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Around the League: Phoenix Suns

I've been a Suns fan for my entire life. I grew up in the Barkley/Kevin Johnson era and spent a couple nights a week down at the arcade playing as Dan Majerle in NBA Jam. In the whitest move ever, I for brief period of my life owned a Rex Chapman jersey. I stayed loyal through the torturous Marbury era and the short-lived Kidd regime. But like most recent Suns fans, I continued watching the Suns because of Steve Nash. The guy is just so electric on offense, whether he's surrounded by Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson or Leandro Barbosa and Jason Richardson. Like the Wolves, the Suns have been hilariously and heartbreakingly mismanaged over the last 10 years, often trading decent picks (Deng or Iggy) or decent players (Johnson) for role players or cap space. All of this culminated in a horrific last two years of basketball which seemed to cement Nash's retirement alongside Charles Barkley as some of the best ringless players of the last 20 years. Until he was traded. To the Lakers. F.M.L. Now that Nash is gone, the Suns have become a weird mashup of odds and ends, including our very own Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson and led by the return of their former change of pace guard, Goran Dragic. So what will this team look like?

LAST YEAR AND OFFSEASON
33-33, 3rd in Pacific Division, Off Rtg: 106.2 (9th of 30), Def Rtg: 106.5 (24th of 30)

Last year was not a good one to be a Suns fan. Nash hauled some of the worst players in the league to a .500 record and for a moment it even looked like they might make the playoffs. The impending trade of Nash hung over the entire season, and it's difficult for me to derive any narrative other than that. Looking over last year's squad is painful...A glance at the APM numbers shows the obvious and severe gap in production when Nash is and isn't on the court. It wasn't pretty, and yet somehow the team still finished at .500.

It was a busy offseason for the Suns. Nash was traded to the Lakers for two first round picks and two second round picks. Josh Childress was amnestied, and contracts were not offered to Grant Hill, Aaron Brooks, Ronnie Price and Michael Redd. The Suns inked unrestricted free agent Goran Dragic to a four year, $30 million contract, and Beasley to a three year, $18 million contract. A max contract was offered to restricted free agent Eric Gorden, but the New Orleans Hornets matched the offer. Luis Scola was nabbed off amnesty waivers for a relatively cheap three-year deal. Next, they traded Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick to the Hornets in a three team deal that brought in Wes Johnson, a first round pick, and Brad Miller's contract. Finally, they resigned Shannon Brown to a 2 year, $7 million contract, and Jermaine O'Neal and PJ Tucker for the vet minimum.

For a team that had stagnated in recent years, refusing to surround Nash with any discernible talent, the offseason moves were quite surprising and a lot of Suns fans have some hope that one or two of these low cost/high potential guys might work out. The Nash trade itself, in addition to its horrifying implications with the Lakers (one of the Suns biggest rivals through the 2000s), was also incredibly lopsided. It's a shame they couldn't even get an Ebanks or Hill out of it. Losing an aging Grant Hill probably hurt as well. Like the Wolves, it seems like the Suns were attempting some addition by subtraction, only the guys they added were the guys we subtracted. So free agency left the Suns without a franchise player and much of an identity; barring a max offer to James Harden or another gamechanger, the Suns are stuck in a difficult place. But more on that below.

SALARY SITUATION
The Suns are well under the cap at $50 million over the next two years. Most of their core is signed through 2014-15. Jared Dudley is being paid $4.25 million a year, which is a nice contract - but the Beasley and Scola contracts currently seem less than appetizing. "Cap Space" might be the third or fourth best player on this team.

THE ROSTER
I've included some advanced stats, but I'm not a big analytic guy, so feel free to add to the discussion. A big question with the statistics of many of the Suns players - will they drop without Nash? Stats from Basketball Reference and NBA Geek. I glanced through RAPM and PA100 and nothing really stood out.

The Starters:

Goron_2520dragic_medium

Goran Dragic PG - .139 WS/48, .155 WP/48
Dragic was on the Suns a few years ago and was a part of the memorable 2010 playoff run, filling a JJ Barea type role for the Suns before he was traded to the Rockets for Aaron Brooks, a move that never panned out. Now he's back on the Suns as a starting PG. Dragic really busted open during the second half of last season when Kyle Lowry was injured - in March he averaged 15/7 + 2 steals and in April 19/8 + 2 steals. He excels in the pick and roll game and knows Gentry's system as well as Scola's strengths. Dragic has struggled with consistency, seems a bit out of control at times, and turns the ball over too much. He isn't a great outside shooter and he likes to get out in transition, something that may be more difficult on Phoenix. I really hope he picks up right where he left off last season. If Marshall transitions well to the NBA, we may also see Dragic play a bit of off guard. His nickname is The Dragon and he likes pancakes.

