After awful season, Suns may well retain Watson as coach

PHOENIX (AP) For the sixth season in a row, the Phoenix Suns did not make the playoffs.

That's the longest stretch of futility for a franchise that for so many years was a postseason fixture. Injuries, the disruptive presence of Markieff Morris and a roster low on talent conspired to create a team that went 23-59, the second-worst record in Suns history. Only Phoenix's inaugural season of 1968-69 was worse (16-66).

At the top of the priority list this offseason will be finding a coach. Don't be surprised if 36-year-old interim coach Earl Watson gets the job.

''I think what he's done over the past couple of months as interim head coach has only helped enhance his candidacy for the job,'' Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. ''I'm not going to say he's the front-runner or anything like that but there's nobody else ahead of him at this point. He's done well to keep himself at least in the lead pack.''

Watson played 13 years in the NBA but his only coaching experience before this season was as an assistant for San Antonio's NBA Development League team. He was promoted from assistant coach to interim head coach when Jeff Hornacek was fired on Feb. 1.

It was not a job brimming with possibilities.

''Whether you're a first-year coach or whatever your years are in this league,'' Watson said, ''it's really difficult to change emotions, attitudes and mindset of an NBA team in a losing season.''

Whoever becomes coach for next season will face daunting challenges.

BIGGEST NEED: The Suns need talent everywhere except probably at guard. They could use front-line scoring, preferably from a veteran player or two.

They also need to stay healthy. Guard Eric Bledsoe blew out his knee in February, forward T.J. Warren went down with a season-ending knee injury and guard Brandon Knight dealt with injuries throughout the season before undergoing sports hernia surgery.

THE GOOD NEWS: The bright spot in the midst of this mess of a season was dynamic rookie guard Devin Booker.

The 19-year-old first-round draft pick out of Kentucky emerged as one of the NBA's best rookies, not just as a scorer but as a playmaker and defender.

He became the fourth-youngest player to score 1,000 points in a season. Only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant were younger. He had six 30-point games.

''I got the opportunity that most rookies don't get,'' Booker said. ''I wanted to take full advantage of that.''

The other good news: The Suns have two high first-round picks and $20 million to $30 million in salary cap space.

THE BAD NEWS: The Suns remain in search of a ''franchise'' veteran player, and those are hard to find. Until they get one, or develop one or two from within - which takes a long time - it's hard to see the team growing to contend with the powers in the Western Conference in the foreseeable future.

GUARD GLUT: And the team, as has been the case each of the last few years, has a glut of guards.

Booker has the makings of the charismatic face of the franchise, and he needs to play - a lot. But what to do with the two point guards? Bledsoe returns but has had three major knee surgeries in his still-young career. Then there's Knight, who signed a big contract last offseason and has no intention of accepting a role of first player off the bench.

''I see my role being exactly the same,'' he said repeatedly on Thursday.

And the Suns may bring yet another young, talented guard, Bogdan Bogdanovic, from Europe for next season.

JUDGING WATSON: Watson said he was told he would not be judged on wins and losses. His job included rehabilitating Morris' attitude and play to make him more attractive to other teams. Morris was sent to Washington at the trade deadline in a deal that landed Phoenix the Wizards' first-round draft pick.

Watson also was expected to develop the young players on the team, particularly Booker and Alex Len, and improve the team's attitude ''from discouraged to loving the opportunity,'' he said.

''There was a lot going on but I think our staff executed everything that was asked of us to do,'' Watson said, ''and we mixed in a little winning also.''

The players have made it clear they want Watson back.

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