VIDEO: The Phoenix Suns shook up their coaching roster
By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com
The Phoenix Suns hit a new low point on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) by losing to the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, 111-104. It marked Phoenix’s fourth straight loss, and Philly’s second win of the season.
Adding injury to insult, point guard Eric Bledsoe suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee after eight minutes of action. He underwent successful surgery, and although initial reports indicated he’d be out approximately six weeks, the Suns officially announced Tuesday that Bledsoe will miss the remainder of the season.
Of course, Bledsoe’s injury is just the latest black mark on Phoenix’s laundry list of problems — issues that began to surface long before its star was felled to the sidelines. The frustrations prompted the organization’s front office to sever ties with assistant coaches Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who led the team to an entirely unexpected 48-34 record in his first season, remains on the hot seat as his Suns are 13 games under .500 combined in the two seasons since.
So, what happened? How did the franchise go from Western Conference upstart to hitting rock bottom?
The Markieff conundrum
While in pursuit of free-agent power forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the offseason – who was reportedly deciding between Phoenix and San Antonio – the Suns opted to trade Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons. The salary dump freed up cap space necessary to chase the former Texas Longhorn, but Aldridge ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. That move prompted a tailspin in the desert. Up-and-coming power forward Markieff Morris was incensed at the organization for trading his twin brother, Marcus. He even tweeted that his basketball future would not include the colors purple and orange.
Morris eventually backtracked from the tone he struck throughout the summer on Suns media day, saying, “I want to be here,” per AZCentral’s Paul Coro.
With that, it seemed the Morris drama had ended, but he still needed to prove his worth on the court. Through the early stages of 2015-16, the former Kansas Jayhawk has failed miserably to do so.
Morris’ player efficiency rating has tanked all the way down to the single digits – a career-worst 9.2. That PER ranks Morris No. 280 out of 324 qualified players, one slot ahead of teammate P.J. Tucker (Phoenix’s starting small forward).
After evolving into a reliable offensive option who could knock down tough shots from a variety of distances, Morris has regressed dramatically as a scorer.
Unless he’s taking shots at the rim, Morris hasn’t even been able to crack 35 percent shooting from any distance. He’s shooting a woeful 37.9 percent overall, the worst mark of his career.
On top of the ghastly production, Morris was recently suspended two games by the Suns for throwing a towel in the direction of Hornacek. Though the towel toss was deemed “conduct detrimental to the team,” you could argue the poor shooting from Morris has been just as damaging throughout the campaign.
It appears from the outside that the best course of action for both parties is to part ways via trade. At this point, however, Morris’ trade value has diminished to the point where Phoenix would be lucky to get any sort of worthwhile return.
Chandler an ill fit
One of the splashy moves Phoenix made this offseason was signing former Kia Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal. For a team with a lengthy track record of not possessing reliable rim protection, this was a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Chandler has been a shell of his former self.
In a truly incredible development, Phoenix’s opponents have been far superior offensively when Chandler plays. They score a whopping 13.1 points more per 100 possessions when the 7-foot-1 skyscraper is playing.
And if Chandler isn’t a net positive on defense, there’s virtually no reason for Hornacek to give him added minutes as Chandler has been a non-factor on offense.
Phoenix’s offense is better across the board when Chandler sits. From effective field goal percentage to offensive rating, the Suns are superior scorers without Chandler. They even boast a better rebound rate without him.
Historically, the big man has been a valuable pick-and-roll partner — diving to the hoop off screens and slamming home alley-oops. But without the proper spacing in Phoenix’s offense, defenses simply collapse to prevent those lobs.
In short, Chandler has fit like a square peg in a round hole thus far – a terrible development, because he’ll have three years and approximately $40 million left on his contract after 2015-16.
Bledsoe’s health an issue, too
Bledsoe being ruled out for the remainder of the season is a huge blow to the Suns’ hopes. Although Phoenix was likely going nowhere this season with or without Bledsoe, losing his two-way, on-court impact still stings.
In addition to ranking within the top 10 among all point guards by PER, Bledsoe was one of just four players in the league to average at least 20 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals per contest.
By a multitude of measures, Bledsoe was building a rep as one of the best floor generals in the league.
Given that Bledsoe already underwent a meniscus surgery on his other knee back in 2014, the Suns have to be concerned about his future. If health problems continue to plague Bledsoe, Phoenix will have much bigger concerns than fixing team chemistry in 2015-16.
Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.