PHOENIX — A playoff just-miss last season under a new coach and general manager had the Phoenix Suns looking ready to end their postseason drought this year.
The Suns had the core of their team returning, point guard Isaiah Thomas added to the roster and leading scorer Eric Bledsoe healthy again — plenty of reason to think they could be even better than last season's 23-game turnaround .
Instead of surging forward, the Suns took a small step back.
Plagued by inconsistent play, injuries and the aftereffects of a midseason roster turnover, Phoenix finished 39-43 this year, a nine-game drop from their first season under general manager Ryan McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek.
"It was somewhat easy that first year, everyone was on the same page, things were going well," Hornacek said on Wednesday. "This year, it was different and I think they (the players) realize to get to the next level things have got to change."
The Suns exceeded expectations last season by winning 48 games, which ratcheted up expectations this season.
Phoenix stumbled out of the gate, though, posting a losing record well into December — when the schedule was somewhat easier — and spent the rest of the season playing catch up.
The Suns made a run to put themselves in position for a playoff spot by late March, but once April rolled around, they struggled on the court and with injuries. Phoenix lost 10 of its final 11 games, its worst ending stretch since dropping 11 of 12 during the franchise's first season in 1968-69, and missed the postseason for the fifth straight season.
"When you look back, everyone points to the way the season ended, but the team got in trouble at the start of the year when the schedule wasn't as difficult as it was late," McDonough said. "It's never easy in the Western Conference, but the schedule was somewhat easier early in the season and we didn't take advantage of that."
A fluxuating roster couldn't have helped.
Over the course of the season, the Suns had 23 roster players and had five trades that sent away players who had been key contributors.
In an effort to become younger and have more salary-cap flexibility, Phoenix traded point guard Goran Dragic and his brother, Zoran, to Miami. Thomas, who never quite fit in with the Suns, was sent to Boston. Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis also were traded to Milwaukee in a three-team deal that brought Brandon Knight to the desert.
"I think some of the trades caught us by surprise more so than anything and once they happened, we tried, but we had injuries that play key roles and a lot of minutes," Suns guard Archie Goodwin said.
The injuries came at inopportune times.
Knight, the key player in the flurry of trade-deadline deals, missed 16 of the final 17 games with a foot injury. Big man Alex Len also missed time after breaking his nose during a March 30 game.
"The end was rough, we really were decimated with injuries and that leaves a very bitter taste in our mouth, but I don't think it truly reflects where we are and the season we had," Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said. "You can point to that and all the games we lost at the buzzer, the games we lost that were close and you can come away feeling optimistic and I do, but I don't think you use any of those things as an excuse or delude yourself into thinking there isn't a lot of work to be done."
The first bit of work will be signing Knight, a restricted free agent. Knight said he wants to return and the Suns are optimistic he will but they felt the same way before negotiations with Bledsoe turned acrimonious last season.
The rest of the offseason will be spent upgrading areas where the Suns need help: size and rebounding, adding shooters to give Bledsoe and Knight kick-out options, and some veteran leadership to go with all of Phoenix's young players.
The good news for the Suns is that they have plenty of flexibility with salary-cap space and a bevy of draft picks that could be used as currency for trades.
"We're well-positioned and that's one of the things that's encouraging to me as we look forward," McDonough said. "A lot of the teams in the Western Conference, in my opinion, have pushed a lot of chips to the middle of the table to try to win now. Our time unfortunately was not now, but I think over the next couple of years we'll continue to get better and hopefully see some of those teams drop off."
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