Cleveland fans, you know a thing or two about what happens to a franchise after parting ways with an iconic star, don’t you? You went through all of the steps: the roster gut, the accumulation of talent, the awkward adolescent period of figuring out which talents will blossom and anchor your franchise for its next incarnation and which ones will wind up as talking points at the press conference announcing your new GM or coach has received le boot. Sure, you can argue that the Cavaliers are still smack dab in the middle of their awkward period but, by now, you can recognize the process enough to cast your gaze out west and see the next franchise trying to answer the age old question of “Who the heck are we without Player X?” That’s right, it’s Year Two of the post Steve Nash era Phoenix Suns. Let’s get excited!
Last Season: After trading Nash to the Lakers, the Suns began the period of moving on from their two-time MVP with a bevy of peculiar signings. In a poor attempt to remain relevant, Suns’ GM Lance Blanks blew most of the teams newfound financial flexibility on signing veterans Goran Dragic, Jermaine O’Neal, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley. Bringing Dragic back to Phoenix was the least disastrous of those moves, as the team’s new starting point guard averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 assists. Outside of “the Dragon,” though, Phoenix had little to feel sunny about. Reports of a toxic locker room and public complaints about the offense by center Marcin Gortat led to the mutual parting of ways between the club and head coach Alvin Gentry. Former player Lindsey Hunter was named interim coach, overlooking the more experienced assistants who remained on the Suns’ bench, and the Suns finished with just 25 wins.
What they’ve done this off-season: The Suns identified how badly their team’s culture had eroded and took steps to fix it. First, they relieved Blanks, replacing him with Ryan McDouough, the highly respected assistant GM for the Celtics. They named the popular former Sun, Jeff Hornacek, head coach and even unveiled a new logo and orange short sleeved alternate jerseys. After all, nothing says “culture change” like short sleeved alternates. Beyond that, they moved a lot of the veteran players that were ill fit for the new Phoenix reality, trading Scola and Jared Dudley and parting ways with O’Neal and Beasley. The team drafted Maryland center Alex Len and summer league stand-out, Archie Goodwin in the first round and acquired talented point guard Eric Bledsoe in a trade with the Clippers. They also wisely flipped veteran Caron Butler to Milwaukee to avoid any more of the “he’s good enough that we have to play him, but not good enough at this stage of his career that he’ll win us a lot of games” that the club was overflowing with last year.
How they match up with the Cavs: Cavs fans, you can breath a sigh of relief. There is now officially a clear level of quality below your team. Phoenix, while made up of actual NBA players, will not be a very good team this year. Beyond Gortat (whose expiring deal is likely to be traded at some point this season to clear the way for Len), Dragic and Bledsoe (yes, the team’s two best players play the same position) the team is filled with youth and question marks that extend all the way down the bench to Hornacek, a rookie coach. There may be some pieces in place in Phoenix now, but it will really take this season (and, probably, the next two) to see if those pieces will do the job of righting the ship. The Cavs, I’ll remind you, have all-stars at point guard and (with every possible finger crossed) center, some solid role playing veterans, and young players further along in their development than their counterparts in orange. This should be two wins for the Cavs (and, frankly, for most teams in the league) this year.
The match-up to watch: I’ll give you two. Though they likely won’t be matched up directly against one another, you have to look at Len’s performance versus that of Cavs rookie Anthony Bennett. Remember, Len was one of the players rumored to be in the mix for the Cavs at number one. The two top-five picks will be on the floor at the same time, with both players initially being backups, and which player impacts the game more off the bench will be an intriguing wrinkle to the game. Otherwise, the backcourt will have the most interesting battle with Kyrie Irving against Bledsoe. While Irving will likely guard Dragic, with the newly cut Dion Waiters on Bledsoe, on offense, look for the Suns to try to blanket Irving with the stronger, freakishly athletic former Clipper. When hounded by Bledsoe, will Irving still be able to control the game?