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Suns stuck as West bottom-feeders despite high picks, but here’s how they can finally return to respectability

It was the 2009-10 season and the Phoenix Suns were a Western Conference powerhouse. Perennial All-Stars Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were once again leading a team to a top-3 finish in the conference. Though they ended up losing to the Lakers in the conference finals, everything was on an upward trend; then disaster began.

At the onset of the 2010 offseason, Stoudemire signed with the New York Knicks, seeking to play in a larger market. Two years after, Nash was traded to the rival Lakers as the signal of an organizational rebuild. The only issue is that eight years later, that rebuild is still in full effect. Phoenix has endured six coaching changes since 2010 and still has not found much success.

With a quarter of the NBA season already in the books, the youthful Suns have been unexpectedly disappointing. Fresh off getting the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, things seemingly have gotten worse. Poor defense, unfortunate injuries and an all-around lack of commitment has left Phoenix as the only team in the Western Conference with a single-digit win column (4-24).

On Dec. 2, things became even more bleak as they lost star Devin Booker to a hamstring injury. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as his team is currently on a 10-game losing streak. The Suns rank 28th in offensive efficiency, and are slotted even worse on defense (29th). Growing pains are to be expected with young teams, but after three straight drafts with top five picks, most would expect the struggles to subside.

If things are to change, it will start with Deandre Ayton, who the Suns selected with the first overall pick this past summer. So far Ayton has been stellar for a rookie (16 PPG, 10.2 RPG) but will need to build better chemistry with his teammates to help the offense flow more efficiently. Phoenix currently sits at 29th in turnover percentage in the league (16.6), only above the Atlanta Hawks. On a team ripe with lottery picks, much is expected of the organization and they quickly need to find a structure that works.

After a Nov. 7 blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Booker lamented how his team needed to get more connected on the floor. “I think all good teams have that trust and chemistry, where they’re able to get on each other and know that it’s for a better purpose,” Booker said. “For us, I don’t think we have that right now. We’re not comfortable with each other, we don’t step on each other’s toes, we don’t push each other, and I think that’s what we need to do.”

More than a month later, the Suns’ poor play might be more a result of team structure than anything else.

A constant issue with Phoenix is its inability to distribute talent to all positions. Back in 2015, the Suns stocked up on talented point guards with Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe competing for playing time. Two of them (Thomas and Dragic) went on to become All-Stars when dealt to Eastern Conference teams. Bledsoe is the starting point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, who currently hold the second-best record in the league. None of the three was able to prosper as they should’ve with the logjam at the position.

It seems now the overstocking is happening on the wing. At present, Booker, Josh Jackson, Trevor Ariza, Troy Daniels, T.J. Warren, Jamal Crawford and rookie Mikal Bridges are all vying for time at the wing. With all of that talent at the same positions it will be difficult for everyone to make their mark, especially considering that Booker isn’t coming off the floor too often as he averages 36 minutes per game. With the lack of balance throughout the lineup, there is no room for every element of this team be seen at its best.

It’s been reported that the Suns are looking to trade Ariza once he becomes eligible on Dec.15. If they go that route, they’ll be making some much-needed headway going into 2019. That move alone won’t completely halt what’s ailing this team, but it’s progress. Maybe they look to package Ariza and one of their other wings — sans Booker and Jackson — for a player like Kent Bazemore, a great athlete who is proficient on both ends of the floor.

Even with that problem, point guard is the position where this team is lacking the most. Currently, none of the players listed at the position average more than seven points or three assists. When you have talent like Booker and Ayton, a primary distributor is a must to ensure that everyone gets the ball in the best position to be effective. Earlier in the season it was reported that Phoenix made attempts to acquire the ClippersPatrick Beverley that didn’t materialize. It’s looking more like revisiting that scenario would be a good option. The PacersDarren Collison is another sturdy guard that has been rumored to be on the move sooner than later and he seems to fit nicely with what Phoenix has assembled.

For the Suns to become a respectable team, more than anything they need to shore up their defense. According to NBA.com, Phoenix was ranked bottom five in the league in deflections, loose balls recovered and charges drawn last season. This season, their deflection rate has gone up, but they still struggle making the defensive hustle plays that change the momentum of a game. Suns coach Igor Kokoskov was a member of the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons coaching staff, and he needs to instill a similar mindset in this team if they have any hopes of impressing during the second half of the season. .

With the New Year closing in fast, Phoenix, back in action Saturday against the Wolves (9 p.m. ET — watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), needs to make some serious adjustments if it wants to be taken seriously come 2019. Currently on track to only win 16 total games this season, the Suns’ brass must decide which of these young players are keepers, and which need to be dealt for more proven players before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. 

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