Early Predictions for Phoenix Suns' Rotation Next Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 25, 2014

Early Predictions for Phoenix Suns' Rotation Next Season

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    With Eric Bledsoe still sitting out on the restricted free-agent market, the Phoenix Suns have yet to answer their biggest offseason question.

    Still, optimism is rightfully high in the desert after the Suns turned what many thought would be a throwaway season into a furious playoff push that netted them 48 victories while falling just short of a ticket to the big dance.

    Phoenix cannot expect a repeat performance without bringing Bledsoe back, but the news on that front is positive. Potential suitors have largely invested their cap space elsewhere, and even if an offer sheet surfaces at some point, the Suns would still have the option to match it.

    "We'll continue to work as hard as we can within that restricted free agency system established by the collective bargaining agreement," Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said, via Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic. "We continue to hope and expect that he will remain in a Suns uniform."

    Assuming Bledsoe stays, the Suns will return most key members from last year's team— though 6'11" sniper Channing Frye signed with the Orlando Magic this summer—along with several fresh faces who should add to their depth.

    Starting gigs could prove hard to come by, with Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and P.J. Tucker primed to reprise their roles from last season. However, the frontcourt could see some heated position battles, as Markieff Morris and Anthony Tolliver are set to lock horns for Frye's old spot, while sophomore Alex Len could challenge Miles Plumlee at center.

    The Suns have new pieces for coach Jeff Hornacek to fit into his uptempo puzzle, leaving a few questions unanswered regarding how this team will proceed. But those inquiries only add to the intrigue surrounding the Western Conference's rising Suns.

Little Big Three

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    The way the Suns handled their roster additions, one might assume they had point guard problems that needed to be addressed.

    That couldn't be further from the truth. Both Bledsoe (17.7 points on 47.7 percent shooting, 5.5 assists) and Dragic (20.3 points on 50.5 percent shooting, 5.9 assists) enjoyed breakout seasons in 2013-14.

    Still, Phoenix opted to invest some of its largest assets to strengthen an existing strength. Pint-sized scorer Isaiah Thomas came over in a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings (with a new four-year, $27 million contract in hand), while rookie floor general Tyler Ennis was snatched up by the Suns with the 18th pick of the draft.

    The moves seem to have a gluttonous feeling about them, but Hornacek's offensive mind is sharp enough to make this work. While other teams dabbled with two-point guard looks last season, he built an explosive offense around the concept.

    With Thomas, a 20.3 points-per-game scorer last season, added to the mix, this potent attack should be even more dynamic.

    Hornacek considers his new point guard stable "a three-headed monster," via The Associated Press. "There's going to be two of those guys on the court at all times," the coach said, "and when that happens teams are going to really have to plan for that."

    Ultimately, this probably doesn't change Hornacek's starting backcourt, but all three players should see significant minutes and statistics. And if Ennis proves to be ready to produce, Hornacek will find a spot for another head on his point guard beast.

Sixth Man to Starter

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    After posting personal bests in points (13.8), rebounds (6.0), player efficiency rating (18.4) and win shares (6.4) last season, via Basketball-Reference.com, Markieff Morris established himself as one of the NBA's premier sixth men.

    According to him, that's actually an understatement.

    "Coming off the bench with energy, scoring, rebounding, making my teammates better and winning games, especially when we were supposed to win 17," Morris said in April, via Coro. "...Y'all thought we were going after a Number 1 pick. I think I deserve Sixth Man Award for the team success."

    His case was compelling, but so, too, were those of other impact reserves. Jamal Crawford wound up securing the hardware for the second time in his career, while Morris finished a respectable fourth in the award voting.

    If Morris had any hard feelings about the decision, he'll need to let go of them quickly. That's no longer his battle to fight.

    With Frye headed to the East Coast, Morris should be on the fast track to his first permanent starting role.

    Morris is a different player than Frye. The former is explosive and plays a physical brand of basketball, while the latter has more of a finesse style and a silky three-point stroke.

    Morris held opposing power forwards to a 16.8 PER last season, via 82games.com, while 4s enjoyed a 19.1 PER in their matchups with Frye. And although Morris doesn't have Frye's range, he is comfortable working away from the basket. He converted 45.5 percent of his attempts from 10 feet away from the basket out to the three-point line, via Basketball-Reference.

    The Suns will have a new look with Morris, but maybe this change could be for the better.

Shrinking Floor?

