek believes that defense is more about effort than talent, and that will have to be true because the rest of the roster is lacking defensive chops. Defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi found a way to get a group of inexperienced misfits to play average defense last season (better than the Suns have played in seven years). The hope is that a full season of Bledsoe and a year of maturation from the other kids will reduce the mental mistakes and help improve the defense this season.
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5. Will youth carry the Suns to the playoffs? The Suns will enter this season even younger than a year ago but with a little more NBA experience this time. GM Ryan McDonough says that the perfect team is a mix of players entering their prime, supplemented by a youthful core on rookie contracts and a couple of veterans.
Four young players, just entering their prime, will decide the Suns’ fate this season. The Suns invested nearly $150 million this summer in Thomas (25), the Morris twins (both 25) and Bledsoe (24). Those players must continue to improve their games in 2014-15 if the Suns are to succeed in coming years.
The oldest rotation player is 29-year old P.J. Tucker, followed by Green (28), third team All-NBA member Dragic (28), Tolliver (27) and Plumlee (26).
With this primary lineup, the Suns have plenty of guard talent but lack size on the inside. Second-year 7-1 center Alex Len (21) is expected to play a lot of backup pivot minutes even though he is still quite raw. Other youngsters will be fighting for time but likely will only play in case of injury. Archie Goodwin (20) had an excellent offseason and may surprise if anyone goes down on the perimeter. T.J. Warren (21) and Tyler Ennis (20), first-round picks this summer, will have an even harder time getting minutes unless there is a trade to cull the herd.
Dave King is the Managing Editor of Bright Side of the Sun, SB Nation’s Phoenix Suns blog. A credentialed media member, Dave has direct access to the front office, players and coaches, helping make Bright Side the nation’s best mix of inside information, opinion and analysis. Follow him on twitter @DaveKingNBA and @BrightSideSun.