The Suns are a game from the halfway point in the season and have already surpassed the win total many expected of them. But the 2013-14 season has taken a midseason twist. Eric Bledsoe’s injury clearly changes the plan as Phoenix continues to push for the postseason, but now that we’ve gotten a decent glimpse of what the team can be without him, the Valley of the Suns team tackles what the second half of the NBA season might hold for the Suns.
1. How would you describe the biggest issue the Suns face without Bledsoe?
Kevin Zimmerman: Consistency from the role players. While Bledsoe obviously was big in terms of scoring points and bailing out the Suns’ offense when it just wasn’t working, his absence also has makes it tougher on the Gerald Greens and Channing Fryes of the roster. It shouldn’t go without mention that the team defense has dropped off, too.
Michael Schwartz: Their lack of quality depth. Without Bledsoe, everybody moves up in the pecking order. Now Gerald Green is a starter instead of a spark plug off the bench and all of a sudden Ish Smith must play quality minutes. In addition, the Suns can no longer play a stud point guard at all times and a heavier burden gets put on Dragic. The Suns are hurt by the cumulative effect of these shifting roles.
Jeffrey Sanders: Finding someone to consistently score the basketball. Gerald Green and Channing Frye are both having fine seasons, but they are streak shooters who can also shoot the Suns out of games. Bledsoe, along with Goran Dragic, are the two guys the Suns could count on every night to get points from and without the former, they will have plenty of nights where they are struggling to score.
Ryan Weisert: Consistency. From game to game, the Suns without Bledsoe are forced to rely on less reliable players who aren’t going to have it every night. Within a game, Phoenix’s lack of depth makes it hard for them to keep their intensity up for all four quarters, and makes them susceptible to blowing leads.
Dave Dulberg: Secondary scoring. The Suns will get a big performance here and there from a Channing Frye or a Gerald Green or a Markieff Morris to compliment Goran Dragic, but on a night-to-night basis they struggle finding a third and fourth offensive option without Bledsoe. The aforementioned trio of players are secondary scorers, so when asked to fill Bledsoe’s void, the question becomes who fills their roles?
2. What’s one change you think would help the Suns win games without Bledsoe?
Zimmerman: Developing a bench unit that has more defined roles. Too much has been put on Goran Dragic, and the Suns will need an even deeper rotation to mix it up and keep opponents from zeroing in on the obvious — Dragic is the main ball handler, Channing Frye will shoot threes and Miles Plumlee will roll to the basket. And getting a few more fresh legs could help out the aggressiveness of Phoenix’s defense, which has dropped off at this point.
Schwartz: Perhaps shoot even more threes. Without Bledsoe, the Suns will often be less talented than their opposition, but three-point shots can be a great equalizer, especially the way the Suns shoot them.
Sanders: I don’t know if there are many changes that can be made at this point of the season. I would like the Suns to give Dionte Christmas more of a chance because of his strong shooting abilities. He can be used as a sparkplug, but other than that it comes down to players playing better and needing guys like the Morris brothers and P.J. Tucker to score a bit more than they have been.
Weisert: Committing more bodies to the glass. The Suns’ biggest weakness is their rebounding. They give up the fifth-most offensive boards in the NBA, and that has allowed lesser teams to beat them multiple times season. The Suns’ big men have to focus on crashing the glass instead of hanging out in no man’s land when the shot goes up.
Dulberg: It’s not so much a change as it an adjustment. The Suns need to pair Goran Dragic and Leandro Barbosa together as much as possible. Dragic becomes a much bigger threat offensively when not forced to be the primary ball handler every time down the court. Look no further than the difference between this season and last season. Like Bledsoe, Barbosa can distribute the basketball, but he can also create for himself off the dribble. They might not be mirror images of each other, but both have the ability to free Dragic up for better looks.
3. Who is the key player as Phoenix moves forward?
Zimmerman: Markieff Morris. When he’s on, Morris has clearly been able to outplay the majority of reserve forwards. When he’s off, the Suns are attempting to squeeze too many points out of their starting unit. He simply brings another element to a limited roster.
Schwartz: The man just signed to a second 10-day contract, Leandro Barbosa. As we saw in New York when he ripped off 14 fourth-quarter points, LB can emulate some of what Bledsoe brought offensively (minus the elite athleticism), and going back to 2010 he’s always paired well with Dragic. He’s not nearly the all-around player Bledsoe is, but when he gets hot he can keep the offense humming.
