Why Every Basketball Fan Should Care About This Season’s Phoenix Suns

The 2015-16 NBA Season starts in less than two weeks, preseason hoops are in full swing, and playoff prognostications have begun in earnest. Since season previews can get bogged down by team-specific minutiae, and we cover every basketball team, we’re providing our readers reasons why you should care about all 30 teams in the Association.

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What a weird team, coming up on a weird season, after a weird year, with an odd offseason to boot. The Suns are stuck in the Western Conference. You could say the same thing about the other 14 teams, but there’s a chance they would’ve snuck into the second round of the playoffs in 2014 if they had been in the East and it’s hard to differentiate coach Jeff Hornacek’s run-and-gun offense from the turbocharged Dragon running helter-skelter for 94 feet.

Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe shepherd the backcourt now, and it’s not really a downgrade; except, can you imagine either of those guys making the All-NBA Third Team like Goran Dragic in that magical 2014 year? They’ve got Tyson Chandler, but he turned 33 earlier this month, and he’s not exactly the healthiest guy in the world. Will $13 million a year into his twilight buttress them on the block for the next four years?

But Alex Len has had some fun moments, scoring 21 points in 23 minutes against Utah, so maybe Chandler will give Ryan McDonough a better ROI as a mentor to young Len.

Since 2014, the popular preseason column is “who will be this year’s Phoenix Suns?”

Why not this year’s Suns?

Unfortunately, the biggest offseason story in Phoenix and from an online perspective, was the very public acrimony between the team and Markieff Morris.

Grouchy Markieff Morris is grouchy…or is he?

A brief retelling of Kieff’s summer. He served up a juicy scoop to the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Keith Pompey with a demand to be traded. He was upset the Suns traded his brother Marcus to the Pistons in order to free up some LaMarcus Aldridge max money that never panned out. Ironically, Marcus Morris will probably get more run in Detroit as the (for now) starting small forward, which is a better career move because more playing time equals more opportunity to shine. (Stanley Johnson is the real deal, so Marcus might not be starting by the end of November or even by the start of the season. Regardless, our point stands.)

The team ignored Kieff’s public whining, even as the rest of us didn’t. They even wished him a happy birthday, which was pretty smug of them and also sorta cool. Morris didn’t get the humor, we suppose. The NBA stepped in the only way they know how: through the pocketbook. We really thought he was gone this time. But he wasn’t and he kept shading his team on social media. But at least we found out what F.O.E. means.

When media day finally arrived, Kieff was all about that Suns life.

WHHHHATTT? Only 18 days before he was subtweeting the team and talking about family over everything, and then he’s “glad to be back with the team.” HUH?

We think Kieff is a little underrated, but even we’re not crazy enough to think he’s good enough to keep up this level of crazy and get away with it. That could be a trade, or — more likely — two months of solid play before he’s traded when everyone’s forgotten about the odd behavior over the summer.

But there are so many frayed cord endings in that locker room, it’s a combustible environment that could lead to convivial fireworks on the court, or the kind that ignites Twitter for a couple days as everyone’s RT’ing Paul Coro and wondering why Mirza Teletovic has a black eye.

Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt, and Tyson Chandler (sans LaMarcus Aldridge)

It was just a year ago that the Phoenix Suns were sexy. After a wildly surprising 2013-14 in which they suddenly emerged as one of the brightest franchises in basketball, the Suns seemed primed to take the next step to contention. Jeff Hornacek’s wholly unique team played one of the most entertaining styles in basketball, spearheaded by the double-headed point guard monster of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Phoenix might not have had championship aspirations last season, but it certainly did long-term – that’s what a young, improving core and ultra prudent all-around approach team-building yields.

But the Suns got off to a discouraging start in 2014-15, one marked by a series of heartbreaking losses that called their heart and chemistry into question. And once Dragic made it clear he was unhappy losing crunch-time minutes to offseason signee Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix had almost completely lost its luster from one season prior.

The subsequent trade deadline was jarring nonetheless. Few saw the marriage between Dragic and the Suns ending so soon after they’d enjoyed a honeymoon, but his displeasure with the organization had obviously reached a tipping point. GM Ryan McDonough did extremely well to not only receive multiple first-round picks for the impending free agent, but also flip Thomas in a three-team deal that netted Phoenix Brandon Knight, a more sensible backcourt partner for Bledsoe than either departed player ever was.

Is there a ceiling on the Suns’ roster as currently constructed? Surely. But McDonough has put a premium on flexibility since taking reins in the desert two years ago, and it nearly paid off with what would have been the ultimate coup of free agency: the surprise signing of LaMarcus Aldridge. Say what you will about the lengthy, lucrative contract McDonough gave Tyson Chandler in order to coax the sweet-shooting big man to Phoenix, but the potentially massive reward was no doubt worth the minor risk the team incurred when Aldridge did as expected and chose the San Antonio Spurs. Not only would Aldridge have vaulted the Suns to meaningful contention, but Chandler’s unmatched ability as a ball-screen dive man will make them better alone – and his salary will likely be inconsequential as the cap rockets past $110 million in 2018-19.

knight bledsoe
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Bottom line: After a topsy-turvy season that could have rendered so much progress null, Phoenix somehow found a way to remain extremely competitive now while maintaining flexibility for the future.

That won’t necessarily mean a playoff berth for Phoenix in 2015-16. The West has never been stronger; its quality in the middle is somehow comparable to its quality at the top. There are five top-tier championship contenders in this conference, not counting the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. That leaves one postseason spot for squads like the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Suns.

It’s a testament to the raw talent on Hornacek’s roster that Phoenix could be considered at the forefront of that group. A core of Bledsoe, Knight, Chandler and Markieff Morris is solid, especially when supplemented by a combination of established and intriguing ancillary players. But there are simply too many variables at play for anyone to confidently say what this team will be doing come spring one way or another.

And while that’s obviously not an ideal circumstance, it’s definitely better than what so much recent turmoil initially forecasted – not to mention an indication that the Suns’ big picture aspirations remain visible on the horizon.