Devin Booker was napping when an earthquake struck the Suns. At 1:44 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on Oct. 22, Eric Bledsoe sent his now-infamous tweet about wanting out of either Phoenix, or a hair salon — or, hell, maybe both. Sixty-eight minutes later, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news: The Suns had fired Earl Watson, their head coach. Booker was still sleeping.
“I woke up,” he says, “to everything. It was crazy.”
Meanwhile, Ryan McDonough’s phone was buzzing constantly, as tends to happen when you are the general manager of a team embroiled in multiple and intertwined controversies. One notification alarmed him: a voicemail from Jeff Schwartz, the New York-based power agent who represents Tyson Chandler. “Given the way our season had started,” McDonough says, “it wouldn’t have been shocking if Tyson wanted to be moved.”
Schwartz delivered the opposite message, the two recall: “Tyson is fine.” He likes Phoenix, Schwartz told McDonough, and enjoys mentoring the young Suns. “It was a breath of fresh air,” McDonough says.
Eight days later, at halftime in Washington with the Suns down by 12, Jay Triano, Phoenix’s interim head coach, was striding down a hallway toward the locker room to address the team when he heard Chandler screaming. “That is what a playoff team looks like!” Chandler yelled at his teammates, according to Booker, Triano, and others. “We are getting punked!” He then picked up a marker, and diagrammed Phoenix’s first-half defensive screw-ups on a whiteboard.
“Yeah, there were some words said that night,” says Chandler. “Wherever I’m at, no matter the situation, I do my job.”
The Suns rallied to win, and they are 4-5 with a blessedly normal-ish (bad) point differential since those humiliating first three games. That counts as stability for a team that has been grasping wildly for it since Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee issues and the Steve Nash trade brought the official denouement of the Seven Seconds or Less era.
Triano spoke to Nash on the phone recently about what to do with his struggling young players — almost a college team competing in the NBA. Nash directed the talk away from basketball. He sums up his advice this way via email: “There is no true development without competitiveness and resilience. Without those, it’s just window dressing.” That is what Triano will focus on in teaching Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, and the rest: play hard, run back on defense, grasp the ground-level fundamentals of NBA help defense — or come out of the game.
“It can’t be just skills,” Triano says, reconstructing his conversation with Nash. Some coaches, including Terry Stotts, Triano’s boss for four years in Portland, sometimes use cards outlining their playing rotation. Triano hasn’t gotten that far, and he’s not sure he will all season. One rule governs: compete or sit.
By stripping down to the basics, the Suns hope to round out Booker’s game, and unearth whatever potential exists within Chriss, Bender, and Jackson — three top-eight picks who, along with another high pick in this draft, will largely determine whether the Suns emerge from chaos with the foundation of a winning team. The next phase of the franchise is at stake.
“That’s the future of our team,” McDonough says. “We hope they are the core of our team for 10 years.”
The whirlwind of moves is remarkable.
Phoenix bungled free agency in 2011 and 2012 before hiring McDonough as GM and then Jeff Hornacek as coach ahead of the 2013-14 season. McDonough offloaded Marcin Gortat for a future first-round pick just days before that season in an attempt to tank — the first time Robert Sarver, the Suns’ impatient (by his own admission) and meddlesome owner had green lit a true rebuild.
They zoomed to 48 wins instead behind an All-NBA season from Goran Dragic; they barely missed the playoffs in one of the toughest conference races in NBA history. In the summer of 2014, they tripled down on point guards, nabbing Isaiah Thomas in a sign-and-trade for almost nothing, on a bargain deal, a third point guard to play alongside Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
None of the three were happy, a problem the Suns should have foreseen, even if snagging Thomas at that price was irresistible. Phoenix created a point guard version of the Jahlil Okafor–Nerlens Noel–Joel Embiid problem that would flummox Philadelphia later. Phoenix ended up trading at least two from a position of weakness.
Dragic requested a trade in February 2015. He was in the final year of his contract, and several suitors recoiled at giving up assets for a guy who could walk in five months. The Suns somehow extracted two first-round picks from Miami in exchange for Dragic: a top-7 protected pick in the 2018 draft (unprotected in 2019) that looks a bit more enticing today with Miami at 5-6, and an unprotected pick in 2021. You can knock Phoenix for lots of things, but that is a nice haul for a non-All-Star point guard with both feet out the door.
The possibility of stopping right there, in the winter of 2015 with those two extra picks, haunts the Suns. They could have stood pat and gone forward with Thomas, Bledsoe, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Alex Len (the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft, and McDonough’s first pick as GM), TJ Warren (the 14th pick in 2014), a pick in the upcoming 2015 draft, boundless cap flexibility, and most promising of all, a lightly protected pick from the Lakers — via the Nash trade — that was among the jewels of the league.
That isn’t a golden ticket to 55 wins. Len has been a disappointment considering he went five spots above CJ McCollum, 10 above Giannis Antetokounmpo, and 22 above Rudy Gobert. Every team has draft regrets like that. Half the league missed on Antetokounmpo. Damn near the entirety of it passed on Gobert.