Jared Dudley SG/SF - .121 WS/48, .162 WP/48
Familiar on Canis, Dudley excels in many advanced metrics as the perfect role-playing wing. Dudley had an up and down season last year. He had a monster February and March, but was given a more limited role earlier in the season. Nonetheless, he improved almost all of his numbers, and ranks very high in PPP and other efficiency metrics. With a different cast of characters around him, look for Dudley to continue his smart, hyperefficient play. One question is how well he can adjust to SG - he is much better at defending larger/slower wings. He is also incredibly funny and a prolific twitter user.

Michael Beasley SF/PF - .022 WS/48, -.014 WP/48
Wow those are some atrocious numbers. We all know who Beasley is. We know he is capable of incredible hot streaks. We know he can sometimes be a ball stopper, an airhead on defense, give no effort on rebounds. We now know what animal his salt and pepper shakers resemble. So instead of rehashing many of our B-Easy talking points of the past, let's allow ourselves to use the P word: Potential. How will Beasley fit in on this team? What will he be asked to do? Will he reassume his high usage/low efficiency play of the past? Part of me thinks yes, but I also saw signs that he learned a bit last summer. He made some better decisions, he seemed less sulky, went to the rim more. Am I imagining things? I blacked out for most of April. As SNP and Omaha Sun ask, who is Michael Beasley?

Luis Scola PF - .080 WS/48, -.015 WP/48
Advanced stats like Scola about as much as Kevin Love's foot does. He played with some tenacity in the Olympics, but he's old (32). What's there really to say about Scola?

Marcin Gortat C - .172 WS/48, .190 WP/48
Gortat excels in the pick and roll game, scoring a nasty 1.22 PPP as the roll man, good enough for 11th in the league. He isn't a great defender and is kinda small, but he can score in droves. Look for a lot of PNR play with Dragic. More than anyone else, look for Gortat's production to drop without Nash.

The Bench:

Kendall Marshall PG TBD
Marshall is the one shining bright spot in the Suns future. This kid is incredibly talented and could really succeed in the NBA. He is an extremely unselfish point guard and a prolific distributor. He has a really cool stop/go stutter step. He will probably get burned by NBA point guards and isn't a very good scorer - his ceiling is probably somewhere between Andre Miller, Jose Calderon, or maybe even Ricky Rubio. He will spoonfeed his teammates, but can they hit their shots? What kind of pressure and minutes will he be given?

Sebastian Telfair PG .058 WS/48, -.011 WP/48
Wolves fans already know pretty much everything there is with Bassy. With Dragic and Marshall ahead of him at point guard, I can't see Telfair finding many minutes on this team. He played extraordinarily well in the last couple weeks of the season, but I suppose the Suns see Marshall as the future. He has one year left on his contract.

Shannon Brown SG - .054 WS/48, .038 WP/48
You probably remember Brown from the Laker's bench. He's not flashy and doesn't have great BBIQ, although he started 19 games last year. There's really nothing exceptional about his game, but when he's given minutes he can perform pretty well - he averaged 15 points in April.

Wesley Johnson SG/SF - .021 WS/48, .018 WP/48
The Suns have a crowded wing rotation, and probably won't ask Wes to do too much. That could be just what he needs, though - and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a bit better on the Suns. The one thing I like about Wes on this team is that he's the only guy I can really see running with Dragic in transition, cutting to the basket, catching oops from Marshall and Dragic. But will he mostly disappear in Phoenix like he did here? Wes commented that his play last year was due to some mental pressure or block. If you're buying into this story, and I am at least partially, what is his ceiling? Wes commented that "When I first heard I was a Phoenix Sun, it put a huge smile on my face - bigger than what it is right now." Keep on smiling, Wes.

PJ Tucker - SF ???
I don't know anything about him. Looks like he played overseas for a bit. Almost every article I skimmed used the word "scrappy."

Markieff Morris PF - .059 WS/48, -.023 WP/48
Morris had a couple flashes of brilliance last year, but as the season wore on, his shortcomings became more and more apparent. Morris is a horrid defender in almost all areas and his offensive game is pretty singular. Advanced stats mostly place him somewhere between "bad," "really bad" and "Luis Scola." With Beas and Scola now ahead of him on the depth charts, where does Morris fit in?

