Phoenix Suns 2013-14 preview: The building begins


Suns_jerseysToeing the line between contending in the playoffs and making them is a questionable enough position to be in. The space between a lower-seeded playoff squad and a team, as it’s been known around here, “treading the wheel of mediocrity” is likewise thin. The next-lowest spectrum is where the Phoenix Suns were last season.

Phoenix moved on from the Nash era with an “All for Orange” marketing campaign, which breathed of confusion. “All,” meaning all of the fans but also all of the Suns, none of whom were an individual whose face was comforting enough to Suns fans. Yet, the front office talked of playoff berths, as did coach Alvin Gentry – what was he supposed to say?

Welcome to 2013-14, a new front office, head coach and marketing scheme later. “Ignite the future” rightly admits that it’s not about the present team, but the idea still holds a bit of positivity for that future. Now, the Suns are far from toeing the line between lying about themselves as a decent team – a la the Bobcats or Bucks – and trying to earn that No. 1 lottery spot. They’re open about it.

“I was a Suns fan since I was in the third grade,” said forward Channing Frye when he announced he’d officially be back after sitting out last year with a heart ailment. “I wanted to help out …. be a part of it. I love where we’re going.”

As for the players, taking it day-by-day will be the motto.

The Marcin Gortat trade wrapped up an offseason of purging the talent and grabbing first-round picks. At the same time, players like Frye and Goran Dragic are joined by a more youthful, more athletic roster compared to last season’s squad.

The expectations across the media landscape say head coach Jeff Hornacek’s team will be lucky to win 25 games and finish better than anyone aside from the Philadelphia 76ers, but the players of course aren’t willing to concede anything.

“Whoever the best guys are, are going to play,” general manager Ryan McDonough said at media day.

Those who are left have plenty to prove.

Dragic’s competitiveness has never waned – last year’s interim coach Lindsey Hunter called him Rocky because of his willingness to get bruised up for a losing cause – and P.J. Tucker is in the same boat. Eric Bledsoe must prove he’s a true point guard. Pacers cast-offs Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green have their own reasons to play well. The Morris twins are playing for contracts. Frye is happy to be back, and Dionte Christmas is feeling blessed he’ll be on the bench for his first NBA game come Wednesday night.

The talk of the tank won’t go away, however.

Phoenix’s franchise history hasn’t included many flat-out bad seasons, but this is the first one where the Suns have tried to be bad – though you could make the case Phoenix tanked midseason in 2003-04 when it traded away Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury to set up the Steve Nash signing.

The Suns were one of the worst offensive teams last year. They were 29th in offensive rating, coming in at 101.2 points per 100 possessions. They weren’t as bad defensively, though their 108.1 points allowed per 100 possessions next to the offensive stats alluded to their final 25-57 record.

It’s possible the Suns improve a tad defensively, though losing Gortat in the trade with Washington hurts in that regard. There’s obviously more athleticism, and former Boston Celtics assistant Mike Longabardi could bring that defense-on-a-string mentality that, oddly, now-Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley talked about last year.

“(Longabardi is) an attention-to-detail guy, and he really understands how important same-thinking is defensively, and not individual thinking,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose late Celtics defenses were led by Longabari. “If you can get your team to buy into that, then they’re going to be a defensive team because they’re going to be on the same page.”

Offensively, Hornacek’s fingerprints will be all over. He and his detailed eye – and that of his coaching staff – have been giving tips to players from the preseason through the eve of the season-opener, when he was heavily involved in a shooting contest between Dragic and Christmas. Hornacek will be patient. He’s not a yeller-screamer type, and admitted once in the preseason that, as a player, he never heard the coaches from the sideline anyway.

Hornacek hasn’t been shy about playing as Phoenix did when he and Kevin Johnson made up a high-IQ backcourt, where either guard could bring the ball up the floor. Bledsoe and Dragic are a more-athletic, less-proven duo who will push the tempo and play well off one another off or on the ball.

In the early offense, the duo will help an offense keep the momentum of the ball moving, and when all fails will be able to break down teams in pick-and-roll action. Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee will start the season as Markieff Morris is suspended for a preseason elbow to Thunder forward Serge Ibaka’s face. Those three will fit well into Hornacek’s philosophies of having a stretch power forward and a center who can roll hard to the rim to suck in the defenses off perimeter shooters, but the shooting could be Phoenix’s biggest issue.