But it’s a nice foundation of trade chips, veterans, and prospects. For a moment, the Suns could have lived the dream: compete for the playoffs now, with a cupboard stocked for tomorrow. Straddling both paths at the same time is perhaps the hardest team-building challenge in sports. Phoenix had done it.
The Suns opted out of the scenario in a series of confusing moves that upended everything. Minutes after flipping Dragic, they dealt Thomas to Boston in exchange for a low first-round pick, and then surrendered the Lakers pick for Brandon Knight. It was puzzling then, or at least incredibly high risk. It has morphed into the sort of fork-in-the-road moment that can destabilize a franchise for years.
McDonough has already said he would like a “mulligan” for the Thomas deal. “It is a deal,” he says, “that we get criticized for.”
It’s hard to remember now, but the majority of NBA insiders back then viewed the Lakers as a free agency juggernaut that might sign their way back to mediocrity in 2015-16 — devaluing the pick Phoenix traded. They struck out, repeatedly and sometimes embarrassingly, before Jeanie Buss ordered a regime change. The pick still hasn’t conveyed; it is unprotected now, and will go in this draft to either Philadelphia or Boston. It was a crown jewel after all.
Five months after those trades, nudged on by an owner intoxicated by that 48-win season and who badly wanted to end Phoenix’s playoff drought, the Suns signed Chandler, then almost 33, to a four-year, $52 million contract. They then used Chandler as bait for LaMarcus Aldridge. “I am not a real patient person,” Sarver told Grantland that summer.
To crack open space for Aldridge, Phoenix dumped Marcus Morris onto the Pistons. They would likely have moved Markieff Morris then, too, had Aldridge come, but dealing Marcus away fractured their relationship with Markieff. Phoenix traded him to Washington for a first-round pick the next season. They ended up trading that pick — plus two other assets — to move up and draft Chriss.
In what felt like a flash, almost all of Phoenix’s prime-aged talent aside from Bledsoe and Knight was gone.
Drafting Booker is the one question mark in comparing those two scenarios. In that first scenario — in which the Suns keep Thomas, and hit the brakes after the Dragic deal — they may not have picked high enough to nab Booker 13th in 2015. As Thomas lifted Boston into the playoffs, the Suns sunk without him from 29-25 at the trade deadline to 39-43 — and jumped up in the draft order. No first-rounder taken after Booker that year has anything like his upside. That first scenario might include Cameron Payne instead of Booker.
It’s still better than where Phoenix is today. They would have been able to pivot in almost any direction from a position of strength.
They have no starter-level point guard, and no prospect who might turn into one. They have to make another coaching decision after Watson’s departure. Phoenix looked unprepared and unmotivated to start the season. The locker room was off before the opening debacle against Portland, Booker recalls. “We all just sat there with our headphones on,” Booker says. “You can feel the energy of a locker room before a game, and we didn’t have it. How is our energy not there in the first game?”
Watson started Jackson at power forward. Effort waned. Players whispered that Watson, always encouraging, seemed to let guys stay on the floor through too many mistakes. They wondered about accountability, sources say, and that has become a buzzword up and down the organization under Triano. (Watson declined comment.)
Triano has nothing but good things to say about Watson, and insists he shares in the blame for the 0-3 start. “You feel partially responsible,” he says. “I was the lead assistant.” The team’s leaders also harbor no ill will toward Bledsoe, and insist his trade request — an open secret within the team — did not sap morale. “Eric’s tension wasn’t with the players,” Booker says. “That’s one of my dearest friends.”
But things are different now. Jackson is coming off the bench and playing at small forward. “I thought we did Josh a bit of a disservice playing him at [power forward] when he has only played [small forward], and we think his future in the NBA is there,” Triano says.
Triano tweaked the scheme on defense, and instituted clear, simple rules for help defenders: one foot at the edge of the paint, a step or two further than Watson permitted. (Watson wanted to erase corner 3s, and so far, the Suns are allowing the third fewest as a share of opponent attempts, per Cleaning The Glass.) Phoenix is running more varied plays on offense.
Triano will not tolerate a lack of effort, particularly from Chriss, who sulked occasionally when he didn’t get the ball during those first three losses and was slow getting back on defense. “When you don’t play with energy, you are going to come out,” Triano says. “And when he pouts, we are going to take him out and refocus him. He is going to be a great player. He just has to play the right way.”
(Phoenix has been pleased with Triano. He has the chance to earn the job on a full-time basis, McDonough says.)
The Suns need Chriss, Bender, and Jackson to pop. They represent the dividends from the wild spasm of moves in 2015. If they are busts, it is a disaster. If they are merely solid, the Suns could be the next Magic — a rebuild without a tentpole star. That is a long, uncertain journey.
The Suns hope Booker is that star. Warren continues to blossom as a scorer, though his 3-point shot and playmaking have stalled. Phoenix ranks dead last in assist rate after finishing 29th last season, per NBA.com.
