When the Phoenix Suns entered training camp last September, they pushed the idea that the 2012-13 Suns would be playoff contenders. In reality, Suns fans suffered through one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
This year, the message going into training camp will be much different.
The Suns have a new General Manager in Ryan McDonough and a new Head Coach in Jeff Hornacek. And they are no longer as interested in wins and losses or tangible goals such as a playoff berth. Now, the Suns are all about developing their youth and acquiring even more assets that will allow them to rebuild for the future.
The Suns began the process of shedding most of their veterans over the summer, as these players have little to offer a team looking to win three or four years into the future. In the meantime, the Suns drafted a couple of promising rookies, made a few trades for young players and cap flexibility and added even more future draft picks from other teams.
Simply in terms of record, the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns may look very much the same as last year's team. However, the two couldn't be more different. Last season, the Phoenix roster was a complete mess that lacked an identity and possessed few promising young talents. This year, it will be all about displaying up-tempo basketball and showcasing its potential.
Suns 2012-13 Results
- 25-57 record (.305)
- 5th in Pacific Division
- 15th in Western Conference
Key Stats: The Good and Bad
And with the addition of Eric Bledsoe, the Suns will likely be much better in that area this season.
Goran Dragic averaged 1.7 steals per 36 minutes last season while Bledsoe averaged 2.5, making that backcourt duo one of the best in the league at swiping the ball away. As soon as the Suns force a turnover on defense, Dragic and Bledsoe can take over in transition and use their athleticism to run down the court and finish with a layup, dunk or give it to a spot-up shooter for a three-pointer.
On the other hand, the Suns must also do a better job of taking care of the ball. They ranked 29th in the NBA in turnovers last season and if they continue to make sloppy plays, they may not be able to handle a fast-paced offense.
Michael Beasley (whose 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes led the team last year) is gone, but that doesn't completely solve the problem. Goran Dragic, Kendall Marshall and Eric Bledsoe will be responsible with running a quick and efficient offense.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
The acquisition of Eric Bledsoe is certainly an exciting advancement for the team's rebuilding process. However, as the Suns enter training camp, one question must be asked: Will Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe be able to work together at the 1 and 2?
They're undersized, not fantastic long-range shooters and will have to figure out exactly how to share the ball on offense. Of course, there will be plenty of offensive opportunities for both players and locker room drama isn't anticipated.
However, if Bledsoe fails to live up to expectations and appears to be out of his element at shooting guard, the Suns may have to give up on him as a franchise cornerstone. And once again, they'll have to start another search for young, promising players to pair with Dragic in the backcourt.
Another narrative that will follow the Suns all season is the status of Marcin Gortat.
At this point, there appears to be a fairly high chance that Gortat will be dealt to another team. There is no real incentive to keep a 29-year-old center in the final year of his contract around when he isn't likely to re-sign.
The real question is, where will he go? And even more importantly, what could the Suns get in return?
And finally, pay attention to the Suns' potential three first-round draft picks in 2014. Their own record will affect the placement of their own pick, but also track the record of the Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves. If the T-Wolves are able to sneak into the playoffs, the Suns would receive another first-round draft pick, and the Pacers are expected to give Phoenix yet another pick in the 20-30 overall range.
Key Additions and Losses
Key Additions: Eric Bledsoe, PG (One year, $2.6 million remaining); Alex Len, C (Four years, $15.8 million remaining); Archie Goodwin, SG (Four years, $5.4 million remaining); Gerald Green, SF (Two years, $7 million remaining), Ryan McDonough (General Manager); Jeff Hornacek (Head Coach); Jerry Sichting (Assistant Coach); Mike Longabardi (Assistant Coach); Kenny Gattison (Assistant Coach).
Key Losses: Jared Dudley, SF (Three years, $12.75 million remaining with LAC); Luis Scola, PF (Two years, $9.4 million remaining with IND); Jermaine O'Neal, C (One year, $2.00 million remaining with GSW); Wesley Johnson, SF (One year, $916K with LAL); Lindsey Hunter (Head Coach); Lance Blanks (General Manager); Igor Kokoškov (Assistant Coach).