Sanders: The easy thing to say is Goran Dragic, but that is the obvious answer. I am going to go with the Morris brothers. When Markieff Morris has a night like he had last week against Los Angeles, it changes the complexion of what the Suns can do. Especially with Green in the starting line-up, the team needs someone to step up off the bench and be a scorer. This is a great chance for one or both of the twins to get going.
Weisert: Miles Plumlee. Plumlee has blown everyone away with his play this season. But he still has plenty of room for improvement. His offensive aggression has been better lately, but he still has to do a better job of putting the ball in the basket. Defensively, he must do a better job not getting pushed around by stronger veterans.
Dulberg: Miles Plumlee. While Barbosa can fill some of the void left from Bledsoe’s absence, Phoenix would be well-served to try and get a little bit more paint production out of its second-year center. Plumlee is averaging less than eight shots per game in the month of January, which isn’t far off from his season average, but without Bledsoe, he needs to be one of the focal points and not a guy who just gets his buckets on offense rebounds and alley oops. That may be asking a lot of the former Duke standout, but the Suns need more balance. Shooting threes and executing in fast break situations won’t carry the Suns to the postseason.
4. What’s the current trajectory of this team, if you had to guess?
Zimmerman: Even with the developments in the last few days of the Suns being well-coached enough to put up points, they won’t be able to keep it up come the stretch run of the season, when the playoff atmosphere is already in place as Western Conference squads battle for positioning. Bledsoe could return, but if it’s anything around two months from his injury, it could be too little too late. Still, the Suns could be sniffing 40 wins.
Schwartz:The West is so much better than the East that it seems the Suns will either grab one of the last playoff spots in the West or one of the final couple lottery spots. Dreams of a top lottery pick are over. It will be difficult to stave off teams like Memphis, Denver and Minnesota for a final playoff spot, but just being in that conversation puts the Suns’ rebuilding process further along than anybody expected to start the year.
Sanders: I still believe they will be a playoff team IF Bledsoe comes back in the beginning of March as some suspect. If he is gone any longer than this, the team will be back in NBA purgatory. Keep in mind the Suns have a road-heavy schedule to end the year, playing 14 of their final 21 away from U.S. Airways Center, including four road back-to-backs. So any playoff hopes will be dependent on Bledsoe coming back for the stretch run.
Weisert: Until Bledsoe returns to full health and explosiveness, the Suns are going to be a .500 team. They have the shooting and the speed to overwhelm bad teams as evidenced by the Lakers’ game last week. But without Bled, they don’t have that extra gear that can help them race past the real contenders in the stacked West.
Dulberg: Without Bledsoe, the Suns are an average to slightly above average team. Better put, they’re a No. 9 or No. 10 squad in the Western Conference. If he fails to return, that’s exactly where they will finish. Give or take a few games, Phoenix is staring at 40-43 wins. Jeff Hornacek’s squad will be competitive on most nights, but it’s hard to replace an 18-point per game guy, who also happens to be a very good on-ball defender.
5. Do you think the injury changes how the Suns should deal with Bledsoe’s free agency?
Zimmerman: With the Suns’ magical medical staff, I’ll put my faith in them to know what’s up with Bledsoe’s knee. But I think that needs to be a serious question-mark regarding his future now that he’s had that injury twice — and that he had the meniscus removed and not repaired. It is no more concerning but additional to Bledsoe’s other issue: Can he point guard a team by himself?
Schwartz: No, assuming there are no further complications. Perhaps this shaves a few shekels off Bledsoe’s final price, but if anything this stretch without him shows how critical a healthy Bledsoe is to the Suns’ future. He’s still going to require a sizable investment to sign him, and he’s still worth every penny. Unless the Suns find something chronic about Bledsoe’s knees, he needs to be signed for whatever it takes as a building block of this franchise.
Sanders: Bledsoe is on his way to becoming a marquee NBA player and he is going to be making big money this offseason. Just look at Eric Gordon last year; he had big injury questions and that didn’t stop the Suns from offering him a contract before (thankfully) the Hornets matched it. Bledsoe will be getting paid and this shouldn’t have too if any impact on that.
Weisert: No. Meniscus injuries can certainly shorten a player’s career, but Bledsoe is still very young. So while his knee may limit him later in his career, I can’t see him being hobbled by it in this next contract with the Suns. Phoenix will and should do whatever it takes to retain Bledsoe’s service for the next four to five years.
Dulberg: Not in the slightest. While a first-year starter going down with a major injury is never encouraging news, Bledsoe has shown more than enough during his 24 appearances to warrant big money. If the Suns previously thought he was worthy of a hefty contract, even one that includes max money, this injury shouldn’t deter them from inking the 24-year-old to a new deal this summer.