Bright Side of the Sun - Phoenix Suns 2014-15 Preview - SBNation.com
Obviously they want to make the playoffs. They only came up short last spring due to a historically competitive year in the West, so attempting to conquer that demon should go without saying. The franchise is currently entrenched in its longest playoff drought since 1975. The fans are ready, the players are ready, nothing else matters.
Ryan McDonough didn't come to town to battle for 8-seeds. He and the rest of the front office have been adamant about not sacrificing the future for the present, and they put this theory in practice when they stood pat at last February's trading deadline, despite having the massive, insured expiring contract of Emeka Okafor as bait.
The West will be insanely competitive again, and Anthony Davis just might have something to say about who sneaks into the playoffs should a spot come available. While another year sans-playoffs will surely bum out the fans, the goal in Phoenix is to build a championship contender. With a treasure chest of assets in their arsenal, the Suns have the ammo to make this happen -- especially if they strike gold on their top-5 protected Lakers' pick.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
3rd in Pacific Division - 9th in Western Conference
Heading into the 2013-14 season, the general consensus around the basketball world was that first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek would inherit a young team that was going to struggle. The Suns were coming off of a 25-win season and in the midst of a rebuilding process, nobody expected them to compete for a playoff spot.
However, while the Suns are young, they are pretty talented as well. Phoenix silenced the naysayers and not only performed better than expected, they were the surprise team of the season. Deep at every position, the Suns spread the floor well, dominated the pick n' roll game, played unselfish basketball and outworked their opponent on the consistent basis. The dynamic young backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic were exceptional, as well, as they were one of the most exciting duos to watch and have established themselves as two of the better guards in the NBA.
Right in the middle of his breakout year, Eric Bledsoe suffered a shin injury that would eventually affect his meniscus, keeping him out of the lineup for two and a half month. Anxious to get back on the court in his contract year, he returned to action in mid-March and finished the season strong. Bledsoe missed roughly half of the season, appearing in only 43 games, but he unquestionably emerged as one of the most impressive two-way guards in the league by producing 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game on a career-high 48% from the field.
While Bledsoe was out, Goran Dragic made it his mission to put the team on his back and lead them to a winning season. The 28-year-old point guard bursted on the scene as somewhat of a late blooming star, as Dragic played his best basketball in his sixth season. Dragic scored a career high 20.3 points per game while dishing 5.9 assists while shooting above 50% from the field overall and 40% from beyond the arc. Many felt that Dragic was the most notable 2014 Western Conference All-Star snub, and he may very well get there in the near-future.
Another guy that stepped up big for the Suns last season was former Celtic Gerald Green, who we all remember as "the next Tracy McGrady" coming out of high school in 2005. After a journeyman-like start to his pro career, where he has played for seven NBA teams in seven seasons and even played some ball overseas, Green may have finally found a home. Everybody knows Green for his freak athleticism and highlight plays above the rim, but he can shoot the hell out of the ball and create separation for himself to get a shot off at any time.
It is nice to see Gerald finally put it together, because he is an fun talent to watch. Green was one of the most improved players in the NBA last season, averaging 15.8 points per game while shooting 40% from behind the three-point line. He played even better as the season progressed, as he dropped 18.5 points per game in the 31 games after the All-Star break. On March 6, Green lead the Suns to a big victory over Oklahoma City behind a career high 41 points, which included an 8-13 shooting clip from beyond the arc.
Second-year center Miles Plumlee was also one of the most improved players in basketball, as he earned the starting job and didn't let go of it all season long. After appearing in only 14 games as a rookie with Indiana, in which he played in an average of 3.9 minutes per game, Plumlee played just under 25 minutes per contest in Phoenix last season and put up 8.1 points with a team-leading 7.8 rebounds per game. As a reward for his progression, he was named to the Rising Stars Challenge roster at NBA All-Star weekend
Coming off of heart surgery, Channing Frye was one of the feel-good stories of the year as the 6'11" stretch-four played in all 82 games and return to form as an effective role player. Frye matched his usual production of 11 points and five rebounds per game while shooting well from the outside and providing a quality veteran presence on a relatively young roster.
The Morris twins also continued their steady progression for the Suns last season. Markieff Morris played just under 27 minutes per game off the bench and was one of the most consistent contributors for the team all season, putting up 13.8 points and six rebounds per contest. His brother Marcus got a chance to get a lot of run, as well, as the face-up combo forward played 22 minutes per game off the bench to score 9.7 points per game while improving his perimeter jump shot.
Phoenix played excellent basketball all year long, but earning a spot in the Western Conference playoffs is no easy task. As the parity of the conference tightened the playoff race in the standings, Phoenix finished the regular season at 48-34 but fell just one victory short of Dallas for the eighth seed out west.
