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2017 NBA Summer Preview Series: Phoenix Suns

Charlotte Hornets v Phoenix Suns

2016-17 Season Highlights

The Phoenix Suns will always have a little personal meaning for me. To be honest I was pumped to see them win this poll of shitty teams. When I was a kid, the first non Celtics basketball attire I had was this jersey

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I think part of it was the fact that Thunder Dan was a white dude in the NBA with my same name, part of it was the actual nickname Thunder Dan, and the final part was this jersey was absolute fire flames. Growing up while most Jewish families went to Florida to visit their grandparents during Sping Break and whatnot, the Greenie household went to Arizona. Huge dry heat family. Add in their tie to the Celtics (Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Joe Johnson, the greatest game ever played on June 4 1976 etc) and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Phoenix Suns. You know how now we all stay up way too late to watch Steph Curry do crazy shit on the West Coast? Well, that’s exactly what I did in high school during the 7 Seconds Or Less Suns of the mid 2000s. Late night TNT to watch Nash, Marion, Amare, JRich, Barbosa, Raja Bell completely run teams off the court was incredible. If you ask me, that team was about 10 years too early. Being able to watch that group play in today’s NBA, in the same division as GS, would be unreal.

It also helped that the middle of this successful Suns run (2004-2010) happen when I was at Arizona State. I remember being on the 101 the day that Shaq landed and the radio was talking about rumors he was in town. Guy had the sweetest Rolls-Royce I have ever seen. He had the windows down and was waiving to everyone on the highway, and despite being 35/36, he ended up having a pretty good Suns run (16.5/9.0). Anyways, I feel for Suns fans, because I’m fully aware of how much of a dickhead their owner is. Robert Sarver may not be James Dolan, but he’s damn close. Guy is worth $400M and might be one of the cheapest owners in sports. In 2016 ESPN’s Annual Ultimate Standings had the Suns 117th out of 122 in terms of ownership. He was voted the worst owner in the NBA. Suns fans hate for Sarver isn’t without merit. His decision to force out Bryan Colengelo, the guy who essentially brought the franchise back from the dead and won 62 games in 2004-05 was being asked to take a pay cut. He didn’t and left for Toronto. Sarver then made Mike D’Antoni coach/GM, who proceeded to hand Marcus Banks $21M. And as if he didn’t learn from his previous mistakes, he did the same thing in 2010 with Steve Kerr, who helped orchestrate a team that went to the WCF for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Sarver wanted him to take a pay cut. From a player salary standpoint, he let All Star talent go time and time again, and on top of that was one of the main owners who were all for gigantic changes to the NBA revenue system so the owners got more and players ended up with less. Just think of the names that have left his organization in recent years, Kerr (GS), David Griffin (CLE), Rick Welts (GS), and would you look at that, all have titles. Long story short, Sarver really fucking sucks, and in my opinion is one of the major roadblocks for this Suns team/franchise.

Which brings us to where the Suns are now. Since the 2011-12 season, they have one winning season (2013-14) and a combined record of 192-284. During that span they’ve had three coaches, and currently employ one in Earl Watson that might be one of the worst in the entire league. The Suns have won under 30 games in three of these six years, and under 25 wins each of the last two. They stink. But here’s the thing, if you were to look at their roster compared to the other shitty teams mentioned in that poll, they are in my opinion the most exciting. Why? Well let’s have a look at how this roster looks today

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A couple things here. First, it sucks that Brandon Knight tore his ACL this summer. Since being traded to PHX in 2014, Knight has not been able to stay healthy in any capacity. His first full year in PHX showed promise, but he played just 52 games. Last year the number was 54. While still young at 25, unfortunately the Suns have not been able to get much out of him thus far, and certainly won’t this season. You could also make the case they’ve had similar injury issues with Eric Bledsoe. From a cap standpoint, because the Suns are so damn young they are actually in a good spot. Depending on what happens with Alex Len and his $12M cap hold, the Suns are sitting with either $6M or $18M in cap room. Of all NBA teams they currently have the second most cap space behind PHI, and if for some reason Len leaves, they jump to the front of the line. This seems like a good time to mention the main reason you probably hear about the Suns this summer, and that is the potential for a Kyrie Irving trade.