But especially with young big men in the middle, be it Plumlee or Len, the backcourt duo will be charged with leading the defense. Bledsoe knows that’s his forte.

“On defense it starts from the point guard,” he said. “Defense wins games. We have to get stops in order to get out in transition and run.”

Phoenix could end up stealing some games when the deflections and steals snowball. But whether the Suns win 15 games or 30, there’s not much likelihood any stretch does anything to distract from what will truly ignite the future – next summer’s NBA draft.

“My expectation for success is just to get better – to improve from now until the end of the year,” McDonough said. “The most important thing for me is establishing a culture that is conducive to winning.”

McDonough used the summer to ignite the fuse that dynamited the old framework of the Suns to the ground. For now, the current players will do what they know how to.

“Outside, people don’t expect us to win,” Bledsoe said at media day. “Inside the locker room, everybody thinks we can win. Like I said, we’re going to take it a game at a time.”

  • Scott

    They could open with a win.

  • EBJM

    Was watching the Heat-Bulls hoping to see Oden. Didn’t know he didn’t dress for the game but Beasley was glued to the bench with the Heat up by 20.

  • EBJM

    2nd game, Nash and Dudley. How can the Clippers be contenders starting Dudley and Redick?

    Nash sure plays like he is old.

    Wow! Five minutes into game and D’Antoni goes with Gasol and Kaman.

    OMG, Pau shooting threes!

    Blake allowing Reddick to look like an All-Star!

  • DBreezy

    @Kevin,

    Wasn’t it Longabardi who was the Celts defensive guru after Tibs and Frank left? I thought Sichting was the Bullets guy. The Bullets were good on D last year though.

  • foreveris2long

    Nash looked terrible tonight. However the Lakers bench was superb as was Gasol who did not play in the 4th quarter.

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    Caught some of the 4th qtr of lakers v clips….Farmar (who I really wanted the Suns to pick up a couple years back) looked in total control.
    Impressive win by the lakers who were double digit underdogs.

  • Scott

    @hawki -

    Yeah, I think Farmar does fine for backup PG.

  • Luka

    The Clippers looked horrible. Blake Griffin needs to work on his free throw shooting, and develop a low post game. That’s the only way the Clippers take the next step. They’d be better suited starting Barnes than Dudley. Outside of Paul and maybe Crawford to a limited extent, none of their guards and forwards are dynamic enough to break down defenses. It was a pedestrian effort by the Clips.

    Xavier Henry is looking like a great acquisition for the Lakers. Farmer also surprised me blowing past the Clipper guards. Maybe this is where the Clips miss a guy like Bledsoe? Suns fleeced the Clips in that trade.

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    Before I forget….remember a guy over at AZC who went by “gatofeo”….turns out his real name is Dary Matera & he is a published author.
    The History Channel was doing a special on John Dillinger and Dary Matera was one of the experts they used since he had written a book on the Prohibition Era gangster…..couldn’t believe it.

    @ Scott
    Nash may start but I think Farmar will see more minutes on the court in the long run.

    Forever…SoCal must’ve been rocking after that game.

  • EBJM

    Hawki, how did you put the two names together? Did the history channel mention it?

  • vtsunrise

    I just realized that all these predictions of whether the Suns will win 18 or 25 games or whatever this season are like asking will the water temperature in a cold lake in November be 15 degrees below my comfort zone or 20 degrees? The real question would be on what date will that lake be at a swimmable temperature again? Or how many degrees warmer will it be when I swim in it again?

    For the Suns, I’d say the more interesting question is how many games better will they be in 2014-15 than in 2013-14?

    I have no idea and how could anyone? But I hope it’s about 20 games+. And even more in 2015-16 vs. 2013-14.

  • JK

    Hello everybody. I’m new here at valleyofthesuns.com, but I have been a fan the Suns ever since I started watching basketball. This offseason has been great for the Suns given the situation we were put in by Lance Blanks. Looking forward to this season even though we are going to be #RigginForWiggins and in full tank mode.

  • Kevin Zimmerman

    Yes on Longabardi. Brain fart.