Biggest Addition: The only player you could even consider for this spot is Eric Bledsoe. While Gerald Green is a solid rotation player, and rookies Alex Len and Archie Goodwin are expected to have plenty of opportunities to play this season, Bledsoe could establish himself as the face of the franchise this season.
At just 6'1", he's very small for a shooting guard. He also isn't an exceptional shooter by any means and took just one three-point attempt per game last season. But Bledsoe is simply an unstoppable freak of nature. He is one of the most athletic players in the league and that athleticism allows him to throw down emphatic fast-break dunks and rack up steals in a hurry.
To expect an All-Star season out of Bledsoe would be unreasonable. But to see him average approximately 15 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game would allow the Suns to sign him to a long-term, lucrative contract.
Biggest Loss: Jared Dudley spent five seasons with the Suns, learning from legends such as Steve Nash and Grant Hill. He also participated in the team's 2009-10 playoff run that eventually ended in the Western Conference Finals against rival Los Angeles Lakers.
Once Nash and Hill left after the 2011-12 season, Dudley was one of the few remaining pieces from that playoff run. He was considered a role model and veteran for the younger prospects the team hoped to develop. On top of that, he was also one of the best three-point shooters on the team and an integral part of the offense.
Now that he's gone, Dragic and Frye are the only players from the 2009-10 season.
Dudley's presence will no longer be felt in the locker room when the Suns need it most. And for a team that that finished 28th in the league in three-point field-goal percentage last season, Dudley's sweet stroke will surely be missed.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Gerald Green vs. P.J. Tucker
P.J. Tucker may be the favorite right now, as he started 45 games for the Suns last season and impressed fans, coaches and other players with his fantastic defense, hustle and work ethic. Tucker rebounds like someone at least three inches taller than he is, and he has also emerged as the best perimeter defender on the roster.
Gerald Green could also be a starter and he could be a great partner for Bledsoe and Dragic. Though Green has only started 50 of his 272 total career games, he is one of the NBA's greatest dunkers and is also a career 35 percent shooter from downtown.
Battling for a Roster Spot: Smith vs. Christmas vs. Lee vs. Plumlee vs. Kravtsov
Going into training camp, the Suns have 17 players on guaranteed contracts for the season. That means that—unless they makes another trade—they will be forced to cut at least two players, most likely from the list of five players above.
So, which three players from that list get to stay?
Both point guard and shooting guard already have four players each, making it likely that the team cuts at least one (if not both) of the players from the backcourt.
Ish Smith was acquired in the Caron Butler trade and the 25-year-old point guard has three years of NBA experience. In that time, he has played for five NBA teams and has never played more than 10.3 minutes per game. Also, his shooting percentages are not pretty, as his career field-goal percentage is just 37 percent.
Dionte Christmas is already 27 years old, and he has never played a minute in the NBA. But he was a key contributor for the Suns in the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 10.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 20.1 minutes per game. He's spent the last few seasons playing overseas and has even had some huge games in Europe (see video below). But now he's looking for a roster spot in the NBA.
Malcolm Lee has already been in the league for two years, but only played a total of 35 games for the Timberwolves. Last season, in 16 games and 12 starts, he averaged 9.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 38 percent from the field.
He was out for so many games due to injuries. He has had two surgeries done on each knee and one on his hip in a span of just two years. The Suns are known for their great training staff and perhaps could help Lee, but first they have to decide whether or not he is worth their time in the first place.
Down low, Ukrainian center Viacheslav Kravtsov will battle Miles Plumlee for backup center minutes behind Alex Len and Marcin Gortat.
Kravtsov, the 26-year-old 7'0" center, played his first NBA season last year with the Pistons. He logged a total of 224 minutes in just 25 games, but his per 36 minute averages were 12.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
In EuroBasket 2013 representing Ukraine, Kravtsov ranked first among all participating players with 2.0 blocks per game. He also showed he has a nice touch around the basket.