Reports suggest the Suns are willing to give Eric Bledsoe, Dragan Bender, and a protected first round pick for the CLE point guard. I have no idea why CLE would accept that deal, but if it were to happen that obviously changes their 2017 season outlook. If Ryan McDonough is able to pull that off, I really feel like Suns fans should finally forgive him for getting bamboozled by Danny Ainge in the Isaiah deal. Sadly, I don’t think CLE pulls the trigger which means the Suns are pretty much stuck. The good news is, they are loaded with young promising talent, which is exactly what you want as a fan of a rebuilding team, and definitely what that dickwad Sarver wants since they are relatively cheap. I mean look at that cap! Not one player over $14.5M!

So how do the Suns respond from a season in which they had the second worst record in the entire NBA? For me, it all starts with the type of Year 3 jump their best player, Devin Booker makes.  No denying his offense took a major leap last year now that he’s a full time starter. Seeing his scoring average jump from 13.8 to 22.1 while keeping his efficiency for the most part despite a 7FGA increase is a great sign of things to come.

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We all know about his 70 point performance against Boston (Avery DNP), but if you watched that game you saw what a joke that was for maybe the last 20 or so points. That’s not the point though. The point is, for someone who is 20 years old, his offensive game is among some of the best among young NBA talents. Normally you see the type of jump he just had in Year 3/4, which has me excited for what we might be about to witness. Like every young NBA player, despite his success there are clearly areas in which Booker can improve, which should help an offense that finished 6th in the West in scoring. The Suns use Booker in four main ways: Spot ups, Pick & Roll, Iso, and Off Screens. Much like Giannis, his overall offensive numbers look great, but when you look closer, you see the need for improvement.

Let’s start with Spot Up opportunities. Booker finds himself in this situation at a frequency rate of about 10.1%, but shoots a 40.1% clip, which puts him in the 73rd percentile. Not terrible, but not that great either. I think heading into this season we’re going to see this number rise, if only because of how strong of a scorer Booker is when he catches and shoots. When he is able to do that, his FG% jumps to 48.4/35.5%. With additional slashers like Josh Jackson, and hopefully more healthy minutes from guys like Bledsoe, why shouldn’t Booker get more of these opportunities this season? If you’re a Suns fan, you hope he does.

The next way, P&R offense actually surprised me. Despite having all these point guards on the roster last year, Booker was the ball handler in these plays at a frequency rate of 26.7%. For some reason that seemed high to me. Offensively, this is where Booker needs his biggest improvement. He shot 39.5% from the floor in these situations, which put him in the 46th percentile. Earl Watson either needs to stop having Booker run these, or he needs to show he can actually be effective. I imagine a lot of his struggles are normal NBA growing pains, but he does play with the perfect P&R teammate in Tyson Chandler, and he has shown potential with plays like this

Add in the development of other promising talents in Chriss, Jackson and maybe even Len, the Suns should be way better in P&R than they currently are.

As an Isolation player, Booker is currently average at best. Just 0.94 points per possession, he shoots 40.6% as a iso scorer, a situation he finds himself in 13.0% of the time. He ranks in the 71st percentile here, and on pullups he shoots just 38.8%. I think it’s fair to say that at the moment, putting Booker in isolation and telling him to create something out of nothing is not the best way to get the most out of him. He finished 12th in iso FGA per game last year and if he’s able to improve as an iso scorer, everything else is going to open up for him, and there’s every reason to think he will. That FG% while it may seem low, is actually higher than Curry, Wade, Wall, Lowry, Kemba, Dame, Harden, and Westbook, all guys who took around the same iso FGA as Booker last year. The key for Booker’s iso game is for him to continue to use his size to get into the paint/restricted area. When he does that, he’s almost impossible to stop from scoring.