  • HunterSThompson

    EBJM – It is actually easy to put Gatofeo and Dary together. Dary still haunts over at AZC and writes comments exactly the same with his FB account as he did under Gatofeo. I sometimes feel bad for him over there – no-one takes his bait, despite his best efforts.

  • JK

    My lineup for today’s season opener would be:

    PG Dragic / Goodwin / Smith
    SG Bledsoe / Green / Christmas
    SF Tucker / Marcus
    PF Frye / Markieff
    C Plumlee/ Len / Kravtsov

    Out of all the third string guys, I think Christmas will get the most minutes simply because of his shooting ability that the Suns lacked greatly last season.

  • JK

    In addition, did anyone catch the article on ESPN.com where Jeff Goodman interviewed an “anonymous NBA GM” about tanking? I think McDonough was the GM who was interviewed, but some people think otherwise.

    Here’s the link if you haven’t read it yet:
    http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/9893551/anonymous-nba-gm-why-team-tank-season-espn-magazine

  • EBJM

    I’ve never been a huge D’Antoni fan but after last night I’ve gained a whole new respect for him. Beating the Clippers soundly with a team full of unwanted players AND using Pau & Kaman. I hope he survives the season. Ironic isn’t that our two run and gun coaches are in L.A.?

  • john

    I think D’Antoni, for what it’s worth, has always been of the mindset that he will use what he believes is best for his team, whether that means he has five guys that are obviously better than the rest of his bench (as he did in Phoenix when he only used 7 players) or he has a band of misfits where no one outshines the others (as with the Lakers). I don’t necessarily expect the Lakers to go 11 deep every night this season, but I could see D’Antoni using a 9-man rotation on a nightly basis simply because he doesn’t have any better options.

    He’s a good coach in a lot of ways and stupid coach in a lot of other ways, but overall, I’ve always thought his stubbornness when it cam to lineup utility was overblown.

    His stubbornness about needing to play defense? That’s a different story. And on that front, Mike D’Antoni is an idiot.

  • vtsunrise

    JK – Great article, and that has to be the Suns GM. Even if it isn’t, it captures his situation and perspective 100%. And it all makes perfect sense. Even if there’s no name attached to it, it’s refreshing to read something that honest and real. Thanks for the link.

  • Foreveris2long

    Luka,
    Regarding Bledsoe and the Clippers missing an athletic defender last night, I was reading a story a couple of days ago about Donald Sterling wanting to keep Bledsoe. Supposedly after the trade was announced or rumored to be on the books, Sterling said no deal. Doc River supposedly intervened because his contract gives him the final decision on player personnel moves. Apparently it got pretty ugly but Rivers insisted and the deal got done. You can bet if the story is true, Sterling was regretting the loss of Bledsoe.

    Yeah Hawki Southern California went crazy last night according to my text msgs. While I was not at the game I have buddies who attend as Clipper and Laker fans regularly. The Laker fans were ecstatic over the victory that allowed them to keep Gasol on the bench the entire 4th quarter. Farmar has matured a lot and played under control the entire night. I hate the Lakers but it was fun watching a bunch of no names manhandled the alleged championship caliber Clippers in the 2nd half. Antoni did a credible job having those guys believe in themselves and allowing the unit who took over the game, to finish the job.

    I cannot wait to see the young Suns on display tonight.

  • Foreveris2long

    John, While I always thought Antoni was a good but not great coach, I too thought he was overwhelmingly stubborn when it came to defensive issues. With that in mind there was one point in the game I believe in the 2nd quarter where the Clips went on I think a 9-0 run and he blew a fuse. I do not think I have ever seen him so angry during a time out. Maybe he is evolving.

  • Foreveris2long

    JK,

    Great article. Thank you for the insight. If this is McD’s insight and I too think it is, finally we have a perspective on Planet Orange that I fully adopt.

  • Luka

    D’Antoni looks like Hitler.

  • http://none Keith

    I don’t think the Clippers are as bad as they showed last night, but they sure are overrated. They are not a contender in any way, never have been. Dudley and Reddick don’t change that. They’re a 2nd round playoff team at best, and depending on matchup, they may lose in the first round. Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan are not winners at all. They need a better frontcourt that does more than just dunking and Jordan’s few blocks. Rivers has an uphill battle, especially with people’s crazy expectations for that yuck team.

