By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
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18. Phoenix Suns
Last Season: 39-43, Missed Playoffs (10th in West)
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Devin Booker, Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic
Key Offseason Losses: Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Brandan Wright, Marcus Thornton
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Brandon Knight
SG: Eric Bledsoe
SF: P.J. Tucker
PF: Markieff Morris
C: Tyson Chandler
Key Role Players:
1. Alex Len
2. Devin Booker
3. Archie Goodwin
JL Season Outlook:
The Suns enter the season after limping to a 10-18 (24th) record after the all-star break. Last year’s trade deadline saw the Suns give away two of their top scorers (Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic) and they only have Brandon Knight and his new, shiny, 5-year/$70 million contract to show for it. The Suns also gave away the Lakers first round pick to the 76ers, which is top-3 protected for this season.
This offseason the Suns signed Tyson Chandler to make a run at LaMarcus Aldridge, a move that backfired. They also broke up the Morris twins, sending Marcus to Detroit. Devin Booker was acquired through the draft, and Gerald Green left in free agency. After a lot of roster movement over the past six months, the Suns will enter the season in a tough spot: they certainly won’t contend, and are a question mark to even make the playoffs, but they have big money committed to several key players and will not among the bottom-dwellers.
Probably the most important of those key players is Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe led the team in scoring at 17 points/game, his second straight 17+ points/game season. However, Bledsoe saw declines in nearly all his shooting numbers. His FG% dropped from 48% to 45%, his eFG% dropped from 52% to 49%, and his three point shooting dropped from 36% to 32%. The likely cause is his near-doubling in games played, minutes, and field goal attempts from 2013-14. Bledsoe’s inability to keep the pace of his breakout 2013-14 season is not surprising, but it is a little disheartening considering his shots/game did not increase, only his number of games. And a point guard who can shoot 48/36/77 and play lockdown defense is a lot different than one who plays the same defense, but shoots 45/32/80 instead.
But Bledsoe’s bread and butter is his defense. He topped all point guards in 2013-14 in DRPM and finished third in the stat last season. He also averaged 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks/game last year. With Tyson Chandler behind him, the Suns have two pieces in place that can be dominant defensively. But you can’t play defense with just two guys and the three others in their starting lineup leave a lot to be desired on that end of the floor.
The first culprit is Brandon Knight, who resigned this offseason after coming over in a 3-way trade with Philly and Milwaukee. Knight finished 57th among point guards in DRPM (-1.85). Good thing they didn’t sign him for defense, then. With Bledsoe able to handle the league’s best defensively, the Suns will be able to semi-hide Knight on less-talented wings, who tend to be more spot-up shooters (Anthony Morrow, Ben McLemore, J. J. Redick, Danny Green, etc.). If Knight is able to keep himself afloat defensively, he can be a serious contributor on the offensive end. Brandon Knight’s potential was finally being realized in his 52 game with the Bucks, where he averaged 18 points on 42% shooting and 44% from deep. Those numbers took huge drops when he moved to Phoenix (13 points, 36% FG, 31% 3pt), but the sample size was very small (11 games). I don’t see those last seven games becoming a trend.
So, the Suns have a nice duo of Bledsoe and Knight in the backcourt, and a stud rim protector in Tyson Chandler. Rounding out their starting lineup is P. J. Tucker and Markieff Morris. Tucker is more or less a filler, someone who averaged 9 points on 44% shooting, but isn’t deadly enough from three (35%) to make anyone scare-red.
Markieff Morris, on the other hand, averaged 15 points/game on 47% shooting. He has a nice midrange shot, shooting 50% from 10-14 feet, but that drops to 42% when he steps out a couple more steps, and 42% from 18 feet in a very inefficient shot to be takings. Morris has to either cut out those shots and up his three-point shooting, or become deadly from that area. Defensively, Morris is inconsistent, as he just doesn’t close out hard or focus in help defense as often as he can. A defense-oriented veteran in Chandler will help him clean up his act, and could make Morris into and above-average defender.
A name I haven’t mentioned yet is Alex Len. The former fifth overall pick showed promise last season, but this season’s signing of Chandler means a lot more time sitting next to Jeff Hornacek. He 7’1” and 22 year’s old, and though he didn’t do much scoring last season, he averaged 1.5 blocks and 6.6 boards in just 22 minutes/game. Len’s development will be stunted by his lack of playing time this season, and if the team is clearly out of the playoff picture, they might need to consider dumping Chandler for a pick.
Overall, the Suns should compete most nights, and would definitely be in the playoffs if they were in the East, but assuming Bledsoe or Knight don’t take another step into stardom, the Suns’ fate seems to be eerily similar to last year.
