Will the Phoenix Suns' Frontcourt Keep Team from Taking Next Step in 2014-15?

Sam CooperCorrespondent IIISeptember 12, 2014

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 16: Markieff Morris #11 of the Phoenix Suns in a game against the Sacramento Kings on April16, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, the Phoenix Suns made plenty of acquisitions that make the team seem both deeper and stronger.

However, those acquisitions, such as Isaiah Thomas, rookie Tyler Ennis and rookie T.J. Warren, failed to address the team's more pressing problems at the frontcourt positions. 

Eric Bledsoe must make a decision about his future within the next few weeks, and should he opt to stay in Phoenix, the Suns will certainly have one of the NBA's greatest backcourts in Bledsoe, Thomas, Goran Dragic and Gerald Green. 

But what about the big men? T.J. Warren looks like a promising rookie, but will spend more time at small forward than at power forward in the NBA. Veteran sharpshooter Anthony Tolliver was added to alleviate the loss of Channing Frye, but he is not projected to exceed Frye's production with the Suns. 

Essentially, the Suns made no improvements at either the power forward or center positions this summer. Their only hope is that young prospects, such as Markieff Morris (25), Miles Plumlee (26), and Alex Len (21), can all develop on their own and show improvement for the 2014-15 season.

That isn't such a ridiculous idea, as young players are generally expected to get better, not worse. However, none of those three players were ever projected to be stars. When compared to other great frontcourt pairings in the Western Conference, such as Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler, David Lee and Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, or an array of others, Markieff Morris and Miles Plumlee looks very weak.

So, will those frontcourt players be able to step up? Or will they hold the Suns back, despite their backcourt depth?

Let's take a look at the team's key big men, and what can realistically be expected from each one in the new season. 

Markieff Morris

Markieff Morris is undoubtedly the greatest X-factor for the Suns this season.

It will be Morris' first year as a starter, and, if Bledsoe returns to the team, he will be the only new face in the starting lineup. A huge concern going into the season is that the Suns will struggle offensively without Frye to space the floor. Morris, a career 33 percent three-point shooter, can certainly make a three occasionally, but does not shoot them with the same efficiency or at the same frequency as Frye did. 

However, in almost every other aspect of the game, Morris looks superior to Frye. And one can only hope that the power forward has gotten even better over the summer. 

Whereas Frye was a three-point sharpshooter, Markieff is an incredibly underrated mid-range shooter. He has the ability to make shots from 15-20 feet away, which is enough space to give the guards the opportunity to attack the basket. 

Markieff is not the same pick-and-pop threat that Frye was, but his advantage is that he can create his own shot, something that Frye never did efficiently. Frye relied on a fast-paced offense and spot-up shooting to get his points. While Morris can also thrive in that environment, he has the ability to isolate in a halfcourt set and drain a mid-range shot. In fact, he's one of the best power forwards in the league at that

SAN ANTONIO, TX - April 11: Markieff Morris #11 of the Phoenix Suns dunks against the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center on April 11, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Morris was among the 10 most efficient mid-range shooters at the power forward position from last season (with a minimum of 300 attempts). The data was taken from NBA.com/stats. Markieff ranks 6th (with 44.3 percent shooting) out of 18 players. 

Who are some notable players that he outranks? LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Pau Gasol, among others. As one might expect, Josh Smith ranks last with a 34.8 percent clip.  

Aldridge is well-known for his mid-range shooting touch—some might describe it as his greatest asset. Love is another great shooter who Suns fans coveted this offseason, but Markieff is better than him from mid-range as well.

The only two players with a significant advantage over Morris are Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh. Bosh's numbers may go down this season, as LeBron James' absence will make him more targeted by opposing defenses and will provide him with fewer open opportunities. 

The only worry is that Markieff is going to be facing starters with more regularity. Starters who are sometimes much tougher on defense. But in the past, Markieff has shown the ability to be just about as efficient from mid-range as any other NBA forward. 

And he is better than Frye in other areas as well. For example, Frye rarely attacked the basket, taking just 91 total shots at the rim last season and converting on 61.5 percent of his opportunities.

Morris, on the other hand, took 243 attempts at the rim (3.0 per game as opposed to Frye's 1.1 per game), and converted on 65.8 percent of his opportunities. 

And how about rebounding? Morris averaged 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes, compared to Frye's 6.5 rebounds

In other words, Markieff provides the Suns with an offensive inside presence that Frye could never come close to matching. Each year, Morris' arsenal of post moves grows, whereas Frye would shy away from contract. 

Overall, here's a chart comparing how the Suns looked last season with a duo of Frye and Dragic compared to a duo of Morris and Dragic. Obviously, the other three players in the lineup must be considered. However, with four/five-man lineups Markieff had not logged enough playing time with the other starters to have it be considered a large sample size. 

Suns' lineups (Dragic/Frye vs. Dragic/Morris)

Notice much of a difference? Didn't think so. 

Again, it is yet to be seen how Morris will fare against NBA starters every night. But according to these numbers, there was virtually no offensive drop-off when the Suns took out Frye and put in Morris. Frye and Dragic made a great pair with their three-point efficiency, but there is no indication that Dragic and Morris can't be just as effective, only in a different way.

