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2018-19 Season Preview: Rise Like A Phoenix

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

With a new head coach, GM, and franchise cornerstone on the team, can the Suns turn things around in 2018?

Despite some bright, young talent on their roster, the Phoenix Suns were the worst team in the NBA last year. However, this atrocious season gave them the first pick in the NBA Draft, allowing them to add a franchise cornerstone to a squad that is getting a fresh head coach and GM, too. 

Can the Suns heat up this year and return to some form of contention?

2017-18 Season Recap

With a dismal 21 wins, the Suns won the battle for best tanking team, despite heavy competition with other talent-depleted squads, such as the Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies, and Brooklyn Nets. Not only did they have the fewest wins last year, but they also had the worst offensive and defensive ratings in the NBA, and these horrendous stats led to the inevitable firing of head coach Earl Watson. But even with the least efficient offense, the team still went fast, finishing as the third-fastest paced team in the league.

 

Although the team didn’t excel as a whole last year, the Suns have a couple players whom they can build around moving forward. Star guard Devin Booker excelled with his development as Phoenix’s franchise player, as he increased his effective field goal and three-point percentages significantly from the year before. Booker averaged almost five assists per game last season, proving he can let the offense flow through him rather than work around him.

 

Another shining spot for this team was the impressive scoring ability of forward T.J. Warren as the team’s second option. Warren averaged almost 20 points per game last year, increasing his scoring average by more than five points per game from the previous season while maintaining a steady field goal percentage of about 50%. 

Also, Josh Jackson had a great debut season with the team, as the rookie forward averaged 13 points per game en route to an All-Rookie Second Team selection, despite a subpar defensive effort on that end of the floor.

Offseason Acquisitions

The selection of DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft was unquestionably the Phoenix Suns’ most important offseason move, albeit an easy one. Despite some buzz for European guard Luka Doncic, Ayton was, in most scout’s minds, the best prospect in the Draft, with outstanding physical tools for a player of his stature and an impressive jump shot. 

Further, Ayton proved to be a phenomenal rim protector in his lone season at Arizona, where he averaged almost two blocks per game. Unless his play drastically changes after entering the NBA (which could end up happening), Ayton looks to be a cornerstone for this organization for the foreseeable future.

 

Another vital acquisition for the Suns this offseason was not a player, but instead the team’s new head coach, Igor Kokoskov. The European coach has been an assistant in the NBA for the last 18 seasons and has experience coaching some national teams, including Georgia and Slovenia, where he currently works. 

Kokoskov, who has been involved with the Suns’ organization in the past, said that he thinks the Suns have “a good foundation” and that the fans deserve to see them on TV come playoff time, which are some high expectations considering the team’s recent lack of success on any level.

One surprising addition to the Suns’ roster this summer was former Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza, who left a championship contender to join a bottom-dwelling team in Phoenix. Ariza, who is on a one-year deal, will provide an exemplary role for the other young forwards on the roster to model. 

If Ariza brings the same role he contributed to the Rockets, he will be an efficient shooter from three and within the paint without holding the ball often, as these represent almost all the shots Ariza took last year, along with an impressive ability for creating turnovers. 

Also, as a veteran forward on a young team, Ariza could be a mentor to the aforementioned Jackson and rookie wing Mikal Bridges on how to be an efficient scorer in this league.

Trevor Ariza 2017-18 Shot ChartNbasavant.com

Speaking of Bridges, the Suns traded for the Villanova guard on draft night. While Bridges is technically a guard, it seems he’ll be playing more forward this season considering Booker is the team’s unquestioned starting shooting guard. Bridges will be expected to score efficiently from three, as he shot an exceptional 43% from deep at Villanova last year. 

Another important draft selection for the Suns next season will be French point guard Elie Okobo, who was selected with the 31st pick in the 2018 draft. Okobo will be a necessary distributor for this team, which up to this point does not have a clear option for their starting point guard. Like Bridges, Okobo can be expected to shoot efficiently, considering he shot 39% from three and 55% overall in France last season.

 

2018-19 Season Preview

Despite the addition of so many young prospects to the team’s roster this summer, there are still many questions surrounding the upcoming season. The most important one is how Warren, Ayton, and Booker will divide up their scoring load next season, considering they all averaged at least 19 points per game at their respective levels last year, which certainly won’t be attainable going forward. 

In order for these three to work in unison, Booker must become a more unselfish player, since he is the best distributor among the three and his ability to pass will open up higher quality looks for himself. However, things could get confusing if Booker is forced to miss a significant chunk of games during the regular season, as the original timetable for his offseason hand surgery projects him to return about a week after the Suns’ debut.

Another big concern for the Suns’ roster next year, as stated earlier, is their lack of a clear starting point guard. While Booker is a decent distributor up to this point, he cannot be expected to oversee this duty for the offense, as he works best as a score-first guard. It seems that Phoenix is interested in acquiring one as the third team in a potential Jimmy Butler trade. But with talks not materializing up to this point, the season approaching quickly, and the team without a long-term GM in place, don’t be surprised if this issue gets left unresolved and the Suns are forced to rely on the options they currently have.

Also, with the additions of Bridges and Ariza to the squad this summer, the Suns have four quality wings to fit in their rotation (not including Booker). It will be interesting to see how Kokoskov divides up the minutes between Jackson, Warren, Bridges, and Ariza. The team could end up playing a majority of small-ball lineups with Warren, Jackson, or Ariza all contributing at the power forward position. However, the reverse could also happen, and the team could employ bigger lineups with Booker at the point and a combination of two of the four playing wing positions. 

In addition to all the questions about the Suns’ roster and rotation heading into next season, we are unaware of the team’s identity coming off its second worst season in franchise history. Despite Kokoskov’s goal to be in the playoffs, they face an extremely tough battle for playoff seeding in the Western Conference with a young roster that, outside of Ariza and a few other bench players, has little experience with winning. It is up to Kokoskov to establish a competitive mentality from the get-go, or he could become victim to the team’s tanking ways in 2018.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

SQuiz
How many win shares did Josh Jackson have during his rookie season (2017-18)?
Created 10/13/18
  1. -0.7
  2. 1.2
  3. 3.4
  4. 5.1

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