Knight and Bledsoe work perfectly as the backcourt tandem while Booker proves to be NBA ready right away. Booker isn't only is a three point specialist, but shows his driving ability that was never asked of him at Kentucky. Len improves bundles from learning under Chandler, and Markieff decides Phoenix isn't that bad after all and stays. They fight for the last playoff spot and make it as the Jazz falter towards the end.
Bledsoe and Knight both prove to be too ball dominant. Booker is only good for standing in the corner and shooting. Chandler actually has a negative effect on Len by taking so many of his minutes and possible experiences from him because they cannot play on the floor at the same due to horrible spacing. The Suns continue their woes from the end of last season and fall near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Projected Record: 37-45
17. Indiana Pacers
Last Season: 38-44, Missed Playoffs (9th in East)
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Myles Turner, Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill
Key Offseason Losses: Roy Hibbert, David West
Projected Starting 5
PG: George Hill
SG: Monta Ellis
SF: C.J. Miles
PF: Paul George
C: Myles Turner
Key Role Players:
1. Jordan Hill
2. Rodney Stuckey
3. Ian Mahinmi
JL Season Outlook:
Paul George is back! And he’s playing the four? Yes, George will be switching positions whether he likes it or not (he doesn’t like it) and the Pacers will be playing faster this season, with Hibbert and David West gone. George’s move to the four will cause matchup nightmares for most teams, but the jury is still out on whether George’s superb defensive talent will translate when he’s guarding bigger guys. Scott and I got deep into this subject on a recent Big Three Podcast, so I’ll spare you the redundancy.
The offseason also brought Monta Ellis to Indiana, and a combo of him and George Hill in the backcourt could be one to watch out for. Hill is one of the more underrated guards in the game, a two-way player who takes good shots and knows when to drive and dish and when to spot up for three. He averaged 16 points on 48% shooting last season, and shot 36% from three as well. Ellis is different. After being touted as a good-stats-bad-team guy his whole career, he changed his ways and adapted well last season in Dallas. However, many still think of Ellis as the shot-chucking, ball-hog that we saw racking up points on awful Warrior teams. Ellis has reigned himself in since then, and his 19 points/game showed everyone that he can still produce without putting up 20 shots/game. Monta still can’t shoot three’s, however, posting a sorry 29% from deep last season.
With two guards who like to have the ball and are better drivers than knockdown shooters, the Pacers need to spread the floor around them. That’s where rookie Myles Turner comes in. The one-and-done Texas product showed dangerous similarities to LaMarcus Aldridge, only with a more refined 3-point shot. Turner is not a speed demon, and questions surrounding his running technique raised some eyebrows leading up to the draft, but he proved he can an outside shot in college, and he was a monster in summer league (if that counts for anything). Teams might end up with their big following Turner out to around 22 feet, opening up the middle for Paul George to dunk on any help defenders head.
Getting bigs to stretch to the perimeter can be huge for an offense, but if there’s one guy that no one is worried about, things can go south quickly. Ironically, the Pacers went from having a top-3 small forward in George to having major question marks as to who will man the other wing. C. J. Miles and Solomon Hill seem to be front runners, but Chase Budinger could be a darkhorse for big minutes. Also, don’t count out Rodney Stuckey if the Pacers want to get wild with a Hill-Ellis-Stuckey-George lineup. Stuckey quietly shot 39% from three last season, and though he will be primarily used for bench scoring, end-of-game lineups could see him featured more often than not.
Whether the Pacers find their answer on the current roster, or need to make a move to grab a three-man to play big minutes, the Pacers need to figure out that spot if they want to compete in the postseason. This team’s veteran’s should help Turner to grow, but I’m not sure if he’s there yet. Also, there is a real chance George either isn’t the same player after the leg injury, or he just simply cannot play the power forward position as well as he could the three. This team has a lot of question marks, but they have talent, something that can’t be said about other Eastern Conference teams, and I would be shocked if they weren’t at least competing for the postseason come March.
SBW Best-case scenario:
George is back to pre-injury form as a top five player in the league. Turner steps in for Hibbert and is an improvement right away. Ellis becomes the wing scorer that they need to go along with George. Hill does what he always does, lock up defensively and play efficient offense. The extra spacing the George creates offensively at the four position will open up their offense and allow them to become a top ten offense in the league. Mahinmi and Turner will be able to anchor the defense covering any holes that may be discovered with George at the four.
SBW Worst-case scenario:
George never gets comfortable playing the four. He struggles defensively to box out and guard the bigger men down low. Turner fails to live up to expectations and even loses his starting job to Mahinmi. Ellis proves to be a ball hog offensively, taking away many of the positive things that Hill does offensively. Having George at the four creates huge problems defensively, which leads to the Pacers missing the playoffs.
Projected Record: 42-40