The Phoenix Suns have not had the season many fans expected of them so far. With a 9-15 record, it looks like the Suns' chances of actually sneaking into the playoffs are extremely slim. With that being said, it's time to look ahead to the future of the team.
Look, rebuilding is never an easy process. You have teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who drafted a young core of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden all in the span of a few years, but you also have teams like the Detroit Pistons, who are still one of the league's worst even after several years of radical roster changes.
But if the Suns pull the right strings, there is no doubt in my mind that this team could be a contender in just three years. They have the money and the draft picks, but it depends on how they use those assets.
Looking three years into the future is going to get complicated, so try to follow along. I can't tell you in detail every single role player and second-round pick the team should sign in the next three years, but I will go over the main priorities that the team will need to focus on.
There is already a lot of trade chatter surrounding some of the team's players, but with no chemistry issues in dire need of solving, I'm going to assume that the Suns stay put over the trade deadline.
With that settled, here is a detailed look at how the Suns can regain contender status over the next three years.
Priority: Look for a future centerpiece
The Suns will kick off the summer with the 2013 NBA draft. If the draft was today, the Suns would have three first-round picks, with the 6th, 10th and 14th overall draft selections. It's likely that both the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves will finish with better records than they have now, and so it's a safe bet that the Suns will have two late picks.
The Suns will draft two young big men with their late picks, but the real story of the night for Phoenix fans will be the drafting of UCLA wingman Shabazz Muhammad. Yes, that may seem like a bit of a stretch to some. But right now, NBADraft.net projects Muhammad to go 4th, and a mixture of continued bad play or a little bit of luck in the lottery could give the Suns the future centerpiece they need.
Luckily, no very important contracts are up at the end of the season. The Suns will likely re-sign 34-year-old Jermaine O'Neal to a new contract of one or two years, but don't expect them to make much of an effort to sign Diante Garrett, Luke Zeller, Wesley Johnson or Sebastian Telfair.
After shedding some small contracts, the Suns will have about $10 million in cap space going in to free agency. However, there is an extremely weak class of shooting guards and small forwards, so don't expect the Suns to make a huge splash this offseason. Perhaps they will sign a sharpshooter such as Dorell Wright or Stephen Jackson on a cheaper, one-year contract, but the Suns will enter next season with Muhammad as their biggest acquisition.
2014 Trade Deadline:
Priority: Find a taker for Gortat and Beasley
Just 24 games in, most Suns fans are already willing to admit that the Beasley signing was a failure. Finding a suitor for Beasley right now would be difficult, but he doesn't seem to be a part of the team's long-term plans.
Also, there has been a lot of trade speculation surrounding Marcin Gortat as of late. Gortat will be a free agent in 2014, and the Suns may look to trade him at the deadline rather than get nothing.
In the end, the Suns may end up packaging Beasley and Gortat together in a deal for an expiring contract, young prospects and draft picks. Take the Orlando Magic as an example. The Suns would send Beasley and Gortat to Orlando for an expiring contract in Hedo Turkoglu, Nikola Vucevic and a first round draft pick.
This trade would give the Suns a potential future center in Vucevic, who currently averages 9.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game for the Magic. They would also add another draft pick to their arsenal.
Main Priority: Sign a go-to scorer
After a less exciting draft in which the Suns likely take another player of Morris' or Marshall's caliber, the team will be faced with some expiring contracts.
First, the Suns will allow Hedo Turkoglu to enter free agency. That opens up almost $12 million worth of cap space. Then, the team would likely re-sign P.J Tucker to a new deal, as he has made a great comeback with the team this season. Finally, in an effort to save more money, the Suns would not bring back starting shooting guard Shannon Brown.
Allowing Brown to walk would be easy, because the 2014 free agent class is filled with some of the league's best shooting guards. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Andre Iguodala and Monta Ellis are all available, and it shouldn't be hard to find a go-to scorer.
In the end, the most likely bet is that the team will add an explosive scorer in Monta Ellis. Ellis is the type of player that wouldn't receive a max contract, but could receive something very close to one. It would likely take something around a four-year, $50 million contract to sign Ellis. He will be 29 entering the 2014-2015 regular season, and is an amazing shooter who can light you up for 30 or even 40 points on any given night.
Other than that, the Suns should have a quiet offseason. They may sign a role player or two, but there would be no other huge voids in the roster to fill.
2015 Trade Deadline:
It is just too far in the future to even try and predict what will happen here. A few players might be unhappy with their role on the team, but it's impossible to know if the Suns could make any major moves at the deadline in this situation.
Priority: Re-signing key players
In the 2015 draft, the Suns would once again have an opportunity to draft multiple rookies and bring more youth to the team. As for the specifics, nothing else can be known at this point.
However, the Suns will have some players with expiring contracts at the end of the season. In an ideal situation, both Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley accept their player options and remain with the team.
After that, the Suns could take Channing Frye off of the payroll, thus clearing $6.8 million in cap space. The team could also try and re-sign veteran players Jermaine O'Neal and Luis Scola to cheap contracts. With the leftover money, the main objective would be to re-sign Markieff Morris and Nikola Vucevic, both of whom would be coming off their rookie contracts.
It's unlikely that the Suns would pursue any major free agents in this situation. They may look to sign a veteran for their bench by using their mid-level exception, but the starting lineup and most of the rotation would be set.
2015-2016 Phoenix Suns Roster:
After three seasons, this hypothetical Suns team would have the talent and depth to compete in the playoffs. Below is what the known roster would look like. The age of the player at the start of the season is in parentheses.
PG: Goran Dragic (29), Kendall Marshall (24)
SG: Monta Ellis (30), P.J Tucker (30)
SF: Shabazz Muhammad (21), Jared Dudley (30)
PF: Markieff Morris (26), Luis Scola (35)
C: Nikola Vucevic (25), Jermaine O'Neal (37)
In addition to those players, the team would also have at least a couple of young players from any of the upcoming three drafts.
That roster has a couple of veterans with experience, a lot of youth and a lot of speed, and that team might resurrect the up-tempo style of play the Suns had with Steve Nash a few years ago. If everything goes according to plan, that team could easily contend with the rest of the NBA.
However, realize that this is just a completely hypothetical roster. The Suns might not make any of these moves, let alone all of them. But here is what I'm really trying to get across: In the next few seasons, the Suns will use a lot of draft picks. Youth is going to be the main method through which they rebuild. They will try and get their next franchise superstar through the draft, and they will also save up cap space in order to make a splash in free agency sometime soon.
Also, guys like Gortat and Beasley will be seen as expendable by the team. If Gortat is unwilling to re-sign, then the team will look for a new center. And Beasley would be extremely lucky to still be in Phoenix by the end of his contract.
Right now, I would say that the Suns only have two players that they definitely want to keep for the future, and those two are Dragic and Morris. That means that the team has a lot of work to do. But as this hypothetical roster shows, it clearly can be done. If the Suns are careful with how they spend their money and use their draft picks, we could see them back in championship contention in just a couple of seasons.