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    Replacing Frye won't be easy. He played a major role in the Suns' ninth-place standing in three-point percentage (37.2 percent), finishing second on the team with 160 made triples.

    With explosive slashers like Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas and Gerald Green on the roster, the Suns need to prevent opposing teams from packing the paint.

    Markieff Morris has converted 122 long-range looks in his three-year career (at just a 33.3 percent clip), so asking him to transform into a floor-spacer overnight is not realistic. That will put a lot of pressure on newcomer Anthony Tolliver, who recently finalized his two-year, $6 million contract.

    "Anthony is a great fit for our style of play," general manager Ryan McDonough said in a statement announcing the signing. "His shooting, professionalism and leadership will help us as we try to continue to build a strong foundation going forward."

    Maybe the Suns will benefit from Tolliver's professionalism and leadership, but there's a reason that shooting was the only on-court aspect that McDonough mentioned.

    Tolliver, a six-year veteran, doesn't bring much else to the hardwood. Even when examined through a per-36-minute lens, his scoring (11.0) and rebounding (6.6) averages leave something to be desired.

    But he can shoot from distance, or at least he could last season. He set career highs in three-point makes (102), attempts (247) and percentage (.413) in 64 games for the then-Charlotte Bobcats.

    Entering the 2013-14 campaign, though, he was only a career .325 percent three-point shooter. If his perimeter numbers regress, he could be hurting for playing time—and the Suns could struggle to stretch opposing defenses.

Young Suns Getting Younger

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    The Suns had one of the NBA's youngest teams last season, and that youth movement has only continued.

    Thomas won't turn 26 until February, and Tolliver will stay on the right side of 30 until next summer. The Suns added four rookies in the draft, and even with Bogdan Bogdanovic expected to stay overseas, three could make the roster—depending on how 7'1" shooter Alec Brown fares in training camp.

    Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, both 2013 first-round picks, could also take on expanded roles after struggling to secure rotation spots during their rookie seasons. Len stands 7'1" with a 7'3.5" wingspan, per DraftExpress.com, and has shown good mobility and a soft shooting touch. Goodwin is a hyper-athletic 6'5" guard who still needs to expand his range but has the time to do it (he turns 20 in August).

    The Morris twins are only 24, and both could see larger roles next season. Marcus, a 37.5 percent three-point shooter over the last two years, could help provide valuable floor spacing from either forward spot.

    "He shot a great percentage from 3-point range last year," McDonough said, via Coro. "We think he'll play some small forward and power forward."

    With a roster as young as this, the Suns didn't need to go outside the organization to find extra help. The potential for organic growth is tremendous, particularly with Hornacek getting another full offseason to implement his system.

    There's always the risk with a youthful core failing to reach expectations, but last season showed how good this group can be. And this team looks deeper than that one.

The Alex Len Takeover

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    A quick glance at the stat sheet might lead many to paint Alex Len as a draft bust. Even in a down year for prospects, one would still expect the No. 5 pick to provide something far better than Len's production: 2.0 points on 42.3 percent shooting, 2.4 rebounds, 8.6 minutes per game.

    Without context, those numbers are pretty atrocious. However, dig deeper into Len's story, and you'll find a tale of bad breaks—not a bad player.

    Len had surgeries on both ankles last summer, costing him the key development time he desperately needed. Despite his lofty draft position, he was seen as a project pick.

    "Don't expect Len to take the league by storm as a rookie, or even as a second-year player for that matter," Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien wrote in June 2013. "Give him time, though, because he will soak up NBA skills like a sponge and blossom into a dependable center."

    Those health problems only pushed his timeline back further. By the time the calendar changed, he had played only four games for a total of 31 minutes. He increased his exposure over the latter half of the season, but even then he struggled to find consistent playing time.

    This summer hasn't gone any better. He suffered a broken right pinkie during his summer league debut, again keeping him out of the NBA's new employee orientation.

    However, if he can avoid the injury bug, he has the physical tools to challenge incumbent center Miles Plumlee for the starting spot. Plumlee is a terrific athlete, but so is Len. Plus, the latter is a capable mid-range shooter with nimble feet in the low post.

    Plumlee started last season strong, but his playing time and production tapered off in the second half (9.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in 27.0 minutes before the All-Star break, 6.0 and 6.6 in 20.2 after). If that pattern repeats itself—and Len's body finally cooperates—the sophomore could force his way into the starting five.


    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.