For most teams, missing out on the playoffs by a single game is a crushing blow.
The Phoenix Suns are not most teams.
Although they certainly would have liked to edge out the Dallas Mavericks for the Western Conference's final playoff spot, the Suns have a bright future and plenty to be excited about. Coming into this season many people expected them to be chasing the top spot in the draft lottery, instead they burst out of the gate and were in the playoff hunt until the last few days of the season.
Now they face a new offseason flush with young talent, cap room, draft picks and a season of momentum-building development under their belts. Earlier this year Caleb Nordgren detailed the Suns' strangely advantageous position for Hardwood Paroxysm:
The Suns are in a unique position compared to the rest of the NBA, in that while they’re theoretically rebuilding, they know they have a solid core already in place. Compared to the aforementioned Sixers, who have only a few players on board that appear to be building blocks for the future, the Suns have an entire ten-man rotation’s worth of promising young — or young-ish, since Gerald Green, Goran Dragic, PJ Tucker and Channing Frye are all over 27 — players who are ready to contribute to a good team next year.
The Suns could move in a lot of different directions with several different avenues open for continuing to improve this team. The simplest option is working on refining the core that's already in place.
Dragic and Bledsoe
The biggest key to keeping this young group moving forward is re-signing Eric Bledsoe. The Suns can make him a qualifying offer this summer, but whether or not he accepts that, Suns GM Ryan McDonough has already stated that the Suns have both the means and the intent to make sure he is part of the team's future, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:
Obviously we don't have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don't have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.
We have some advantages. We're able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We're able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we're holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric's had a good experience here so far.
The Dragic-Bledsoe combination is truly the heart of the Suns' future—two athletic guards who can both handle point guard duties, run the pick-and-roll to score or pass as well as space the floor as shooters. But while Dragic catapulted himself into fringe MVP territory with his performance this season, Bledsoe took a step sideways.
One of the biggest challenges for Bledsoe was figuring out how to play alongside Dragic, who often ended up as the primary ball-handler when they were on the floor together. Too often a Dragic pick-and-roll up top or on the strong side resulted in Bledsoe standing still on the weak side.
Here, Bledsoe would seem to have the perfect opportunity to either fade to the corner or, with a little help from a screen, back cut his man into oblivion. Instead, he simply watches Dragic dribble his way into trouble:
Contrast that action with a similar set from the Miami Heat. As soon as Dwyane Wade passes the ball off to LeBron James he's heading directly for the back screen to rub off his man and then cut to the basket:
The inability of Bledsoe to take advantage of easy openings like this was a big reason his production dropped so significantly when he was on the floor with Dragic. Bledsoe's field-goal percentage plummeted from 55.0 percent when he was on the floor alone to 43.5 percent when he played with Dragic. Interestingly, Dragic also sees a small decline in his numbers when playing with Bledsoe, but it's not nearly as severe.
According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Bledsoe finished just 14 possessions as a cutter this season, which seems like an absurdly low number for a player as athletic as Bledsoe playing alongside a ball-handler who attracts as much attention as Dragic.
On this possession I counted three separate missed opportunities for cuts to the basket while his defender's head was turned:
Obviously, this is not all on Bledsoe. More aggressive and purposeful back-screening by his bigs would help open those cutting lanes, but it looks like Bledsoe doesn't have much of an idea of how to find open space off the ball and much inclination to seek it out. The Heat set we looked at above works because Wade, the screener and LeBron are all working in concert.
The problem is not just cuts to the basket. There is still a lot of room for growth in how Bledsoe spaces the floor and spots up on the perimeter for three-point looks.
All this discussion is simply to point out how remarkable it is that the Suns put together the league's eighth-most efficient offense this season, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions, without their two best offensive players ever really figuring out how to play well together.
There is tremendous room for organic improvement simply by having the Suns offense grow around helping Bledsoe and Dragic complement each other.
One of the most amazing parts of the Suns season is that they took this dramatic leap forward while getting essentially nothing from last year's first-round draft pick, Alex Len.
Len played just 362 minutes on the season, and while there is a lot of development that needs to happen, he has the ability to be a hugely important piece moving forward.
The most attractive piece of Len's potential is as a low-post scoring threat. Unfortunately, that's also one of the places he's farthest from being able to contribute at this point. According to mySynergySports, Len used just 22 post-up possessions this season, scoring an average of 0.69 points per possession.
Len has great touch around the basket, but the challenge is usually getting close enough to use it. His lower-body strength is lacking, which makes it difficult for him to establish deep initial position. Then once he catches the ball, he doesn't have the refined face-up game or physical force to eat up the space a defender gives him.
Here you can see him struggle to make headway against the stout defense of Aaron Gray, forced to settle for a fall-away jumper:
Here you can see him floating on the baseline, unsure of how to make himself available to the ball-handler. A tipped pass finds its way into his hands, but his initial bump doesn't move Andrew Nicholson and he again is forced to resort to a fall-away jumper:
The good news is that his size, touch, balance and reasonable athleticism could make for the foundation of a very efficient post game. Going into next season the Suns just need to devote some resources into building his strength and carving out a comfortable place in the offense for him to work from the low post.
The other thing that makes Len so intriguing is that he has also shown flashes of being a dangerous threat on the pick-and-roll. He used a similarly small number of possessions in these types of sets, so we have to beware of small sample sizes. But when given the opportunity, he showed good awareness of how to find and roll to empty space, while still making himself available to receive the pass.
So much of what the Suns do on offense is built around the attacking pick-and-roll games of Bledsoe and Dragic. If Len can also contribute in that area, it makes it much simpler for Jeff Hornacek to leave him on the floor and give him time to grow in other areas of his game.
The fact that this group of players went toe-to-toe with the Western Conference's best, coming up just a game short is impressive in its own right. But improved synergy between Dragic and Bledsoe, continued growth from Miles Plumlee and the Morris twins, along with helping Len turn his talent into production makes these Suns a legitimately scary team for the foreseeable future.
As exciting as that young core is, the Suns have the ability to really flesh things out this summer. If everything shakes out as expected in the draft lottery, the Suns will have the 14th, 17th, 27th and 50th picks in this year's draft.
This draft class is deep throughout, and those picks could work both as standalone player grabs or as a package to move up in pursuit of a single player. Their roster is currently so deep it's difficult to point to a position screaming for improvement. With those three picks the Suns could simply augment their depth with more young talent or they could significantly remake their core by trying to grab one of the players at the top.
The other wild card for the Suns is cap room. Even with an extension for Bledsoe they should have the kind of cap room to chase a significant piece this summer. Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster mentioned Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward, Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza as possible targets, a list to which I'll add Lance Stephenson.
There are a lot of intriguing possibilities there, and the direction the Suns choose to go in will reveal a lot about how they see their team. Chasing someone like Deng or Ariza would be an acknowledgement that their middling defensive performance is the chief barrier to them moving up in the West.
Stephenson and Hayward would both be exciting extensions of what they already have in Dragic and Bledsoe, doubling down on shooting, ball-handling and explosive offensive pace. Monroe would seem to be moving the team back towards a more traditional inside-out alignment.
In the end, the Phoenix Suns possess a rare blend of both present success and future possibilities. It's easy to draw a line in any number of directions from where they are now to tantalizing scenarios for future dominance. Regardless of which path they choose, I would expect them to be improving on their impressive performance this season.
Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com/stats
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