Coach Jeff Hornacek, entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, has to right the ship without the benefit of a rising star to buoy hopes for the future. That Hornacek was able to cobble together an 87-77 record the last two years without a single All-Star is a testament to his coaching ability. But he lost some of the locker room last year and now faces one more chance to get these guys into the playoffs before the reckoning next spring.
You read that right. The Suns want to make the playoffs very badly. Top to bottom, this is the most talented Suns roster since 2010. But it will require a sprinkling of magic dust not unlike the 2013-14 campaign to see this team play into May.
Here’s five things to watch with the Suns this season.
1. Youth is still served
The Suns went old in free agency this summer, signing Tyson Chandler (33 by opening day), Ronnie Price (32) and Mirza Teletovic (30), along with Sonny Weems (27) to supplement the young core. After seeing the team implode last season partially due to a void of maturity, the Suns entered the summer looking specifically for veterans who could provide stability.
Even factoring in the new old guys, the Suns still return one of the youngest playing rotations in the league. Those getting heavy minutes this season will include Brandon Knight (23), T.J. Warren (22), Alex Len (22), Archie Goodwin (21) and Devin Booker (19), while the team’s best player is still on his career upswing in Eric Bledsoe (25).
To a man, the Suns players recognized the need for veteran leadership at the end of last season. As Brandon Knight puts it, “Eric and I are vets, but those guys are vet vets.”
2. But why send Alex Len to the bench?
Because Alex Len needed a mentor, and the Suns needed veteran leadership in the starting lineup. Tyson Chandler has so far has filled in both holes admirably.
Since day one, Chandler and Len have been each other’s biggest supporters, and now the Suns enter the 2015-16 season with potentially one of the best two-way center tandems in the game. Len was already a defensive force last season but lacked faith in his array of offensive skills. Under Chandler’s tutelage, Len looked miles ahead of that indecisive kid when he scored 21 strong points in just 24 minutes against Utah in the second preseason game.
3, Win with defense over offense
With a former Defensive Player of the Year anchoring your defense, it’s no surprise the Suns want to win with defense this season. Chandler and Len provide back line support to defensive aces Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker.
Chandler has provided a strong influence on the rest of the team, most notably as the captain of the defense. Tucker gushes over adding another chatterbox to the lineup, and the first games of preseason have proven the Suns are talking more than ever on defense.
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A year ago, the Suns hardly uttered a word on defense. Bledsoe, Warren and Markieff Morris are tomb-quiet by nature, but defenses suffer when players don’t help each other out on rotations. After a 17th-ranked finish a season ago, the coaching staff hopes to boost their effectiveness this season into a top-10 defense at the least.
4. Speaking of Markieff Morris, what the heck is going on with him?
After a summer of quiet drama from Bledsoe and agent Rich Raul in 2014, the Suns endured a summer of social media discontent in 2015. The path of self-destruction displayed last season by Markieff and Marcus Morris – also known as the Morrii – is well-documented, so you can imagine how surprised the Suns were that the Morrii still somehow felt entitled to have a say in whether Marcus was traded or not.
Sure, it was a feel-good story when they both signed extensions in October 2014, but the NBA is a business, not a family. In business, when employees act out, they are moved out. That’s just the way it is.
Now Markieff has decided it’s time to move on and go about his job as the Suns starting power forward. No more drama. He’s been a model citizen since Media Day. He misses his brother and still doesn’t love the media, but the fans have forgiven him on the whole.
While he might be eminently replaceable on the NBA power forward landscape, Morris is the most talented power forward on the roster and has a very favorable contract, so he will continue to start whether or not he improves this season. If he improves, the Suns are in even better shape. In the second game of the preseason, Kieff showed a newfound commitment to being the stretch-4 the Suns need, hoisting quick threes off the catch to create open space for driving lanes.
5. Can the youngest NBA player make a big impact this season?
Suns coaches can’t stop raving about Devin Booker – who turns 19 just before opening night – and they’re not just talking about his picture-perfect shooting stroke. They love his demeanor and his natural basketball skills. Booker didn’t even start for Kentucky last season, but won Sixth Man of the Year in the SEC and was a lottery-rated talent on draft night.
What glues most young players to the bench is their inability to make proper defensive rotations. Yet Booker, the youngest player in the league, has already shown the desire and ability to make the proper defensive rotations that keep defenses in control of the possession.
Couple that with a pure shooting stroke and tenacious effort, and Booker just might win the bulk of the backup shooting guard minutes this season ahead of Euro star Sonny Weems and still-developing Archie Goodwin.
This will be a fascinating year in the Valley of the Sun for many reasons. The team could excel or it could implode, and no one from the coach to Booker knows which it will be.
Dave King is the managing editor of Bright Side of the Sun, SB Nation’s dedicated Phoenix Suns blog. He has been a credentialed media member since 2012 with direct access to the front office, coaches and players. You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveKingNBA. Bright Side gives back to the community, so help us send 1,000 underprivileged kids to their first Suns game by donating a few bucks here.