Both Warren and Booker have worked harder on defense this season, skittering over screens, moving their feet, and spreading their arms wide. They’re still young, and defense isn’t their strong suit. They both can get a little hazy off the ball:
Every Phoenix game is dotted with errors of commission typical of young players — miscommunication, botched double teams, multiple players rushing at one shooter:
With Chandler and Len — playing with a new aggression this season, by the way — dropping way back against pick-and-rolls, the Suns are toast when their guards get stuck on screens:
Warren and Booker probably top out as average defenders (or a little worse) in their primes. That impacts the sorts of players Phoenix can place around them. A lot of league insiders dismissed the Suns as a Kyrie Irving destination, wondering how a team starting Irving and Booker would stop anyone.
But Booker can become an offensive superstar, and he will look better someday on a good team, when he doesn’t have to carry so much of the ball-handling load. He is by far the best shooter in Phoenix’s frisky new starting lineup; when he runs a pick-and-roll, the defense scrunches in off of everyone else — vaporizing driving lanes:
Someday, he will spend some time spacing the floor for someone else. He also understands that for now, the Suns need better playmaking from him. In summer pickup games, Booker sometimes challenges himself by focusing only on passing. He didn’t sling lasers like this earlier in his career:
“I was one-dimensional,” Booker says. “I could only see the pocket pass. Now I’m seeing both sides of the floor.”
He should also jack more 3s, and fewer midrangers. He has the goods to drill Curry-esque, shimmying, side-stepping bombs over big guys who switch onto him:
Eventually shifting him off the ball more will also unlock his potential as a screen-setter in two-man dances the Warriors have mastered:
Perhaps Phoenix can find that player in the next draft. It’s too early to say what Jackson is. Scouts love his tenacity, and he should be a plus wing defender soon. Teams ignore him on the perimeter, but Jackson hasn’t been shy heaving funky, herky-jerky 3s. He’s shooting 35.5 percent from deep, and the Suns are optimistic he will make teams pay for leaving him open.
He has even shown some nascent pick-and-roll craft:
That leaves the kiddo big man mysteries: Bender and the hyper-athletic Chriss. Chriss has spent most of his brief career looking out of sorts. That stems partly from an awkward fit on offense with Chandler. Both are rim-runners, and they occasionally bump into each other down low. Chriss otherwise floats outside, honing his 3-point shot. He doesn’t have much of an off-the-bounce game yet.
“He’s stuck in no man’s land a bit right now, in terms of going inside and out,” Triano says.
Chriss has the hops to be a fearsome rim protector on defense, but his feel lags miles behind his athleticism. He leaps at every pump fake, fouls the crap out of everyone, and is a hair slow on rotations. You can see the wheels turning.
“He’s just a little jumpy right now,” Triano says. “He wants to block every shot. It’s just a matter of how to harness that energy.”
Teams knew all of this ahead of the draft. Chriss’ raw athleticism tempted a bunch of them, anyway; Phoenix wasn’t the only team trying to trade up for him, sources say. Chriss has shown flashes of improved recognition, and Triano has installed sets that challenge him to pass on offense. “I think that’s dope,” Chriss says of the new plays.
The Suns experimented with Chriss as a small-ish center a bit last season, but it’s unclear whether he can hold up. Bigger post threats — Aldridge and Kristaps Porzingis in recent games — absolutely bulldoze him. “Playing center wasn’t my favorite,” Chriss says. “I’m a power forward.”
He can’t dish it back on the other end yet. Defenses switch pick-and-rolls involving both Chriss and Bender, daring Phoenix to post them up against little guys. “They both have to get stronger,” Triano says. “Taking a smaller guy down to the basket is going to be a big part of their development.”
Phoenix picked Bender four spots above Chriss — and three above Jamal Murray, a choice that looms larger now that Tyler Ulis and Mike James are their top two point guards. Bender was 18 when Phoenix selected him. His development was always going to be a long process.
He already has smart feet on defense:
He can keep quicker guys in front of him; in time, he and Chriss could make for a switchy power forward-center combination. Bender understands his long arms allow him to stray a bit further on help assignments — even from the strong-side corner, usually a no-no — and recover in time:
On offense, Bender will probably be a complementary player who spots up, cans enough 3s, and blows by guys rushing to close out on him. He’s a good passer already, with some quirky runners in his bag.
The 3-point shot hasn’t come yet, but Bender is a teenager. Give it time. It’s just unclear how dynamic he can be creating with the ball. He’s not an explosive athlete.
It’s hard to know exactly what these guys will become. They have the combined age of one Vince Carter. But you rebuild for stars. Most stars — not all, but most — reveal themselves early, in at least one skill. If you had to predict right now whether either Chriss or Bender would make two or more All-Star Games in their respective careers, the safer choice is probably “no” for both of them.
Phoenix isn’t ready to have that discussion yet. The Suns are happy the melodramas are behind them, and they are ready to work.
“We’re moving on now,” Booker says. “It feels good.”