The Season: Phoenix Suns

New Faces: Devin Booker (R), Deonte Burton (R), Terico White (R), Tyson Chandler, Cory Jefferson, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price,  Mizra Teletovic, Sonny Weems

2014-15 Regular Season Record:39-43

2014-15 Regular Season Achievements: 3rd: Pace. 6th: Steals. 10th: 3-Point Attempts. 11th: Points, Free Throw Percentage. 12th: Blocks. 13th: Offensive Rebounds.

Leading Scorer: Eric Bledsoe, 17.0

Leading Rebounder: Alex Len, 6.6

The Phoenix Suns finished six games out of a playoff spot last year, but the biggest story was how the roster was reshaped through trades during the season.

An unhappy Goran Dragic was shipped to Miami, while Brandon Knight came over from Milwaukee and later signed a five-year deal. The biggest summer acquisition was center Tyson Chandler, who will receive $52 million over the next four years. At age 33, Chandler can still contribute in a variety of ways. He rebounds, sets picks, runs the floor in transition, and protects the paint.

Mirza Teletovic left Brooklyn for Phoenix after three seasons to claim a backup power forward role, and his strength is scoring from distance: 36% on threes in his career including 39% in 2013-14.

Jon Leuer should be in the mix at the power forward position after his offseason trade from Memphis. Leuer played good minutes off the bench in the first few months for the Grizzlies before seeing his playing time dwindle. Sonny Weems should occupy a role at small forward, although he spent the last several seasons playing in Europe. Ronnie Price left the Lakers and will most likely serve as the Suns’ reserve point guard.

General Manager Ryan McDonough used the 13th pick in the draft to select guard Devin Booker from the nearly undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. However, he ended up trading second round selection Andrew Harrison, who also played at Kentucky, in exchange for Leuer. Early returns on Booker have been positive, including a 31 point performance during a Summer League game. After the team’s heavy emphasis on point guards last season, Booker figures to be an important piece at the 2-guard position in the near future. He’ll join a team that has three other former Kentucky Wildcats already on the roster: Knight, Eric Bledsoe, and Archie Goodwin.

For Phoenix, the MVP and Most Important Player may well be two different individuals. My vote for MVP would go to Bledsoe, a guard who can put up double-doubles on any given night. One shining example: an April contest in San Antonio when he contributed 20 points and 10 assists. However, most important to the trajectory of this team is power forward Markieff Morris.

Morris is coming off averages of over 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists. In 2013-14, he put up a career best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 18.48. All of this aside, his mindset heading into this season is uncertain. After his brother Marcus was dealt to Detroit, Markieff asked for a trade. When the Suns didn’t grant his request, he tweeted that “my future will not be in Phoenix.” On media day, Markieff changed course and explained that he did in fact plan to play for the Suns. Meanwhile, the organization and coaching staff have been acting like the matter is over. Morris is maintaining he is happy again, but don’t be surprised if this issue resurfaces as the season progresses.

If you’re looking for someone who will potentially be unhappy with his role, I would pick Alex Len. The Ukrainian hasn’t been a regular starter, playing about 22 minutes per game last season despite leading his team’s true centers in scoring. Additionally, he has only spent two seasons in the NBA and has much to learn. Still, without the acquisition of Chandler, Len stood to play a bigger role which could help speed up his development. Hopefully, Chandler will help mentor Len, and Jeff Hornacek can give him a chance to back up the power forward position on occasion.

Hired in 2013, Jeff Hornacek has a record of 87-77 as head coach of the Suns. He was already well known in the Valley of the Sun as a sharpshooting guard for the Phoenix franchise from 1986-1992. In Hornacek’s opinion, great assistant coaches make team chemistry easier to achieve. Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi have been at his side since he took the position. New assistant Corey Gaines actually worked as an interim assistant for the Suns as early as January of 2013.

A primary area of focus will be shoring up the defense, which finished 26th in points allowed last season. The Suns also finished 27th in assists which suggests that better ball movement could put them into the top ten in points per game. They placed 20th in three-point percentage, which negated some of the advantage in hitting 8.5 threes per contest. The presence of Teletovic may help in that category, but they no longer have Dragic who was effective from downtown.

Last season, the Suns were a strong fast break team, ranking third in transition points scored. They also set a quick pace, preferring to shoot early in the shot clock rather than set up a plodding half-court offense. Hornacek employed the screen-and-roll heavily, but with Len and Morris setting picks the execution wasn’t always ideal. This led to Bledsoe having to create late offense on his own during some possessions. Still, Phoenix’s bigger weakness was guarding opponents. The league shot 45.2% against them, which was 18th overall. To be fair, the team’s fast offensive pace is partially to blame for the even lower finish in points allowed. The team believes that it has the pieces for a more tenacious defensive unit. That starts with the intimidating Chandler and a full season of Knight, who tallied 1.6 steals per game in 52 contests with the Bucks last year. Similarly, incumbent small forward P.J. Tucker had 1.4 thefts to go with his all-around strong defensive game. Tucker hit 35% of his threes last season and pulled down six rebounds per contest.

Suns fans have to be hoping that their depth players can make an impact over 82 games. Archie Goodwin, the aforementioned ex-Wildcat, is probably Bledsoe’s primary backup. Despite a season average under six points, he saved his best for last in 2014-15 by scoring 18 in the season finale against the Clippers. Swingman T.J. Warren is coming off a solid rookie season and will be an option when Tucker is off the floor. Other depth players include C Henry Sims, SG Terrico White, PG Deonte Burton, and PF Cory Jefferson. Harvard product Kyle Casey could end up playing forward for the Bakersfield Jam, Phoenix’s affiliate in the D-League.

The most intriguing homestand of the season is a seven-game span from February 2-21 that includes contests against the Thunder, Warriors, Raptors, Jazz, Rockets, and Spurs. The Suns may not be better than all of those squads, but how they measure up overall could help determine whether they are headed to the postseason.

Phoenix’s probable starting lineup looks like this: Knight, Bledsoe, Tucker, Morris, and Chandler. At first glance, the Suns don’t seem to have as much firepower as some teams in the competitive Western Conference. They finished 48-34 and still missed out on the postseason two years ago, so last season’s record of 39-43 felt like a step backward. Then again, McDonough did address team needs with new additions such as Chandler, Teletovic, and Booker. It’s also reasonable to believe that the Suns can play better than 22-19 at home. Portland is due for a fall given the players they lost, and no team finishing behind Phoenix last year is an obvious bet for the playoffs. Even if the Thunder ascend after their ninth place finish, it’s possible that the Suns could be fighting with the likes of the Pelicans for a low playoff seed down the stretch.

Projected record: 40-42

follow Alex on Twitter: @goodguyinsports

photo Wikimedia.org