The playoff dry spell reached eight straight seasons as the Suns cratered and spent much of 2017-18 sweeping the basement in the Western Conference. Bright spots are hard to find when you win only 21 games and lose 27 of your final 31 games, yet the continued development of Devin Booker (24.9 points per game) as a big-time scorer was encouraging. A bonus was a breakout from TJ Warren (19.6 ppg) and a strong rookie year finish by Josh Jackson. Yet the Suns burned through two coaches, couldn’t defend anyone and made their way back to the lottery as expected, where they landed the No. 1 pick (Deandre Ayton) for their troubles.
The Suns traded Brandon Knight and his hefty contract on the Houston Rockets to acquire Ryan Anderson … Without Knight, there’s no NBA-proven point guard on the roster. Is Phoenix ready to give generous minutes to second-round pick De’anthony Melton? … The responsibility of solving these and other issues is up to new coach Igor Kokoskov … Anderson and Trevor Ariza, a pair of ex-Rockets, must find playing time at crowded positions if only to justify their big salaries.
1. The Suns have had terrible luck with big men lately. They washed their hands of Alex Len, overpaid an aging Tyson Chandler in free agency and are still waiting for Dragan Bender to break loose. Ayton, it would seem, will not keep that trend alive as he appears NBA-ready.
2. Phoenix was an NBA-worst 10-31 at home last season. There’s no hope of a turnaround unless they address that. Phoenix once had raucous and robust crowds and it’s time to get them back to build a home-court edge.
3. The decision to sign Ariza to a one-year deal remains a head-scratcher. This came the same month the Suns surrendered a future No. 1 pick (belonging to Miami) to trade up for Mikal Bridges, who plays the same position (as does Warren, their No. 2 scorer). Ariza will help defensively, but still, the wing is a logjam.
MAN ON THE SPOT
In the 2016 draft, the Suns picked Marquese Chriss and Bender, who were supposed to anchor the frontline for years to come. So much for that. They dealt Chriss in the Anderson trade and Bender could be gone next. He’s a mobile 7-footer who just hasn’t found a niche with this team. Other than giving a few glimpses, Bender is still working on his game, but what is it? He improved his 3-point percentage in Year Two (38.6 percent), but remains a below-average rebounder (4.4 rpg in 25.2 mpg last season). He’ll soon be extension-eligible and the Suns will be on the spot when that day arrives.
Deandre Ayton | 21.0 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.6 apg (Arizona)
Fluid, athletic big man brings NBA-ready body and a nose for rebounding. His defense may be another story.
TJ Warren | 19.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.3 apg
Not a threat from deep, but a creative scorer who fits as a solid second option.
Trevor Ariza | 11.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.6 apg
Stable veteran made 36.8 percent of his 3-pointers last season and remains a solid perimeter defender.
Tyson Chandler | 6.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.2 apg
Solid rebounder and (still) reasonably decent defender will show Ayton the finer points of post play.
Dragan Bender | 6.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.6 apg
Slowly morphing into a stretch big man, yet must develop consistency and improve as an interior player.
Ryan Anderson | 9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 38.6 3-point pct.
Pricey 3-point threat must somehow fight for minutes on a crowded front line to salvage his career.
The task of making sense of the Suns falls to Kokoskov, the first NBA coach raised mostly on international basketball. He comes highly regarded and represents out-of-the box thinking by the Suns and GM Ryan McDonough. Still, there’s much work left to be done in Phoenix. The priority should be making Ayton comfortable and effective right away. If he’s a double-double machine by spring, consider it a success. Regardless, the Suns are still juggling young players at multiple positions and point guard represents an issue. This looks like a 28-54 finish with mild improvements over last season.