Now That Earl Watson is Gone, Suns Need to Look Inward for Progress

Now that Watson is gone, what else needs to change for the Suns to truly compete?
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It’s running on four seasons now that the Suns have quietly become one of the biggest disasters in the NBA. Sunday’s firing of Earl Watson may provide some temporary relief, but it won’t cure what ills Phoenix. From top to bottom, this organization is in disarray, and Watson was only one issue among many.

It wasn’t Watson who added the wrong players to a 48-win team, then traded away two guards who’ve since found success in the East. It wasn’t Watson who signed an aging, injury-prone Tyson Chandler to a four-year deal, only two years after drafting Alex Len with the No. 5 pick. It wasn’t Watson who has held on to Eric Bledsoe despite months of trade rumors, wasting Bledsoe’s prime as the team tanks. The list of personnel blunders goes on and on, and the result is an extremely young team that’s clearly playing for the lottery.

That’s not to say Watson is blameless. He was a somewhat controversial hire when he was promoted to head coach in 2016. The previous season, Watson wasn’t successful during an interim stint after Jeff Hornacek’s firing. Beyond that, he had very little coaching experience, having served as an NBA assistant for less than a year prior to being given the interim job.

Watson did little to elevate the talent on his roster, and it was difficult to see what progress, if any, players made under his stewardship. Devin Booker still struggles outside of scoring. And guys like Brandon Knight and Alex Len haven’t exactly made the leap. Perhaps management wanted Watson to grow along with his young players. But the Suns looked listless to start this season, and even teams blatantly tanking shouldn’t look so disinterested—the Sixers, for example, have always played hard for Brett Brown.

A new coach could briefly inspire some improvement, though whoever the Suns end up hiring will need to be ready to endure losing—as will the front office. General manager Ryan McDonough’s name will certainly have to be on the hot seat now, as owner Robert Sarver is running out of scapegoats. McDonough constructed the 48-win team in 2014, but he’s missed on most decisions since then. How much longer do you hold on the general manager who traded away Isaiah Thomas, alienated Bledsoe and trusted Watson in the first place?

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The Suns are aimless. Outside of Booker, their prospects are either fizzling or still years away. Dragan Bender hardly played his rookie year and he hasn’t shown much in three games this season. For now, Len is maybe a rotation piece, nothing more. And Marquese Chriss is interesting, but he’s also struggling to find playing time on a team that should be OK piling up losses.

There’s no easy way out of this hole for Phoenix, unless the desert unexpectedly becomes a free-agent hotbed next summer. There are still some sensible moves to be made, however. First, trade Bledsoe, who clearly wants out, and whose trade value only diminishes the longer he’s associated with the franchise. Bledsoe is a good player, and he could fetch a decent return to help aid the rebuild. Second, play the young guys. That means giving Bender and Chriss more minutes. The Suns will have to take their lumps, but at least they’ll find out what they have in their prospects. And lastly, whoever is hired as coach needs to be someone who will command the respect of his players, as well as someone who the franchise will be committed to throughout the length of the rebuilding process.

While disasters in Sacramento (maybe turning around!) and New York (still trending downward) were at least fun to watch, the Suns have been both bad and bland. A new coach may bring in a little bit of spice, but Phoenix still doesn’t have the roster to realistically compete in a loaded conference. Soon, those in charge of putting together the roster could face the same fate as Watson if they can’t find the right path for the franchise. If there’s a silver lining for Suns fans, it’s that the only way to look right now is up.