Channing Frye PF/C .106 WS/48, .058 WP/48
An interesting role player, Frye hasn't really changed his game much over the past few years. He is mostly a spot up shooter used to stretch the floor and create room on offense, but his shooting has gotten worse over the years. Too thin to be a really effective center, but too tall and slow to be a combo forward. Ok defender. Usually good for 5-10 points off the bench. Interestingly, his advanced stats aren't half bad.

Jermaine O'Neal C - .091 WS/48, .046 WP/48
Took the vet minimum so German doctors and Phoenix staff could fix his knees. Might actually be the backup center?

Brad Miller C
Hope you're hunting, B-Rad. It's Miller time.

THE COACH
Alvin Gentry is a generally likable guy. Barring a major disaster, he will be the coach of the Suns for the year. After that, it's anybody's guess. I believe his contract (as well as the entire FO) is up at the end of the year. This roster looks rather apocalyptic and Gentry could soon be out of a job.

THE SUN WILL COME OUT TOMORROW, RIGHT?
Looking over what I've just written, it's apparent that the Suns are headed to the basement in an absolutely brutal Western Conference. While most of their players aren't really bad, they aren't stars, either. Is this team better than Golden State, Houston, or Sacramento? Dragic and Marshall are both really cool players, but I'm struggling to imagine how this team will survive 82 games. Unlike other WC rebuilding teams like Portland and New Orleans, the Suns really don't have a clear identity or path forward. I don't know that there has ever been a team that has been so historically driven by its point guards - Kevin Johnson, Steph Marbury, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash. I am comfortable with Dragic and Marshall picking up on that legacy, everything around them ranges from mediocre to possibly very bad.

So what are the team problems? Frontcourt defense is liable to be absolutely horrid, and the Suns will get eaten alive by WC teams featuring star centers and power forwards, unless O'Neal is undergoing a controversial bionic knee replacement. Perimeter defense isn't much better. The bench is liable to be one of the worst in the league (although somehow better than last year's squad). As far as offense, Dragic will bring a lot and will create for guys like Dudley, Scola and Gortat. Beasley will ISO. I wonder if Gentry will run a modified high post system with Dragic and Scola now on the team. Elston Turner, a long-time Adelman assistant, is an assistant on the team. Commenting on Turner this summer, Gentry said, "[Turner] comes from being around Rick Adelman, and to be honest, we stole a bunch of Rick's stuff." With basically the poo poo platter of former RA players from Houston and Minnesota, how might the Suns offense change?

These feelings are reflected in some recent attempts to predict the season. Vjl110 has them in the basement, ahead of only Dallas. Greyline has them one spot higher using WP, ahead of Houston and Golden State. Hollinger (insider) has them at 29 in the future rankings (I'm told). As far as assets, the Suns might be able to shop Gortat around a bit (2 years left) and create some room to make a real run at Harden or another impact player. With Phoenix likely headed for a 30 win season and a lotto ticket, the Suns will have to make the most of their draft picks. They own three first round picks in 2013 (their own, Lakers, and the worst of Minnesota/Memphis). Two of those are likely to be low-first round in a very weak draft. Will they be bad enough to score Shabazz Muhammad or another game changer? I actually think there are at least five or so teams worse than the Suns. Picks are always tradable, so maybe they can turn some of them into talent somehow. It will be rough, but there is at least one bright side - in the best decision anyone has ever made, the Suns will be wearing 1990s throwback jerseys for a few games.

POLITICS
It's worth mentioning that the Suns are one of the most politically active sports franchises. In 2010, Suns owner Robert Sarver voiced strong opposition to Arizona's SB1070 bill, which legalized many controversial methods designed to prevent illegal immigration. The team donned "Los Suns" jerseys on a Cinco de Mayo playoff game, a previously unscheduled move in support of their Latino fans. Sarver has continued his vocal opposition to the bill. In 2011, Suns president and CEO RIck Welts came out publicly as one of the first gay executives in men's sports, and Nash, Dudley, Gentry and others have spoken out against latent and explicit homophobia and slurs in the league. Welts left the organization months later to join his partner in Sacramento and is now the president of the Golden State Warriors. For some fans, these moves breached an unspoken line between sports and politics; for others, they highlighted the ways that sports teams and players can challenge cultural norms and make the league more accepting for all.

WOLVES PERSPECTIVE
It will be interesting to watch the Wolves play our two former players. Although it's unclear what the ceiling for Beasley or Wes will be, I think most of us hope they find some way to succeed. What do you think? As far as desirable players, I think most of us at Canis Hoopus are pretty high on Dudley (and his contract). He would be a perfect fit on this team, and in some ways, Derrick Williams' return to Arizona would make a lot of sense. Discuss!

Also check out Bright Side of the Sun sometime. A great blog over there.

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