Through significant changes to the roster and coaching staff, Steve Nash was the one constant that had come to define Phoenix Suns basketball since its mid-2000s renaissance. As such, Nash's departure coincided with the death of the Suns as we've known them. There is no nostalgia to cling to, no remnant to lean on and no hope for a plucky playoff repeat.
There is only a franchise in transition, and while the Suns' new era is off to an interesting start, it's hard to take anything definitive away from their changes apart from the overhaul's sheer curiosity.
For those following along at home, let's briefly recap Phoenix's eventful off-season:
- The Suns dealt Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers in a sign-and-trade arrangement, and in return scored two first-round picks (2013, 2015) and two second-round picks (2013, 2014).
- Phoenix brought back one-time Sun Goran Dragic on a four-year, $30 million deal to replace Nash, in the sense that he'll play the same position in a completely different way and anchor an entirely different team through much lower expectations.
- The Suns drafted Kendall Marshall with the 13th overall pick, both bracing for the inevitability of Nash's departure and the possibility that Dragic would sign elsewhere. As it stands, Marshall instead has the luxury of coming along slowly.
- Phoenix signed Michael Beasley to a three-year, $18 million deal, and by nature of their rebuild, has likely created a rotation that gives him entirely too much offensive freedom.
- The Suns reportedly traded away Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick to New Orleans in a three-team deal, and will receive Wesley Johnson and a lottery-protected first round pick in return.
- Phoenix re-signed Shannon Brown to a two-year deal, mostly for the hell of it.
- The Suns added Luis Scola off of an amnesty waiver claim following his release from the Houston Rockets, virtually preventing the Suns from fully bottoming out.
- Phoenix signed P.J. Tucker, and why not?
- The Suns' offer sheet to Eric Gordon was ultimately matched by the Hornets, making the potential acquisition of a very productive player a non-starter.
That's a lot of action for a fading team, and a lot of productive action at that. Individually, these are some solid moves, and the start of something interesting. But at this particular juncture, it's impossible to say exactly what that something is and what the Suns are vying for in the long game.
Dragic is good enough and young enough to be a part of a solid foundation, but he isn't quite talented enough to really trigger a Suns rebirth. His deal is completely reasonable given his production and potential, but that's also a sizable chunk of the cap to lock down for a franchise that's only just beginning the implementation of a long-term plan. Committing $30 million to Dragic isn't at all a mistake, but it's a notable investment for a club that's likely a few years away from significant progress, and a good free agent signing though not a remarkable one.
Beasley's signing is both odd and understandable; it makes a lot of sense for a franchise in the Suns' position to gamble on a talented prospect who hasn't quite figured out how he fits into the NBA picture, but Beasley wasn't really playing up to the value of his rookie-scale deal, much less an average of $6 million per over three seasons. This is clearly a gamble on a player who could be much more effective than he has been of late, but $18 million is a heavy cost for a roll of the dice. Lon Babby and Lance Blanks could come out of this looking like geniuses if Beasley is able to find himself at some point over the life of this deal, but there is at least equal potential for Beasley to remain grounded in a style that derails the entire offense.
Sadly, there isn't any more reason for optimism in the game of Wesley Johnson. The best thing we can say about the 25-year-old is that he is indeed just 25 years old and that he was once thought to be good enough to warrant selection with the No. 4 overall pick. That's all well and good, but Johnson's standing circa 2010 doesn't at all undo how bad he's been since. One could certainly argue that the Wolves were never able to provide Johnson with a well-fitting position or role, but some of that is virtue of the fact that the NBA may not have one for him; if Johnson's errant shooting, inability to create off the dribble and defensive irrelevance persist, eventually he won't have a mismatched Timberwolves roster to blame. Former lottery picks tend to get their fair share of NBA chances, and yet one can already start to see the walls closing in around a prospect with length and size but so little to show for it.
The Scola addition is where things get even trickier. Mediocrity in the NBA isn't at all rewarded, and yet by acquiring solid players on multi-year deals (Scola is included in that bunch if not wholly representative of it), the Suns have almost guaranteed that they won't get the kind of top draft pick they'll likely need to truly rebuild. Scola and Dragic were among the best players on an average team last season, but the Houston Rockets backed out of that arrangement pretty gracefully, opting for younger prospects and cap-clearing measures in place of merely solid vets. Phoenix may inevitably have to do the same, given that their willing acceptance of mediocrity begins their reconstruction on rather strange footing. Winning now is a noble goal, but if Phoenix is looking to build something competitively worthwhile, they'll likely need to bottom out first. Adding good, aging players like Scola only seems to delay that bit of inevitability.
Beyond those additions, the Suns have picked up three first-round picks (two of which are likely to fall between 25-30 overall) and two second-round picks (which so rarely reap useful NBA talent)—nice gets considering their meager cost, but hardly building blocks for a franchise trying to reinvent itself. It's in those potential selections that we see glimpses of this team's uncertain future. Phoenix has wisely cleared out salary, committed to assessing younger prospects and done what they can to begin a rebuild at a strange time. But without anything more promising (or certain) in terms of picks or personnel—the good-but-far-from-elite Dragic is the surest thing Phoenix has on file—how could we possibly know where the Suns are really going?