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Off screens, Booker could also use improvement. Run 11.9% of the time, Booker struggled here, shooting just 37% and finishing in the 41st percentile. Shocking that a player who is so strong catching and shooting struggles in this area, but it is what it is. The more teams can gameplan to stop him, the more this type of scoring will become vital. Look at some of the best SGs/scorers in the league, they thrive off scoring this way. Klay (43.3%), Beal (43.4%), Curry (46.4%), George (43.2%), Redick (41.1%), Durant (52.2%), if Booker can find a way to get up into the low 40s, that is going to do wonders for everyone.

But Booker isn’t the only reason for excitement. We can’t not talk about the Suns 4th overall pick, Josh Jackson. Josh had a pretttayyyy pretttayyyy pretttayyyy good time in Vegas this summer, ultimately showing all of us a lot of the hype that surrounded him at the Draft seems to be legit

It’ll be very interesting to see how Earl Watson handles Jackson. Does he start right away in place of TJ Warren? A guy that had a pretty good 2016 season in his own right? I say no, at least initially, and that we see Jackson fill the role that PJ Tucker had last year with the Suns second unit. He still played around 28 minutes a night which is where I think Jackson could end up, but there’s a reason the Suns wouldn’t include Jackson in any Kyrie deal. They think he’s going to be the real deal, and the perfect compliment to Booker moving forward. The Suns desperately need help on defense, and that’s something Jackson should be able to provide instantly, while he figures out his shot at the NBA level.

I also like the deal they gave Alan Williams to keep him in PHX. Many may not know Williams, but he’s a 24 year old PF who had a “breakout” year of his own last year. A player who only got 15 minutes a night last year, his Per 36’s came out to 17.6/14.8 while shooting 51% from the field. If there’s one thing this dude can do, it’s rebound the fucking basketball. Williams pouring in a 31.2% defensive rebound rate, and a 22.4% total rebounding rate are probably what got him that new deal, even if a large portion of it is unguaranteed (Sarver you cheap fuck). But he’s not alone, there’s another guy on this roster that is going to see his opportunities increase now that Knight got hurt. This dude

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Did the Suns find their Isaiah Thomas 2.0? Maybe not to that extreme, but they certainly found something in the 5’10 PG. Post AS break, Ulis saw his minutes jump from 9.0 to 32.0 minutes per game, and his production responded. A solid 13.2/1.7/7.2 while shooting 43% from the field. His 3:1 assist to turnover ratio is nothing to sneeze at, and he showed despite his size (much like Isaiah), that he can score at the NBA level. He has his limitations too, but even if the Suns aren’t able to trade for Kyrie, they aren’t totally boned at the PG position even with the Knight injury.

The biggest thing this young team needs to do for 2017 to be a more successful year is simply learn how to play something that resembles defense. As a team the Suns gave up 113.3 points per game. This was the worst in the entire NBA. Collectively they had a defensive rating of 112.2. That ended up being the WORST in franchise HISTORY. It doesn’t matter how many jumpers Booker hits, or how many dunks Jackson has, if they can’t even resemble a somewhat competent defensive team, they are going to find themselves again under 25 wins. The bad news is, it’s not just one guy that hurts them, it’s literally everyone on the roster. Booker certainly should be better than his 116 rating, but he’s not alone. Outside of Chandler, not one of their starters has a defensive rating under 110, so when you combine that with young guys learning to score at the NBA level you are going to get seasons in which you are 11 games under .500 at home, and 23 games under .500 on the road. I’m not saying they need to be on UTA’s level or anything, just show you have a pulse on the defensive end and you probably back your way into 5 wins right there.

Either way, I see myself yet again staying up way too late to watch this group of 20 somethings try and figure out life in the hardest conference we’ve seen in years. It isn’t quite the 7 Seconds Or Less Suns, but of all the shitty teams in the NBA, they are by far the most entertaining to watch.

Official Greenie Prediction: 28 wins