While it was frustrating for the Suns to come so close and just barely miss the cut, once the dust settled it was difficult to feel a negative way about what they accomplished last season. With a rookie head coach, they won 23 more games than the year before and what recently seemed like a long rebuilding process may have been significantly accelerated in the blink of an eye.
With an exciting cast of young players, upcoming cap space and a promising coaching career for Jeff Hornacek, the Suns have established themselves as one of the rising teams in the NBA.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Isiah Thomas, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, Zoran Dragic, Anthony Tolliver
Key Losses - Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa, Ish Smith
The Suns' top priority this offseason was the restricted free agent status of Eric Bledsoe. After months of negotiation and speculation, Bledsoe signed a five-year contract extension worth $70 million in September. At age 24, Bledsoe is quickly developing into a big time two-way game changer that has a chance of becoming an All-Star some day. He is an exceptional athlete with a sky-high motor, he can shoot the ball, he is a tough attack guard off of dribble-penetration, he pressures defensively and Phoenix is giving him every opportunity to maximize his potential.
As long as Bledsoe and Dragic are healthy, they are going to make a case for the best backcourt in the league; especially now that they have signed Isiah Thomas to form a dynamite three-guard rotation. The multidimensional 5'9" guard was acquired in a sign-and-trade deal with Sacramento that landed him a four-year, $27 million contract. Thomas is coming off a breakout year with the Kings, where he was one of the NBA's most improved players and put up 20.3 points with 6.3 assists per game. He may be small, but his jumper is lights out and he is a terrific pick n' roll point guard that should be a huge spark off of coach Hornacek's bench.
Phoenix also made sure they maintained their frontcourt depth by re-signing both Marcus and Markieff Morris to four-year extensions. With Channing Frye out of the picture after signing a $32 million contract with Orlando this summer, Markieff Morris signed an equal contract and is likely to become the new starting power forward in Phoenix. Marcus Morris' deal is worth $20 million, and you can expect him to receive more opportunity as time goes on.
Speaking of brothers, the Suns really expanded on their family atmosphere by bringing in Goran Dragic's younger brother Zoran on a two-year, $4 million deal. Zoran is a high IQ perimeter player with a good jump shot, and he's got good size on the wing at 6'5" as well. The 25-year-old scored over 10 points per game playing professionally in Spain last season, and will have a chance to crack into the Suns rotation as the potential backup two-guard.
Another guy that could compete for minutes this season is rookie T.J. Warren, who the Suns drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2014. Warren was an absolute beast for N.C. State last season, scoring 24.9 points per game to go along with 7.1 rebounds and a 15% improvement at the free throw line (54% to 69%). As a long 6'8" attacker, Warren is a very skilled all-around scorer that can do damage from almost anywhere on the floor. He has to work on his long-range shooting if he wants to see a regular role at small forward, but he is a dynamite post-up and triple-threat scorer that has potential put together a productive pro career.
Phoenix also had the 18th pick in the draft, where they went with Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis. At 6'2" Ennis is a pure point guard that can make decisions at a speedy pace and he displayed a great deal of heart and toughness in his freshman year. Ennis will need to become more consistent from the outside and it takes time for anyone to learn the point guard position at the NBA level, especially at age 20, but he is a promising floor general that could make an impact on both ends of the floor.
Some people pegged Ennis as a lottery pick prior to the draft, and the Suns may have come away with two long-term pieces to add to their puzzle
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Miles Plumlee / Alex Len
PF - Markieff Morris / Marcus Morris / Anthony Tolliver / Shavlik Randolph
SF - P.J. Tucker / Gerald Green / T.J. Warren
SG - Eric Bledsoe / Zoran Dragic / Archie Goodwin
PG - Goran Dragic / Isiah Thomas / Tyler Ennis
X-FACTOR - Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe, the $70 million man, was only able to play 43 games last season and as good of a season as the Suns had without him, you wonder if they would have made the playoffs with Bledsoe healthy all year. You would think his talent could have helped make up the one-game difference that separated them from Dallas, but that doesn't matter anymore.
What matters is that Bledsoe is healthy going forward, as he is arguably the best player on the team and Phoenix won't be able to reach their full potential as a team this season without him in the lineup consistently.
If everyone is healthy, the Suns should at least be in the mix for a playoff spot.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
Despite missing the playoffs in each of the last four years, the Phoenix Suns are finally on the rise. If this scrappy young group stays healthy, there's no reason to believe that they can't challenge for a top eight seed in the Western Conference. It certainly won't come easy, as there are at least 10 or 11 teams capable of making the playoffs out west, but the Suns should have a chance to build on what they accomplished last season.
One thing that's for sure - Phoenix won't be able to sneak up on anybody this season. Don't be surprised if the Suns fall just short for the second straight year. Either way, they certainly won't go down without a fight.
3rd - Pacific Division
10th - Western Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Toronto Raptors preview, coming tomorrow morning.