A year ago, the Phoenix Suns had the worst record in the Western Conference and the fourth worst record in the entire NBA. As a result, not many expected them to have a good season. As a result, the Suns put in a solid season showcasing they have a promising future, but unfortunately their playoff hopes now ends with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. The question now remains, what can they do to improve upon a season that saw them increase their win total by at least 22 wins in a single season?
The first thing to do in this situation is to analyze what went well for the Suns this season, or more specifically, how they managed to surprise the league. Above all else, the Suns picked up a General Manager, Ryan McDonough, who saved the team millions and headaches. In other words, they traded the big contract of often injured swingman Caron Butler, the overpaid Jared Dudley, a Jermaine O’Neal past his prime and problem child Michael Beasley. The only questionable move was that of the underrated Luis Scola. In exchange, the Suns got Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, solid bench player Miles Plumlee and a few draft picks along with new coach Jeff Hornacek.
On paper those moves look like cost-cutting measures; however, Gerald Green went above and beyond by averaging almost 16 ppg opposed to last season’s 7 ppg in Indiana and Bledsoe improved to 18 ppg and 5.5 apg opposed to last season’s 8.5 ppg and 3.1 apg average respectively. Additionally, longtime Suns guard Goran Dragic improved his game from averaging 14.7 ppg at 44 percent shooting to 20.3 ppg and 50 percent shooting and Markieff Morris improved to 13.8 ppg and 6 rpg from last season’s 8.2 ppg and 4.8 rpg. Even Morris’ twin brother Marcus improved to 9.6 ppg and 3.9 rpg compared to last season’s 5.7 ppg and 2.5 rpg.
The uninformed will say that the Suns got lucky with these acquisitions and players that are increasing their play. However, it is no coincidence that this started during Jeff Hornacek’s first season as head coach of the squad. What he has been able to do with the team is incredible by giving guys more time than they have in the past, while helping developing one of the top offenses in the league at 7th in ppg at 105.2, and a surprisingly good rebounding team at 43.1 rpg, No. 13 in the league.
Of course, this is not a surprising strategy for the Suns. Ever since the squad led by Steve Nash, they have had a focus on offense that is hard for other teams to defend. Having said that, their offense is not perfect this time around. While they have some decent distributors in Dragic and Bledsoe, the Suns are in bad shape in terms of team play by being No. 29 in assists, with a 19.1 apg average.
This of course is where the Suns need to make changes. Either the Phoenix Suns need to obtain players who focus more on sharing the ball or more importantly, Hornacek needs to create an atmosphere where the team shares the ball more, otherwise this will not be the only season where their playoff hopes ends with a promising future and nothing to show for it. No matter how good their offence may be, only having two guys with over five apg with the next only averaging 2.5 apg is a major problem that needs to be fixed. The Suns have proven to have great team chemistry, but no team will make it far in the league if they do not play like a team.
Secondly, despite the philosophy of the Suns being offense, the previous Suns teams proved that without defense, there is only so far they can go. As a result, their defense needs a major makeover. Currently, the Suns are a measly No. 20 in points allowed at 102.6 per game. When a squad’s ppg is only three above their points allowed, that’s a problem. Hornecek mainly being an offensive player when he was in the league, may not be the best to teach these guys defense. So what can he do? The first step is to hire a strong assistant who has a strong defensive background. Mike Longabardi, one of the current assistants preached this when he was hired this past offseason, but either Hornacek or the players are not listening or he does not know how to implement it. Regardless, either Hornacek and his assistants need to put a strategy of bringing defense to the squad or they need help.
Additionally, the Suns need to pick up a few defensive stoppers in the offseason. As is, they only have one player (Mike Plumlee) who is averaging 1.1 bpg and only three players averaging over 1 spg. Those numbers need to change, but more importantly they need players who serve as a defensive threat to the opposing team. One player who will be a free agent this offseason who would provide a way to increase their defense is Luol Deng who can fit perfectly in the Suns starting lineup.
Speaking of free agency, if the Suns want to continue their improvement, they need to make a case to keep Bledsoe who is a restrictive free agent. It does not stop there though. The Suns due to their financial saving this year, can be a major player in the offseason.
being a small market team, the Phoenix Suns they will not land players like Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony. However, they have quite a few big men to choose from to help with their rebounding from Greg Monroe to Zach Randolph (though it’s doubtful he’ll leave Memphis). If they want to go cheap they can even bring in Andrei Kirilenko who will bring in defense and rebounding or center Spencer Hawes. At the end of the day, with the strides the Suns have made this season, they have a solid chance of landing solid players now that they have proven to be on the rise.
The Suns are one of the most improved teams this season. Their season ends tomorrow, after barely missing the mark for a playoff berth; as a result though there are plenty of hopes for this young team with a promising future as long as they clean up their defense and team play. If they do these things, it is very possible for the team to be a contender next season.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey