The Suns have risen in the West.
If only the Suns rose in the Eastern Conference, then last year could have ended so much differently. Yet here we are after Phoenix landed 9th in the rigorous Western Conference with a record that would have been good for a tie for third in the somewhat downtrodden East. It’s a tough break for a team that was expected to flounder, and yet somehow found a way to threaten to break into the playoffs. Looking past last season’s near meteoric rise, the future may shine brightly for this young team that has found an identity with a new head coach and some rising starts on their roster.
Coaching – 20/25
What a start. I think that’s the only way that you can describe this. In a league full of rookie coaches last season, Jeff Hornacek definitely stood out early. After retiring from the Jazz and taking a 7-year hiatus, Hornacek became a special assistant coach of the Utah Jazz under his former coach Jerry Sloan. While with the Jazz, Hornacek served as a shooting coach for Andrei Kirilenko and others, helping to improve the shooting ability of many players.
After accepting the job as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Hornacek got off to a hot start by leading the team to a 14-9 record midway through December. The Suns served as one of the hottest teams in the West early on, in combination with Portland for teams that were surprising the league. By season’s end, the Suns sat at a very respectable 48-34 even though they missed the Playoffs. Hornacek was able to improve their offensive rating from a 101.2 the previous season to a 109.5 in 2014. This included an obviously strong emphasis on 3-point shooting as the team finished 8th in 3-point percentage after finishing 28th in the league the previous year. Their defensive rating also slightly improved, down 1.4 points from the previous year. This was all done without their top draft pick Alex Len for a large portion of the season and with relatively unknown players (at least before this season).
Overall, the Suns organization has to be happy with the job that Hornacek was able to accomplish within only one year of work. It looks very promising for the Suns while he continues to maintain a strong offensive scheme and hopefully get more talent around the core players.
Free Agency & Trades – 14/25
In what may be the most confusing yet intriguing trades in the 2014 offseason, the Suns acquired PG Isaiah Thomas (isn’t he retired?) on a 4-year, $27 million sign-and-trade deal in exchange for the draft rights to Alex Oriakhi and a $7 million trade exception that the Kings will receive. On paper, this is a great deal for the Suns because they front-loaded the contract (roughly $7.2 million the first year and a gradual decline in the following years) and received a more than capable scorer. However, the Suns also have Goran Dragic under contract and are trying to re-sign Eric Bledsoe (though having little to no luck currently in that endeavor). For now, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of role Thomas will have, however he could end up being their PG of the future after Dragic is gone and if Bledsoe doesn’t stick around.
The Suns also picked up Anthony Tolliver in free agency who has proven to be a very capable 3-point shooter over his career. He should fit very well and very easily into Hornacek’s system, so this was a good deal for a cheap price (two years, $6 million with a team option in 2nd year). PJ Tucker re-signed with the Suns for a good price of three years, $16.5 million. His contract will also be front-loaded, so the Suns will have more flexibility within a few years. Even though Tucker had offseason issues with a DUI arrest, this contract should turn out to be a very good value considering the output Tucker provided last year.
The only stain on the offseason from a free agency standpoint has to be the Bledsoe contract negotiations. Reports have stated that the Suns made a serious attempt to acquire Kevin Love by dangling Bledsoe in front of the Wolves right before the Wiggins-for-Love trade went through. There have also been reports that Bledsoe has strongly considered signing the qualifying offer (worth just over $3 million) in order to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. It doesn’t look good at this point, but all indications currently are that Bledsoe should be on the roster for at least one more season.
Draft – 17/25
The draft was pretty interesting for the Suns as they were in the unique position of having two picks very close to each other in the teens. With the 14th pick, the Suns drafted TJ Warren, a small forward out of NC State, and with the 18th pick, drafted Tyler Ennis, a point guard out of Syracuse. The Warren pick fits their scoring system very well and gives a potential replacement for PJ Tucker within a few years at the starting three spot. The pick of Tyler Ennis seemed slightly logical at first with the uncertainty of Eric Bledsoe, but now seems odd with the trade for Isaiah Thomas. Ennis was one of the best point guards in college last year and could certainly develop into a starting point guard one day, however a guy like Gary Harris or Jordan Adams may have been the better selection there.
Current Player Core – 20/25
A year ago, this answer may have looked very different. However, the team now has a pretty solid foundation to build around with a few options at almost every position outside of maybe shooting guard. Alex Len and Miles Plumlee are both capable centers, while the Morris twins help round out the low post game quite well. TJ Warren should make the small forward contest much more competitive, and obviously there is a plethora of point guards from which to choose. Depending on where you play Dragic and/or Bledsoe, there may be two capable shooting guards as well on the team with Gerald Green and either of the aforementioned. This roster is young (currently nobody over 30 years old) and improving, and I don’t see anywhere for the team to go but up from here.
Franchise Outlook – 71/100
It’s almost a tragedy that this team doesn’t play in the Eastern Conference. If they did, then the Wizards, Hornets, and Raptors would have some stiff competition for the third slot this season. But as it so happens, they still play in the West and will still have to compete as a fringe playoff team for now. However, the clock is ticking for teams like Dallas and Memphis, and more pressure is being put on Golden State and Portland to succeed. It wouldn’t be hard seeing this team fighting the bottom four playoff seeds for a spot for the next several seasons. One day soon we may even be able to say, “it’s always sunny in Phoenix.”