The Suns have dodged some of the worst big-picture consequences of building along two paths at once for an admittedly impatient owner, but the tumult of that kind of scattershot roster churn can become its own monster -- and sabotage the present-day team.
Phoenix has the ingredients of a solid team: Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, last season's controversial trade acquisition, running pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler diving to the rim; Markieff Morris spotting up to make plays, and a pile of wings young and old competing for minutes around that core. It just hasn't come together for reasons that seem obvious in retrospect, and it cost two highly-regarded assistants, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting, their jobs Monday after Robert Sarver, the team's owner, called an all-hands-on-deck meeting. That leaves coach Jeff Hornacek, in the last guaranteed year of his contract, on shaky ground as the team enters a brutal three-game stretch against Cleveland, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City.
Head coaches can survive an assistant purge -- it's practically a Dwane Casey special at this point in Toronto -- but the Suns are 12-20, staring at a possible 12-23, with Eric Bledsoe nursing yet another meniscus injury and no obvious solutions to any of the problems that have undone them. No lineup without Bledsoe has logged even 30 minutes, and the team has been worse when Knight plays solo, per NBA.com. Knight will get his chance now, and the young wings, especially T.J. Warren, Devin Booker, and the lost Archie Goodwin, have to step up.
The disappointment starts with Morris, who has been a bricklaying malcontent since the Suns traded his brother, Marcus, to Detroit in a salary dump that freed Phoenix to chase LaMarcus Aldridge -- a low-odds play that slipped through their fingers. A lot has been made of how Phoenix has become prisoner to its accidental rise in 2013-14, when the team traded Marcin Gortat and tried to tank. "We were never trying to lose games," Sarver told me over the summer. "We were trying to play young players who we thought could be part of the next great Phoenix team, and some of them just played a lot better than we thought they would."
Those Suns won 48 games, and that unexpected success emboldened Sarver and Ryan McDonough, a savvy general manager, to chase immediate wins at the expense of long-term team-building.
That is true, but look again that 2013-14 Suns roster and ask yourself what cornerstone young players the Suns have forsaken to build their current mishmash team. Marcus Morris is the only candidate. He'd be the Suns' best small forward now, but Marcus Morris alone is not determining the fate of any franchise. The Suns did not destroy a young team destined to grow into a contender.
The front office has stocked the roster with promising young players. Booker is spitting flames from deep, Warren is a floater artist, and Alex Len should grow into a solid starting center. The Suns swiped two first-round draft picks from Miami, including an unprotected 2021 pick, for Goran Dragic on an expiring contract, even though other teams chasing Dragic got the impression he had already worked out a deal to sign in Miami. (Heat officials have denied that, and the league has said it received no formal complaints).
They'll have cap space galore, and an interesting cache of trade assets. That cap space won't be worth as much when almost every team has it, and they can't quite compete with Boston and Philly in the trade-for-a-star market.
As I've written before, the weird series of deals in which Phoenix effectively exchanged Isaiah Thomas and a lightly-protected first-round pick from the Lakers -- top-3 protected in both '16 and 17, then unprotected and one of the most valuable trade chips in the league -- for Brandon Knight and a Cleveland first-rounder will almost certainly end up a net-loss. Depending on the fate of that Lakers pick, protected if it's top-3 this season and unprotected afterward, it could be a devastating net loss the franchise regrets for years. There are reasonable ways to defend the deals, but Phoenix clearly sold low on Thomas and his insanely cheap contract; he might be better than Knight straight up, even without Knight's positional versatility. There is real opportunity cost there, and in spending cap space on Tyson Chandler.
It has been a whirlwind two years for Phoenix, so much so that it can be hard to spot any guiding plan. "It has been a roller-coaster, for sure," McDonough told me over the summer. But at least they've satisfied all those competing demands without totally mortgaging the franchise's future. They almost found art in chaos.
But chaos takes its toll anyway. The Detroit trade alienated Markieff Morris, and he has failed horribly to deliver on his promise as a playmaking four around those Chandler pick-and-rolls. The Knight-Bledsoe pairing has been awkward, and has created some minor locker-room tension, according to sources familiar with the matter. Both thrive as lead ball-handlers, and Knight has bristled over the years whenever anyone has labeled him as something other than a pure point guard.
There is a your-turn, my-turn element to Phoenix's offense that can devolve into predictable stagnancy, one reason this team has been such a disaster in crunch-time. The Suns are 3-9 in games that entered the final three minutes within three points in either direction, and they've squeezed out just 81.8 points per 100 possessions in those minutes -- the fourth-worst mark in the league. (And, really, it's third-worst, since the Sixers don't count).
Being dependent on two small guards can be fatal when defenses dial in late. Morris was their best crunch-time option last season, but Hornacek has banished him to the fringes of the rotation. A simple Bledsoe pick-and-roll has been Hornacek's go-to crunch-time call this season, and it has produced mostly bad shots. Bledsoe is a solid 3-point shooter, but defenders still dare to go under picks against him. When opponents switch, Bledsoe tends to back it out, drive one-on-one against a big guy, and launch difficult floaters. Knight has compounded things with Keystone Kops-level gaffes, including last-second turnovers at Memphis and Detroit that cost Phoenix games. Are boneheaded turnovers and slippery hands the coach's fault?
