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Committed to rebuilding, Suns aim for disciplined approach

POSTED: Oct 15, 2013 9:46 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper,


Rookie Archie Goodwin (left) and Eric Bledsoe will be key contributors for the new Suns in 2013-14.

Whether from conversations with holdovers or based on his own impressions after watching from afar, Ryan McDonough knew the issues in Phoenix were not just about the lineup. The problems went well beyond that. He was certain of it, outsider or not.

The new general manager, hired away in May from Danny Ainge's staff in Boston, felt the 2012-13 Suns lacked discipline. McDonough may have been all of 33, but he was experienced in the ways of mental toughness after 10 years in a franchise of mega-competitors that won a championship leading with their heart and a never-ending search for a fight that prompted players to wager on whose luggage would tumble out of the airport carousel first. If he couldn't get those results right away, McDonough at least wanted the mental toughness.

This is how the new Suns, his Suns, will probably be judged in 2013-14. Barring the unexpected, losses will flood in at a rate to put Phoenix at or very near the bottom of the league. Within the Western Conference, "at" is a solid wager.

The Suns were 25-57 a season ago and may go backward in the win-loss column after committing more to rebuilding mode, and so progress, or lack thereof, will have to be rated elsewhere. How do Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic fit as two point guards in the same backcourt? Beyond that, how does Bledsoe handle the increased role after years of glimpses of potential but also years of waiting behind Chris Paul on the Clippers? Does lottery-pick center Alex Len stay healthy and develop? Will Jeff Hornacek pay off as a rookie coach in charge of a roster that needs a lot of experienced teaching? Can shooting guard Archie Goodwin recapture the promise from a year ago at this time, as he entered the University of Kentucky as a possible lottery selection, and find consistency to become a great investment choice by McDonough at No. 29 in June?

And, in the pressing question that won't be answered in the standings yet will be a barometer of the direction: Will the Suns have more discipline, the result of McDonough's personnel choices and Hornacek's coaching, or will approach remain a concern?

The roster that will be gauged will be a mix of veterans and youth and even some in between in the case of Bledsoe, who is in his fourth season but has never had this big of a role. The read will also come with the potential of trade rumors swirling, because Marcin Gortat is still the clear starter on opening night even with the Len pick but surely will be the subject of trade speculation, especially if Len is healthy after surgery on both ankles in a little more than two months.

"They're at very different stages of their careers," McDonough said. "Marcin's a proven veteran. He's 29 years old, he's a top-15 center in the NBA, he screens, he rolls, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he runs the floor for a guy his size. Those things are hard to find. Alex (turned 20 in June), he's coming off of surgery. His skill is impressive right now, but he needs to get stronger. He obviously needs to get healthy. And last I checked, you have to play more than one guy. You're not going to play guys 48 minutes. We're very happy with Marcin."

Three points

1. There is also the indisputable good news. Veteran center-power forward Channing Frye returns after missing all last season with a heart ailment, a scary diagnosis that goes beyond career threatening as a worst-case scenario for most players. When he returned to practice early in camp, it was Frye's first work with the team in about 18 months. He went through a battery of tests before being cleared and hopes to add perimeter shooting.

2. Defense remains a concern, as is usually the case with the Suns any year. They finished 25th in shooting defense last season and 26th in scoring defense and now look to improve at the same time they sort through different lineups. Maybe Hornacek goes with experience inside and opts for Gortat and Frye, maybe he goes heavy with the kids and plays Len and Miles Plumlee. Maybe the Phoenix backcourt goes 6-1 and 6-3 with Bledsoe and Dragic, maybe it gets a mix of size before the guards get steamrolled. Stopping the ball could be as big a challenge as ever.

3. While position battles exist at several spots, small forward is particularly wide open in what is either a big opportunity for someone or the start of a season-long problem. Jared Dudley could have played there but was traded to the Clippers. Part of the return package, Caron Butler, could have played there, but was quickly dealt to the Bucks. Hornacek will instead choose from among P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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