  • Luka

    Blake Griffin needs to travel back in his Kia Optima and teach himself how to shoot free throws.

  • BUTLER

    HORNY’S RETURN = SUNS CHAMPIONSHIP

    Good to see the AZC posse once again united in worship.

    Hawki that’s quite a revelation about gatofeo.

    I saw the Suns scrimmage in Flagstaff AZ this month. Like a band of fledglings leaving the nest for the first time. The high altitude did help them. Their conditioning will be better than the Blazers’ tonight.

  • Ty-Sun

    I think that the Clips are just going to need time to adjust to the changes that Doc is trying to make. As for last night, the Laker subs mostly played a super game. The subs hit over 50% of their 3 point shots (9 of 17) and really hit the boards hard. I don’t quite agree that Griffin and Jordan aren’t winners but together they really more duplicate each others skills rather than compliment each other.

    And I wouldn’t doubt that the anonymous GM in the ESPN article was McD.

  • DBreezy

    Excellent point on then big picture on Suns predictions Vt. Also I’d have to agree with the point about D’Antoni’s short rotations being overblown. He went deep into his bench in NY and did here in PHX when he had the players to. The Suns had some awful players outside of their top 8-9 guys most years made worse by no picks, general refusal to use the MLE, and what they had invested in 5 players in particular. Jalen Rose can whine all he wants, but he was as ready for the NBA glue factory as Pat Burke, Sean Marks, DJ Strawberry, and the rest.

  • DBreezy

    As for the Clips, I think Doc is fine if he gets that kind of night out of Jordan, but Griffin has to bring much more. D’Antoni clearly setup his initial rotation last night with the belief that he was going to have to play big for long stretches vs the Clips front court. He got off to a solid start with Williams at the 4 without Griffin really punishing him and ultimately made the adjustment to just staying small and running/shooting the Clips out of the building. If you can’t crowd spacing or rebound vs a D’Antoni team you are going to give up a lot of points. I don’t think I ever remember seeing a young Amare getting flummoxed by a team going smaller and faster.

  • EBJM

    Hey Forever, I read the same article and it seemed like Sterling felt like he wasn’t getting equal value, specifically giving Reddick $27 million and making him a starter. Doc had recruited Reddick heavily and that is why he demanded Sterling approve the deal, to retain his credibilty.

    With money being the issue for Sterling, this is where McMiracle stepped in to help his buddy Doc.
    He arranged the three team deal that allowed the Clips to dump Butler’s $8 million for Dudley’s $4 million. They would be in the same situation as Phoenix regarding an extention but got Collison for $1.9 million.

    So the economics of the deal obviously helped sway Sterling. They were considering sending Bledsoe to the Pacers for Danny Granger or the Magic for Aaron Affalo, Andrew Nicholson and a 1st rd pick.

    Factor in the potential trade to the title contending Pacers where he probally would have started over George Hill and it might provide some insight into Bledsoe’s lack of commitment to the Suns.

  • vtsunrise

    I miss the azc thumbs. You all know who you are. Thumbs up to y’all.

  • Foreveris2long

    EBJM, As usual, good additional insight. I think by midseason Bledsoe will be better than George Hill and had he gone to the Pacers by April the Pacers would have been much better than they were last season. I do think the Clippers got short changed on the deal as Collison is not the defender Bledsoe is and Dudley and Reddick leave a lot to be desired defensively. This is going to be challenge for Doc because Blake Griffin is not a great defender and he still cannot play late in the game because he remains suspect at the free throw line. I do expect they will groove Mullins to play a lot at the stretch four spot but that is totally forgetting about low post offense in crunch time, which is and has been a void for them when the game slows in the playoffs.

    If Phoenix cannot lure Bledsoe (money aside), it speaks volumes about the cloud over Phoenix the last few years. Phoenix was an attractive destination for most ballers 10 years ago.

  • EBJM

    Forever that was my first thought about Reddick’s also but I recall reading somewhere that is PER
    for opposing SGs is below average and that his biggest weakness is recovering from preventing dribble-drive prevention which supposedly will improve with Jordan having his back.

  • vtsunrise

    EBJM,
    Re: Nash sure plays like he is old.

    3 reasons:
    1) He IS old!
    2) “Aaron Nelson, I miss you!”
    3) Bad karma.