VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – The 2015-16 season was one from hell for the Phoenix Suns.
A team-record losing streak, a near-last place Western Conference finish for a once-proud franchise (only the woeful LaLaLand Lakers finished below them), injuries to key players, embarrassing on-court tantrums, locker room hissy-fits by malcontents, the team owner blasting some of his players as spoiled millennials, the scapegoating and firing of their coach, formerly a Suns’ legend as a performer.
And on and on.
Got the picture?
The Devil must like operating in hot-as-Hades Phoenix because it reminds him of home or something.
He sure took care of biz in The Valley of the Sun last campaign.
But, strangely, all of those events that transpired may have led to the Phoenix Suns’ deliverance.
In the form of the emergence of then-19 year old Devin Booker, a deadeye shooting guard that you can build a team around.
And the eventual development of team cohesion, once Suns ne’r-do-wells were jettisoned.
When the 200-cm Booker, fresh out of Kentucky, got his chance as a starter, he flashed team centerpiece-type skills while dropping in 13.8 points a game.
A great outfit can’t be constructed around a backcourt performer, you say?
Gotta be a do-it-all super-stud like LeBron James, or Michael Jordan.
Does the name Stephen Curry ring a bell?
And you feel the second-half bonding created on the Suns is overrated?
Think again and this time think Golden State Warriors-type togetherness.
To understand how this potential Suns rising came about, a little backtracking into the darkness before the dawn is in order.
Let’s address the Devil’s doings in Phoenix one by one.
The Suns lost 13 straight contests in the early going and finished 23-59 overall. Quite a comedown for a franchise that once made 13 consecutive playoff appearances.
But there were several contributing factors that led to the Suns’ colossal collapse.
For one, key first-half injuries, including one to the knee of their excellent point guard Eric Bledsoe. Losing your backcourt catalyst would hurt any ball club.
Then there was team chemistry — or rather a lack of it.
In the summer of 2015, power forward Marcus Morris was traded to the Detroit Pistons. This led his twin brother Markieff to go into full foot-stomping tantrum mode, like a petulant 5-year-old.
Seems the twins had played together their entire lives, first in high school and then in college at Kansas before eventually ending up on the same NBA team.
Morris’ antics included sulking, indifferent play and refusal to be coached. On one disgraceful occasion, during a game he threw a towel at Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, while in a timeout team huddle.
Such Suns antics led team owner Robert Sarver, to blast Morris and others on the club as clueless, spoiled millennials (earning a big hear, hear! from MAS).
Not long after, Markieff, too, was sent packing, traded away.
Hornacek, a beloved former Suns player, appeared to have lost control of his team and Sarver reluctantly replaced him with his assistant Earl Watson.
But it’s always darkest just before dawn.
The injury to Bledsoe opened the door for Booker to prove himself as a starting guard.
And the roster changes ended up improving ball-club camaraderie.
Result: The Suns had an extended late-season stretch in which they played near .500 ball, which may not sound like much but when you consider what had transpired earlier in the campaign, well . . .
Booker’s play was so strong in the second half of last season that he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.
He brought the same deadly outside shot he displayed at Kentucky after becoming a Suns regular.
Devin even filled in some for Bledsoe at the point. If MAS was surprised by his considerable ball-handling skills, he shouldn’t have been.
“My whole life I’ve tried to be fundamentally sound at everything,” Booker told MAS. “I try to adapt to my team and give it what it needs.”
“At Kentucky, I was there to space the floor for Karl-Anthony Towns (All-American Wildcat center and NBA Rookie of the Year with Minnesota last season),” he said of his pop-a-shot usage at UK.
“I hadn’t run the point since high school, it felt good.”
“(Booker) has such a high basketball IQ for a young player,” veteran Suns center Tyson Chandler revealed to MAS. “He takes advice well and responds well.
“If he tries to implement the things he’s taught, you know he’s got a shot (at greatness).”
Added Earl Watson, interim head coach last season before being given the job permanently:
“He’s only 19 (now 20, as of last week) but he plays the game the right way.
“It’s not always that you shoot (well) but also that you move the ball, find the right person.”
That type of Watson-think played a big part in the team’s attitude adjustment, says Chandler.
“Coach has done a great job of establishing his type of basketball, his type of mentality,” Tyson offered.
Explained Watson: “You have to accept accountability and you need to stay together as a group. No matter what, things will eventually change.”
Though maybe not right away.
Phoenix is off to just a 3-8 start in the early going this season. Watson, however, is undismayed.
“We understand we’ve played three of the top four teams in the NBA,” he reasoned. “So the sample size is too soon to judge.”
Indeed, the Suns have lost in overtime to Oklahoma City, twice to Golden State (after leading late in one of those contests) and the Los Angeles Clippers. Losses to those teams a year ago were blowouts.
Booker, meanwhile leads Phoenix in scoring at 20.2 points per game.
Devin scored 38 and 39 in back-to-back contests, becoming the first Sun to score at least 38 points in consecutive outings since Tom Chambers turned the trick in the 1989-90 season.
Booker also has a 34-point game to his credit this season.
“It’s a process,” Watson emphasized to MAS, “and we embrace that. What’s important is that we love our family and we’re doing everything together.
“We know we’re going to get better,” Watson offered. “We believe we can end up in the top eight (in the Western Conference) easily.”
These days, that’s not just a brilliant sun illuminating the Phoenix horizon, it’s bright hoops hope as well.
The Devil be damned.
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