When the Phoenix Suns began the season in record-setting defeat and fell to 0-3 with another loss in excess of 40 points, it honestly felt like they may not win four games until the calendar turned to 2018.
Yet, here we are, two weeks later, and the Suns are 4-4, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets in a playoff race they will surely lose. But still, it’s a wonder what canning your coach and sending a malcontented star player home can do for a young NBA roster in need of some direction.
“I remember in Chicago one year we started off like 4-9, and me and Kirk Hinrich were walking out of this building and I told him we were going to make the playoffs just because we were playing the right way,” said 35-year-old Tyson Chandler, the oldest member of the Suns rotation by eight years, via the Arizona Republic. “I’m not jumping ahead of myself and saying that here, that’s not where I’m going. But what I’m saying is we started that poorly and we started playing the right way, and it clicked.
“I’m not putting that on this young team. I’m just saying we’re playing the right way. That is where we are taking a step in the right direction.”
From a roster-building standpoint, removing Eric Bledsoe from a Phoenix mix of not-quite-ready lottery picks and past-their-prime veterans that was already without rotational players Brandon Knight and Alan Williams, whose recent knee surgeries will cost them all or part of the season, and handing the keys to 27-year-old D-League point guard Mike James seemed like a hell of a way to tank.
Throw in the firing of Earl Watson, who the Suns had enough faith in to steer them through training camp and the first week of the season before realizing they made a mistake, and that seemed like a recipe for another high lottery pick to throw in with a handful of others who have no idea how to win.
Then, in stepped Jay Triano, a basketball lifer who served as a Canadian college and national team coach before making his way in the NBA. He concedes he’s more suited as an assistant than a head coach, if only because his time commitment to the media would be better spent developing players.
Since Bledsoe fired off that “I Don’t wanna be here” tweet, Watson was fired an hour later and the starting point guard joined his coach on his way out of the building soon after, Phoenix is 4-1. Almost every young player has flourished in the breath of fresh air that follows a collective exhale, and that was never more evident than on Wednesday, when T.J. Warren went off for 40 points and the Suns erased a 22-point deficit to drop the Washington Wizards, 122-116, for their fourth win in five games.
After 122-116 loss, #Wizards coach Scott Brooks harps on T.J. Warren's 40-point career night.
“We couldn’t stop the guy.”
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) November 2, 2017
Brooks on T.J. Warren: "If it was a five-quarter game he would’ve had 55.”
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) November 2, 2017
Warren had only ever even reached reached 30 points once before, around this time in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year. Still, the Suns saw enough potential in the 24-year-old to reward him with a four-year, $50 million extension over the summer, and he’s rewarding them for that faith now, averaging 20.6 points on 56.8 percent shooting and 7.4 rebounds over this current five-game stretch.
Warren’s 40-point, 10-rebound effort on 22 shots Wednesday has been matched only by Amar’e Stoudemire and Cedric Ceballos among under-25 Suns. Project that list across the league, and you’ll find All-Stars aplenty. Before Aaron Gordon did it last week, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin were the only others this decade to be so efficient in a 40-point double-double before turning 25. Warren would be a revelation on his own, but he’s not the only one.
• Devin Booker (32.9 minutes): 16.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists
• T.J. Warren (29.5 minutes): 13.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 blocks/steals
• Mike James (19.0 minutes): 11.7 points, 2.7 assists, 1.7 rebounds
• Tyler Ulis (11.2 minutes): 1.5 points, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals
• Marquese Chriss (15.2 minutes): 4.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists
• Josh Jackson (28.1 minutes): 11.7 points, 1.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals
• Alex Len (22.8 minutes): 9.5 points, 7.0 rebounds
• Dragan Bender (19.7 minutes): 2.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.0 blocks
• Devin Booker (33.1 minutes): 25.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists
• T.J. Warren (27.8 minutes): 20.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks/steals
• Mike James (26.7 minutes): 13.2 points, 4.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds
• Tyler Ulis (21.2 minutes): 10.2 points, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals
• Marquese Chriss (23.7 minutes): 8.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists
• Josh Jackson (20.6 minutes): 8.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals
• Alex Len (21.9 minutes): 8.4 points, 9.6 rebounds
• Dragan Bender (22.6 minutes): 6.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks
The overnight improvement of Booker, Warren, Ulis, Chriss and Bender is not such a great reflection on Watson or Bledsoe’s ability to run a team, at least one in development, but it is representative of what talent can achieve when a coach harps on work ethic and a starting point guard embodies it.
Just hear Triano out, via The Step Back’s Jared Dubin:
“Work ethic,” he said, when asked what he wants the identity of his young team to be. “Work ethic and the fact that you have to play both ends of the floor. We haven’t been very good in defensive transition. We haven’t been very good at the defensive end in general. That work ethic translates to easier things offensively and our guys will figure that out.”
Simple enough, and yet not simple enough for the Suns to figure out in the Watson and Bledsoe era.
In no world is James a better player than Bledsoe, but in the NBA, where even a LeBron James-led team can’t win without trying, an uninspired team will get trampled. The Suns at least know what they need to do to stay in the race now, even if nobody expects this 4-1 run to continue at this pace. (Phoenix, somehow, is still being outscored by 4.1 points per 100 possessions over the last five games.)
Yup, the same Suns who were neither working nor progressing are now at least a work in progress.
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