Roster, Rotation Decisions Loom for Suns as Season Approaches

Barry Gossage/NBE

The time to make impressions and on-court arguments is done. The time for roster decisions and judgements has come. Almost.

Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek and General Manager Ryan McDonough know what they have to do: whittle an 18-man roster down to 15 before the regular season starts, then cut that down to a game-night rotation that’s anywhere from eight to 10 players deep.

It’s an unenviable task, made even more so by each player’s unwillingness to make any part of the process an easy call.

“These guys have all proved that they can play,” Hornacek said. “That’s what makes it difficult. If it was easy and we didn't think the guys could play, we probably already would have made cuts. Unfortunately for us, unfortunately for some of them at the end, we can’t keep 18 guys.”

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That much has been common knowledge since the team entered training camp almost three weeks ago. At the time, Hornacek and McDonough made it clear that nothing was guaranteed. Roles and roster spots were numbered, but not reserved. Those who showed up the best and most consistently would be rewarded.

After a solid showing in training camp and a 3-1 preseason record through Wednesday, turns out there aren’t enough rewards to go around.

“You would think that after three or four exhibition games, guys would start to separate themselves,” Hornacek said. “But then you look at our stats. Every guy that gets in there with another group, they all play well. We haven’t had anybody that’s gone out there and laid an egg or anything.”

Suns coaches and management have been forced to look at other factors outside of simple game play, including how well certain five-man units click and the overall supply and demand at certain positions.

Even those factors haven’t helped as much as Hornacek would like, leaving him leaning on his philosophy of effort and hard work to evaluate the players.

“For coaches, we’re not even concerned with the games, the wins and the losses,” he said. “It’s ‘how are these guys at practice?’ Are they B.S.-ing around at practice? Are they just trying to go through the motions? Are they paying attention?”

Ask Hornacek about any individual player, and the answers are seemingly always positive. This summer he has praised Archie Goodwin’s basketball I.Q., dubbed Miles Plumlee the pleasant surprise of the offseason, confirmed that Kendall Marshall is adept at running his up-tempo offense, and made the small forward trio of P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green and Marcus Morris sound like a buffet of varying skill sets.

“You would think that after three or four exhibition games, guys would start to separate themselves. But then you look at our stats. Every guy that gets in there with another group, they all play well. We haven’t had anybody that’s gone out there and laid an egg or anything.”

— Jeff Hornacek

There has been more than enough praise. There just aren’t enough spots.

“I think all our guys have shown that they deserve some time,” Hornacek said. “Unfortunately, when you have that many guys, it makes it difficult to get a good flow once the regular games start. If you’re playing guys 15 to 20 minutes and playing 12 of them, they can’t get into a rhythm. We’ll have to get that narrowed down. There might be some nights where a guy doesn’t play at all, but the then the next game or two he ends up playing 20, 25 minutes. These guys are just going to have to be ready no matter when their time comes.”

Dionte Christmas punctuated that dilemma in the Suns’ preseason win over San Antonio. In just 19 minutes the Summer League standout scored 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three-point range.

In the two games sandwiching that performance at San Antonio? Zero minutes.

Even one-game samples are enough to see why roster decisions are far from easy. In Tuesday night’s loss to the Clippers, Kendall Marshall didn’t play until the last five minutes of the game – when he engineered a 15-2 run with Miles Plumlee, Slava Kravtsov, Gerald Green and Archie Goodwin.

“One thing that I’ve been focused on is just worrying about what I can control, which is how hard I work in the time I am on the court,” Marshall said.

“Whether it’s 20 minutes, 10 minutes or five minutes, I’ve got to make the most of it.”

The struggle for minutes and roles isn’t lost on highly touted guard and likely starter Eric Bledsoe. The former first-round pick remembers all too well the uncertainty non-stars deal with on the cusp of a new season. In his second year in the league, Bledsoe played just 11.6 minutes per game, half the amount of playing time he received as a rookie.

“Going out there and trying to play your game and at the same time trying to make the team, trying to make the coach feel good about your game, it’s hard,” he said. “I went through it as a rookie. I definitely have a top-notch appreciation for [guys who go through that].”

Hornacek said that Thursday night’s exhibition contest at Sacramento will likely be the last time he experiments before settling in on a roster and rotation. Opening night is less than two weeks later.

Any help from the players before then, Hornacek joked, would be welcome.

“Hopefully one of the guys steps up and really shows that he’s the guy and makes it easier on us,” he said.