30 Teams in 30 Days: Phoenix Suns finally ready to turn corner
Arrival of No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton stokes fires of hope in Phoenix
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s team: Phoenix Suns
2017-18 Record: 21-61, did not qualify for the playoffs.
Who’s new: Coach Igor Kokoskov, Deandre Ayton (Draft); Mikal Bridges (Draft); Trevor Ariza, (free agency), De’Anthony Melton (trade), Ryan Anderson (trade)
Who’s gone: Tyler Ulis, Alex Len, Elfrid Payton, Jared Dudley, Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight
The lowdown: The Suns leaned heavily on youth in 2017-18 and the results were predictable. Development was slow, even nonexistent in some cases, and so were wins and consistency. If this wasn’t rock-bottom for a once-proud franchise, then it’s in the discussion. Earl Watson lasted just the first three games (all losses) as coach and was replaced by interim coach Jay Triano, who wasn’t retained after the season. On too many nights, the Suns were a welcome sight on the schedule for much of the league. They finished dead last, losing 31 of their last 35 games, in what appeared to be a clear backpedal sprint toward gaining the highest possible odds of winning the Draft lottery.
The Suns haven’t cracked 25 wins in any of the last three seasons and whiffed on most of the high Draft picks they stockpiled for their misery. That qualifies as a double whammy. But this offseason was finally a pivot in the right direction, with a big No. 1 overall Draft pick, a surprising free-agent signing, a curious coaching move and a massive contract extension that locked up their only proven asset.
The pick was Ayton, a potential frontcourt game-changer who brings shot-blocking skills, tender mid-range shooting touch and decent moves around the rim. He’s a potential double-double guy for plenty of years and because he should get heavy minutes right from the start on a projected losing team, statistically he should be in the Kia Rookie of the Year race.
Ayton does play a spot on the floor that’s somewhat devalued in today’s stretch-happy NBA but his combination of height (7-foot-1), length and NBA-ready body was too enticing for Phoenix to skip. The only risk is if Luka Doncic or someone else turns into a thriving NBA star, but even then, it’s hard to second-guess the Suns for grabbing such a talented big man. Besides, nobody else in the Draft came with more franchise-player twinkle.
Ayton was the consensus No. 1 by NBA scouts, so the Suns’ decision wasn’t exactly a shock. However, signing Ariza did catch many by surprise because a week earlier on Draft night, the Suns surrendered a juicy future No. 1 pick belonging to the Heat to get Bridges, who plays the same position. At this stage of his career, Ariza is a missing piece for a contender. Why would the developing Suns give him playing time that might delay the progress of Bridges, Josh Jackson — last year’s No. 1 pick, who finished strong — or TJ Warren (who makes $11 million)? That’s quite a crowd at the wing.
The desire on Ariza’s end is also head-scratching. He bailed on a Houston Rockets squad that was a healthy Chris Paul hamstring away from possibly playing for — or winning — an NBA title. However, Ariza was weary of working below his market value as a three-and-D player. That’s why his craving for cash (a reported $15 million next season, roughly double his 2017-18 salary) was stronger than his desire to compete for a title. And if you forgot, he won a ring in 2010 with the Los Angeles Lakers, so maybe that thirst was quenched.
A deeper commitment by Phoenix was made to leading scorer Devin Booker for five years and $158 million, a max deal for a first-chance extension qualifier. Booker represents the only zero-debate Draft decision made by the Suns over the last few years and, at least offensively, he’s a force. By wasting no time in extending Booker, the Suns took no chance on allowing him to inch closer to even restricted free agency. Until someone else better comes along — the Suns should be so lucky if that happens — he’s the face of the franchise.
What’s up with player development in Phoenix? The Suns bailed on Chriss (reported trade to the Rockets) and Len (left for Atlanta in free agency), a pair of recent lottery picks who never showed growth. For them to leave before getting extensions on their rookie contracts was a show of no-faith by the franchise, and the Suns essentially gave them away for little or nothing. Is Dragan Bender next?
Knight was dealt to Houston as well (in the Criss trade), meaning the Suns must find a starting point guard soon or give the spot to Booker. Melton, suspended all of last season at USC because of an NCAA investigation, is a combo guard who looked impressive in summer league but might not be ready for big minutes.
Bridges wasn’t thrilled to join the Suns on Draft night. Originally picked by the hometown Sixers (which also employed his mother), Bridges was unceremoniously flipped him to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith and a future first-rounder. Yet the former Villanova star will love being on a non-contender that can give him minutes right away, unlike what he would’ve had in Philly. And the Suns will love Bridges if his college shooting touch translates well to the NBA.
All of this will be surveyed by Kokoskov, the most exotic NBA hire in recent history. He becomes the first European native coach to sit in the first seat on an NBA bench. Kokoskov has extensive NBA experience as an assistant in a handful of spots. He was on the Detroit Pistons’ staff when they won the title in 2004. He worked with then-LA Clippers coach Alvin Gentry from 2001-03, was a Suns assistant from 2008-13 and, most recently, spent the last three seasons as the Utah Jazz’s top assistant coach. This wasn’t entirely out-of-the-box thinking by the Suns as Kokoskov comes with high praise and brings good people skills to the job. What he’ll need is patience.
The Suns might not yet be on the verge of reversing their fortunes, but took bold moves this summer to add assets and attempt to scale the mountain. At the very least, they hope to end next season with a winning stretch for a change, with Ayton shedding most if not all of his rookie skin by then.
Coming Next: Memphis Grizzlies
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