The broader lack of continuity and motion is troubling. Stop the first pick-and-roll, and the Suns offense might die; whoever ends up the ball goes into isolation mode. The Suns are 25th in assist rate this season after ranking dead last a year ago, per NBA.com. For a go-go team of speedsters, the Suns sometimes take an alarming amount of time to laze into half-court sets. Long possessions aren't necessarily a bad thing -- the Spurs have more of them than almost anyone -- but San Antonio cuts and passes with purpose. The Suns jog to their spots, whiff on picks, and pound the ball. They never found a way to replace the shooting of Channing Frye, which opened up wide driving lanes for Phoenix's point guards.
Teams can crunch the Suns' spacing around those late-game Bledsoe pick-and-rolls by playing off Morris and P.J. Tucker, ice cold this season, to the point that Hornacek has closed games with a spacier front-court of Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic. That duo doesn't bring enough defense, and as bad as the Suns have been on offense in gut-check time, they've been even worse on the other end -- a mess of soft one-on-one defense, poor communication, and plain old bad luck in the form of opponents hitting contested jumpers. (It has been nothing compared to last season, when the Suns lost a sad/hilarious number of games on improbable buzzer-beaters).
The same kind of mistakes plague Phoenix's defense for the first 45 minutes of games. The Suns rank just 20th in points allowed per possession, and they just don't communicate well -- the problem Tyson Chandler was brought in to solve. Their weak-side help can be atrocious; too many opposing big men set picks, and roll to the rim for dunks without any help defender bumping them. Phoenix would be near the top of the league in shoulder shrugs and pointed fingers, especially when younger players are in the game. Can we get the SportVU cameras to track that stuff?
Weaknesses from last season linger; the Suns still foul too much, and they're terrible in transition, hanging around for offensive rebounds they never get as opponents fly by them.
It's hard to know from the outside how much of this is on Hornacek and his staff, including the deposed Longabardi, a Tom Thibodeau acolyte in charge of the defense. (Longabardi is a smart, workaholic coach who will land on his feet -- perhaps with Thibodeau). Morris has checked out. Bledsoe should be an elite defender, but he half-asses his way through too many possessions. Chandler's hamstring injury hurt. The rotation has been in disarray. Warren and Booker have done well on offense, but they're understandably behind on the other end. Both received spot starts, but it's clear Hornacek trusts the veteran know-how of Tucker and others.
Len and Chandler have flip-flopped starter and backup roles, highlighting Chandler's awkward fit. The Suns signed Chandler as a lure for Aldridge, and talked optimistically about how they could find enough minutes for both Chandler and Len. Aldridge chose the Spurs, and now Chander is just kind of here -- playing 35 minutes one night, 15 the next, the threat of his lob dunk neutered by working in so-so spacing with score-first guards who love pull-up jumpers. Playing five-man defense on a string takes chemistry, and this hasn't been the best environment for developing it.
Hornacek brought Knight off the bench for a game last week, separating him more from Bledsoe, before reinserting him into the starting lineup the next game. Ronnie Price has played too much, even though he has exceeded expectations.
All of this gives off the feel of a team trying to figure out too much on the fly, under a coach who wanted an extension and didn't even get his 2016-17 team option picked up. Any coach in that situation would feel pressure to win today, and that can make him reluctant to play younger guys in which the front office has invested so much hope.
There are so many variables pulling in different directions. That is the consequence of how the Suns have churned the roster after their shocking success two years ago. They've come out of that chaos with a cleaner long-term picture than a lot of franchises would manage, but chaos can rip a team apart.
Hornacek is a good coach. If the Suns fire him, he will draw interest in what figures to be a frothy head-coaching market this summer. Brooklyn, Sacramento, Washington, Phoenix, Memphis, Houston, Minnesota, Portland, and the Lakers all could have open jobs, and the pool of candidates will be loaded with big names: Jeff Van Gundy (quietly a candidate for the Washington job), Scott Brooks, Thibodeau, Monty Williams, and potentially Dave Joerger, Mike D'Antoni, Hornacek, Luke Walton, and others. As Howard Beck of Bleacher Report noted Sunday, there have already been rumors of Phoenix chasing Walton if they dump Hornacek.
Hornacek appears to want to stay in the NBA, according to league sources, and the Suns would be smart to give him another chance. He's smart, and creative. He hasn't done his best work this season, and there are clearly things he can improve upon. This is his first head job, after all. His brief "no technicals" rule last season seemed dictatorial, and he hasn't been able to salvage the team's relationships with Dragic, Thomas, and now Morris. Other people, including McDonough and Sarver, share in that job, and the team's issues with those players stem more from personnel moves than Hornacek's coaching. But he hasn't been able to work any player-coach magic on that front.
The Suns need to be careful here. If they think Hornacek is their coach of the future, they shouldn't let a bad season decide his job status. And without Bledsoe, this could turn into a very bad season. That's OK. Ride out the losing for a few months, snag a lottery pick, and continue building the young core. They can do that while still working the trade market and dangling max cap space at free agents, but any extra dose of continuity would be healthy for the Suns.