Another conclusion to take from this chart is that Markieff's presence barely improved the defense. While Frye was often criticized for his defense, Suns fans will soon find (if they haven't realized already) that Morris is not much of an improvement in that area.

Yet, overall Markieff seems to be ready to battle with the big boys of the West. He averaged 18.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, and there's no reason that he can't take another step forward in his fourth NBA season. 

He still has a long way until he can be considered an All-Star, but Markieff is no joke. He could establish himself as an above-average power forward within the next couple years, and is enough of a force to keep the Suns from being held back. 

Miles Plumlee

Miles Plumlee got off to a fantastic start with the Suns in 2013, and immediately looked like a candidate for the Most Improved Player award. 

But as the year went on, he received less playing time and his numbers began to drop. He averaged 27 minutes per game before the All-Star break, as opposed to just 20 minutes per game after it. 

That drop in playing time resulted in smaller scoring and rebounding averages. Plumlee didn't exactly "slump" as much as he just spent more time sitting on the bench. In fact, his field-goal percentage after the All-Star break was 54 percent (compared to 51 percent in the first half of the season).

At the same time, there were areas in which Plumlee began to struggle in the second half. 

The fearlessness and aggressiveness that Suns fans fell in love with at the beginning of the season began to slip away. And Plumlee's block numbers and free-throw attempts both express that. 

Here is a chart with Plumlee's free-throw attempts per game and blocks per game, sorted by month.

Miles Plumlee's 2013-14 Declining FT Rate/BPG/Usage Rate
Usage Rate19.2%17.5%17.7%16.5%14.5%15.2%12.9%

What happened? Not even a seven-minute decrease in playing time can explain why by the end of the season, Plumlee got to the line half as much and blocked a quarter of the shots he did at the start. Or why his usage rate plummeted and the team stopped including him in as many offensive plays. 

The question now is, which Plumlee will show up in 2014-15? Will he regain that aggressive edge that originally made him so successful? Or does his ceiling reflect more of what he showed in March and April of last year, explaining why he was included as trade filler in the first place?

Either way, he goes into the season as a big question mark. Even if Plumlee plays well, he is already 26 and doesn't appear to have the same ceiling as someone like Markieff Morris. At his best, he is an above-average defensive center and an athletic seven-footer who can get up and down the court for dunks and alley-oops with ease.

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 5:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets and Miles Plumlee #22 of the Phoenix Suns battle for the rebound on February 5, 2014 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

But he still lacks range and a reliable set of post moves. Athleticism alone can't take him to the next level. Right now, he seems to be more of a short-term solution for Phoenix. He may not hold the team back from a seventh or eighth seed, but is also not the sort of rim protector found on most contending rosters. 

Alex Len

Alex Len was a disappointment in his rookie season. There's no denying that. The 7'1" Ukrainian big man shot 42 percent from the field and posted a PER of 7.3 while being the fifth overall pick of the draft.

Still, it's important to cut Len some slack. For the first couple months of the season, he was recovering from ankle surgery. He didn't play in the summer league either, or participate in training camp. So he had much less time to adjust to the NBA than other rookies, such as fellow Sun Archie Goodwin. 

And unfortunately, Len hasn't had much more luck this summer. In his summer league debut, he injured his pinky finger, which sidelined him for the rest of the tournament. 

Let's start with the positives. Last season, in limited playing time, Len showed some nice touch on mid-range jump shots as well as some great post moves. He wasn't consistent, but the moves were effective, as shown in the video.

His defense wasn't bad either. According to NBA.com/stats, Len allowed opposing players to shoot 49.1 percent from the field (just slightly better than Plumlee 49.9 percent mark). That doesn't make him a defensive anchor, but it does mean that he was able to use his long, lanky body to disrupt shots.

On the other hand, Len looked weak for a center. He is only 21, so that can change, but he absolutely must add muscle in order to compete with NBA bigs. It can help him finish opportunities at the rim, stop opposing players from gaining good post position and box out for more rebounds. It will improve all facets of his game. 

He also needs to work on his footwork and on becoming more mobile in general. Plumlee is so effective in the Suns' offense (sometimes) because he can outrun other big men and leap for dunks. Len doesn't have the same speed or vertical, and he tends to look clumsy on the court.

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 11:  Alex Len #21 of the Phoenix Suns looks to pass against Chris Andersen #11 of the Miami Heat during the NBA game at US Airways Center on February 11, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Heat defeated the Suns 103-97.  NOTE TO USER: Us
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Len has a long way to go. He should get some more playing time this season, and that should help his development along, but don't expect him to take over the starting role. On the bright side, he is still 21 and has only played basketball in the U.S. for three years (two with Maryland and one with Phoenix). Compare that to Plumlee, who is 26 and who spent four years at Duke, one with Indiana and one with the Suns.

But despite Len's "potential" and higher ceiling, he doesn't project to be an elite big man. At least, not at this rate. Perhaps he could be a starter one day, but it is unlikely that he will become the star of any team's frontcourt.

Expect the team's big men to be better this season, if only because they are so young. However, if the Suns ever want to take the next step and contend for a top-four seed in the West, they will need a legitimate star at either power forward or center. And for now, they're still searching for that big name. 


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