After an opening week as disastrous as any in recent memory, let’s take stock of just how the Phoenix Suns ended up in this situation.
The Phoenix Suns didn’t enter this season with high expectations. They didn’t have playoff aspirations. This was supposed to be a confidence building year for one of the youngest rosters in the league. Unfortunately, they couldn’t even get through the first week of the season without those goals getting off-track.
Their season began with a rather inauspicious 48-point blowout at home to Portland. With a narrow defeat to the Lakers and a 42-point drubbing by the Clippers following in the next few days, the Suns found themselves in as bad an 0-3 hole as you could find.
Through three games they had the league’s second-worst offense and their defensive rating of 120.2 wasn’t the worst for this season, but it was on pace to be the worst in NBA history by a comfortable margin. Things had gotten so bleak that Phoenix’s Pythagorean win projection gave them an estimated record of 1-71 (it actually gave them 0.8 wins, but I rounded up to be polite).
After Saturday’s loss to the Clippers, Suns players, management, and fans alike probably felt a little comfort in knowing they had Sunday off to regroup and recover. But very quickly, that ease evaporated as one tweet upended the core of the franchise.
I Dont wanna be here— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 22, 2017
Eric Bledsoe’s cryptic (not really) message came early Sunday afternoon. By late evening, General Manager Ryan McDonough had met with and fired Head Coach Earl Watson, giving him the unfortunate honor of becoming the first NBA coach to be fired after just three games.
Early the next morning, McDonough and ownership met with Bledsoe to probe for an explanation; but evidently, his hair salon response didn’t pass the smell test and they sent Bledsoe home, effectively ending his career in Phoenix. As of writing this, Bledsoe hasn’t yet been traded, but with reported offers and asking prices flying around, it is safe to assume Phoenix is planning for a future without Bledsoe.
The past handful of days may make it difficult to remember, but these Suns were a functional team just a few seasons ago. They had deftly navigated the end of the Steve Nash-era and transitioned into the incredibly fun but short-lived team led by Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas.
presented without comment pic.twitter.com/gkcUzKr1uH— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) October 23, 2017
While the three-point guard era never achieved playoff success, they were one of the most entertaining teams in the league. But, the decision to end that team is when this one began. Phoenix chose to advance into the 2015-16 season with Bledsoe as their point guard of the future, allowing Thomas to walk in free agency and trading Dragic to Miami for future picks.
That next season, Bledsoe appeared in just 31 games and new backcourt partner Brandon Knight played in just 50. Rookie Devin Booker was a bright spot who averaged 13.8 points per game, but the Suns were a bad team that managed to squeak out 23 wins. Whether expectations were too high or ownership just felt a change was needed, Head Coach Jeff Hornacek was fired halfway through the season with Watson tapped as his replacement.
In the summer of 2016, Phoenix drafted Dragan Bender and traded for the rights to Marquese Chriss, both of whom were clear long-term developmental projects. Last season was spent largely jockeying for draft position which earned them yet another 20-year-old in Josh Jackson
While their name for it is new, Phoenix has clearly been in a Process-like teardown for nearly two years now. Why they chose Sunday to fire Watson is unclear. Making that decision after just three games makes no sense, so either it was a rushed response to the Bledsoe situation or they knew months ago that Watson wasn’t right coach for this team and waited too long to fire him. Whatever the answer, it is hard to glean any confidence from it.
All that being said, for as hard as Phoenix hit rock-bottom on Monday there is still a future for this team. Handing the reins to a player who scored 70 points just a handful of months ago and three other 20-year-olds will be rough at first, but it is the best thing for the future of the franchise.
Once Bledsoe is inevitably traded, the vital next step is finding the coach to lead this team forward. For every Brett Brown there’s a Byron Scott and making sure you find one closer to the former is vital for a successful rebuild. Maybe interim Jay Triano is that guy, but whoever gets the permanent job has to be the right fit for this team.
And finally, be patient. For as rough as this week has been, ridding yourself of a player who didn’t want to be there can be a liberating experience. In their first game without Bledsoe, the young Suns played their best basketball of the season. The showed effort defensively in holding Sacramento to just 43.4% from the field and came away with a much needed moral, and actual, victory.
With their own top-10 pick this year and most likely Miami’s first rounder (1-7 projected) coming as well, this team will have even more young talent next summer. It may be tough to ask a fan base that hasn’t seen the playoffs in eight seasons to continue to be patient, but they will have to understand the long-term interests of the franchise. Turning Phoenix into a playoff team will not happen overnight, but they can recover even stronger from this dark moment in their history.
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