Authors note: Through the generous contributions of fellow SB Nation writers, I am embarking on a Pacific Division preview series in which I get expert opinions on each of the non-Lakers teams by writers who cover them on a daily basis. First up in the series, the Phoenix Suns.
In what was only the first week of The 2017-18 season, the Phoenix Suns’ were handed a franchise worst 48-point loss in their season opener, saw then point guard, Eric Bledsoe, infamously tweet out: “I Dont wanna be here” and soon after fired head coach, Earl Watson, after the team's 0-3 start.
Again, this was all in the first week of the season. Yeah.
Unfortunately for the Suns — or, fortunately, depending on how one views tanking — Bledsoe’s eventual trade and Watson’s firing did little to right the ship the rest of the way, as the team’s final record of 21-61 was the worst mark in the NBA.
Despite this, the Suns and their fans suddenly have reason to be optimistic about the new era of Suns’ basketball ahead of them after what was an eventful offseason and roster shakeup.
To help discuss the new look Suns, Brendon Kleen of SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and the Locked on Suns podcast hopped over to Silver Screen and Roll to help detail the team’s new young core, their outlook, and of course, LeBron James in a Q and A:
SS&R: What were the fanbase’s initial feelings over the team drafting DeAndre Ayton first overall? Has this changed at all since Summer League?
Kleen: The fans were all-in on Ayton from the moment it became clear the Suns might have a chance to draft him. They saw his Pac-12 dominance up close and identified the Suns’ obvious hole at center to lock in on Ayton at No. 1.
I think we all here locally assumed it would take time to integrate Ayton into new coach Igor Kokoskov’s system, and that point guard was a weakness. Both issues reared their heads at Summer League, but not in a way that I think scared anyone too badly.
SS&R: Along with Ayton, the Suns drafted Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo, and traded for De’Anthony Melton, replacing former lottery picks Marquese Chriss and Alex Len on the roster. What are your thoughts on the Suns’ new young core?
Kleen: It certainly fits the trend of the modern NBA more adequately than the group leaving. Chriss was a frustrating player to watch and cover because he was so inconsistent from the outset of his career, while Len just never reached his potential.
Bridges, Okobo, Melton and Josh Jackson all look like the types of versatile wing players making the great teams great across the league. They also look like the types of guys who will be able to protect Ayton and Devin Booker on defense a whole lot better than anyone on the roster last year.
SS&R: To support the young core, and presumably expedite the rebuilding process, the Suns have added Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, while also being rumored to be searching for an established point guard on the trade market. Is the team better off trying to compete now? Or continuing to rebuild through the draft? And how much better do you expect them to be this season?
Kleen: I’m the type of guy who will always vouch for building through the draft, but this is a franchise that has not made the playoffs in eight years and a roster that sort of can’t hold onto any more young players.
A shuffle was bound to happen this summer (remember general manager Ryan McDonough’s contract is also set to expire after the 2020 season), and each decision independently made sense to me. Now the Suns are staring at a starting lineup with up to three new faces depending on what happens at point guard, and the new concern is whether there is enough playing time to actually develop all of the young guys.
SS&R: Devin Booker is one of the most productive and offensively skilled young players in the league. In what area(s) does he need to improve in order to make another leap? How good do you think he can eventually be?
Kleen: He can be an even greater three-point shooter, especially off the dribble. If he can take and make more threes, his efficiency will improve naturally. He also needs to get stronger around the basket so that his body can hold up as the primary playmaker in a drive-and-kick system. Defense is also a big issue, but it remains to be seen how high his ceiling actually is on that end.
SS&R: How long do you think it takes for the Suns to break back into the playoff hunt? Is this potentially the young core to do it? And in your opinion, what would ultimately make this season a success?
Kleen: I do think this core can be good enough, with a few more moves, to make the playoffs by 2020.
A successful 2018 for Phoenix is one in which Jackson, Ayton, Booker and Bridges look like a real core of young talent that can compete with the league’s best young squads. One or two of those guys may eventually be trade assets, but if they all started to trend upward and improve, that would check a lot of boxes for the team’s future, regardless of their eventual record.
SS&R: This summer, the Lakers signed LeBron James, what were your initial reactions? And where would you now rank them among the Western Conference?
Kleen: My initial thoughts were how cool it was going to be to see this next interesting phase of LeBron’s career. And to do so up close with him playing the Suns so much more now. I would probably have them somewhere around 5th or 6th in the West right now.
The Suns are shaping up to be one of the more interesting teams to follow this season. With an assortment of new faces, optimism, and a rabid fanbase hungry for wins, the team seemingly has plenty to be excited about again out in the desert.
A special thanks again to Brendon for hopping on and sharing the point of view of our pacific division neighbor. For more Suns’ coverage, you can follow him on Twitter at @BrendonKleen14 and myself over at @AlexmRegla.