While Kravtsov played in Europe, Miles Plumlee went to work this summer in the Orlando Summer League for the Pacers. There, in four games, he averaged 10.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. His best game came against the Philadelphia 76ers, when the Pacers won 96-75 and Plumlee scored 16 points, grabbed 15 boards and blocked four shots.
Plumlee received almost zero playing time in his rookie season, but McDonough saw potential in him in the summer league. He is a great rebounder who can play either the 4 or 5 and he could be useful to the Suns if he makes the final cut.
Biggest X-Factor: Markieff Morris
While it is true that all eyes will be on Eric Bledsoe this season, Markieff Morris will also play an important role for Phoenix this season.
Simply taking a cursory glance at Morris' stat page will reveal little year-to-year improvement from his first two seasons in the NBA. However, Markieff did show flashes of potential last season that could mean he is ready to take over as the starting power forward.
In games where Morris received at least 30 minutes last season, he did very well. In the 13 games where he played 30-39 minutes, Morris averaged 15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 51 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.
He still has a lot of work to do on defense, and although the range is there he also needs to make his jump shot more consistent. But the potential is there. And this season, perhaps Morris can prove to Suns fans that drafting him 13th overall in 2011 was not a mistake by any means.
Best-case Scenario: Morris becomes one of the team's best offensive weapons, scoring both inside and out while taking more efficient shots and showing better post defense. He starts for the entire season, and in about 30 minutes averages approximately 13 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block per game.
Worst-case Scenario: Morris has a third straight season of giving the same production (about eight points and five rebounds per game) and seems completely stagnant with no chance of developing more in the future. Plans to make him the future starting power forward are abandoned and Channing Frye has to take over the starting role for part of the season.
Suns Best-Case Scenario in 2013-14
Keep in mind that "best-case scenario" here only factors wins and losses and does not consider what is best for the team's future. In reality, some fans may cheer if the Suns win 10 games, only because the consolation prize is a top pick in a strong 2014 draft class.
But in the best scenario, Dragic and Bledsoe show great chemistry working together, Markieff Morris has a breakout year and Alex Len and Archie Goodwin both play significant minutes and are strong candidates for ROY. Channing Frye shows great resilience in coming back from a heart condition and prospects such as Marcus Morris, Kendall Marshall and Miles Plumlee all find a way to improve, coming off the bench.
The Suns finish 32-50, which still isn't nearly good enough for a playoff spot.
Suns Worst-Case Scenario in 2013-14
Bledsoe is incapable of proving that he can be anything more than a spark off the bench. Alex Len can not silence the critics who said that drafting him was a mistake, and he suffers through a disappointing season. The Morris twins and Kendall Marshall show little improvement or development, and Gerald Green and Shannon Brown, although athletic, simply take away from the offense by shooting inefficiently. Additionally, the Suns are unable to find a trade partner for Gortat that gives them a fair package.
In the end, the Suns finish 17-65, last in the West and in a close race with the Philadelphia 76ers for the top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Goran Dragic will have a career year, putting up close to 16 points and 7.5 assists per game while attacking the basket constantly. Bledsoe contributes another 15 points and 5 assists per game, and they form a great backcourt pairing.
Alex Len proves to be a project who may take a few years to realize his full potential, but Archie Goodwin has a more immediate impact, giving them 15-20 minutes per game off the bench.
P.J. Tucker takes the starting small forward spot, while Markieff Morris has an improved season as the starting power forward. Marcin Gortat is traded in February just before the deadline.
Prediction: 24-58, No. 15 seed in West
The Suns have a long way to go before they will reach the NBA playoffs again. If that's why you're tuning in to Suns games this season, you might as well give up hope now.
But this losing season doesn't mean the Suns should have fewer fans in the stands or at home watching their games. Look at the potential the team has with guys like Dragic, Bledsoe, Len and Goodwin and realize that this team really is heading in the right direction for the future.
And with all of the transition dunks we will see from Goodwin, Bledsoe, Green and Brown, you won't want to miss a second of the action.