Another regular season is winding down, and the Phoenix Suns will soon end their third straight season without achieving a playoff berth.
Right now, a lot of Suns fans have lost hope. After all, the 22-41 Suns have struggled on the court all season, they have no promising future superstar to save them, the Los Angeles Lakers are starting to win and now own a playoff seed and Marcin Gortat is likely done for the season after spraining his right foot.
All that may seem so depressing, but look past the team's struggles for just a moment. Forget the lack of star talent on the current roster, forget the failed signings and projects and stop thinking about any past decisions that the front office has made.
Even in an awful season like this, there are so many reasons to stay a loyal and faithful Suns fan. Here are just a few things that fans can look forward to in the near future.
Shannon Brown is no longer in the rotation, and Michael Beasley has made many grown men cry over the past several months. But for every horrible signing, there is an equal and opposite success story to be found.
For example, just look at P.J Tucker. Tucker came to Phoenix this season with almost no expectations, but he has climbed his way up the rotation and into the starting lineup for the past few dozen games, and rightfully so.
Tucker is no offensive juggernaut, and his offensive production is not impressive. He averages 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds a game and the 45 percent shooting clip from the field is decent, but he can not be a go-to scorer for the Suns.
However, Tucker's real forte is on defense. He is a spectacular perimeter defender, and he can almost be counted on for his hustle on the court. Tucker has held Kobe Bryant to four points on 1-of-8 shooting, Rudy Gay to five points on 2-of-7 shooting, Paul Pierce to eight points on 3-of-5 shooting and Kevin Durant to 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He has the ability to contain some of the NBA's elite wings, and that makes him a tremendous asset.
Tucker will be making less than $1 million next season, which is a great bargain for Phoenix. Right now, it looks as if his second stint in the NBA will be more permanent.
However, Tucker isn't the only surprise for Phoenix this season. Veteran big man Jermaine O'Neal is also having a comeback year, and he will have even more of an opportunity to play with Gortat out.
When O'Neal came to Phoenix, he looked washed up. He had spent the past two seasons of his career with the Boston Celtics, playing just 49 games and averaging about five points per game.
O'Neal isn't back to playing at an all-star level, but he's making a bit of a comeback in Phoenix. He has played 44 games this season, and he's averaging 7.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 17.4 minutes while shooting 51 percent from the field. He has sat out games here and there for an irregular heartbeat as well as to take care of his daughter, but he hasn't missed too much time.
O'Neal might just be the latest success story of the Phoenix Suns training staff. His best days are behind him, but give credit to the veteran for shaking off a couple of disappointing seasons and making the most of his limited minutes.
What separates the Phoenix Suns from the other awful teams in the NBA?
Other teams are younger, and they have a definite path of rebuilding that they have already started. The Detroit Pistons have Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight. The Hornets have Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis. The Bobcats have Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Cavaliers boast a backcourt of Irving and Waiters, while the Wizards have Wall and Beal.
The Suns don't have any potential future stars like some other teams. This is their first terrible season, and they have yet to have an opportunity to draft someone like that.
However, the Suns are making the most of the young talent they do have, even if those players aren't superstar-caliber.
The Suns have a few young prospects, including Kendall Marshall, Wesley Johnson and the two Morris twins.
Rookie point guard Kendall Marshall only became the team's backup point guard very recently, but he is making the most of his minutes.
How good will Kendall Marshall be at the height of his career?
Marshall does not project to ever be a great player, but he is not a complete bust. In 10 games since the All-Star break, he is averaging 2.8 points and 2.6 assists in 13.4 minutes per game. He has shot 11-for-33 from three on the season, a much better percentage than most expected of him, and he is still making pretty passes.
But Marshall isn't the only one who has found a spot in the rotation recently. Wesley Johnson, the former fourth overall pick of the 2009 NBA draft is starting to prove that he has all the talent to be an everyday rotation player in the NBA.
Johnson never received much playing time under Alvin Gentry, but he has become a big contributor to the team's success in the past month. After spending the first half of the season sitting on the bench for almost every game, Johnson is starting to get more playing time, and he isn't disappointing anybody with the resulting production.
In his past 10 games, Johnson is averaging 9.0 points and 4.1 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. He is also shooting 37 percent from downtown, and he has had some great highlights, including this clutch shot against the San Antonio Spurs.
Is Johnson a future starter for Phoenix? Probably not. But with his above-average defense and efficient offensive production, he could be a solid role player on this team for years to come.
Of course, that leaves us with Markieff and Marcus Morris. The Morris twins were reunited at the trade deadline, and both former lottery picks have the potential to be productive bench players (if not starters) on this team.
In the past 10 games, both players are averaging over nine points and 3.5 rebounds in just about 20 minutes per game. Marcus Morris is shooting 50 percent from the field and 53 percent from behind the arc, and Markieff, who has struggled with his shot this season, has knocked down 46 percent of his attempts from downtown in that time span.
We're seeing the two brothers bring out the best in each other right now, and that's a great sign for the future. With a little luck, perhaps they can both start one day.
But if not, that's alright. None of these players can be the go-to scorer the Suns need, but every contending team also should have a great bench. Right now, the Suns appear to be getting a head start.
Cap Space and Draft Picks
The Suns don't have enough talent on the current roster to contend, so they will need to use the draft and free agency to build up the team. As it turns out, the Suns are in a great position to string together a few exciting offseasons.
First, let's start with free agency. The Suns are currently $4.8 million under the cap, and they have no ridiculously overpaid cumbersome contracts. In fact, the Suns could potentially have upwards of $10 million in cap space going into this summer.
Which realistic 2013 free agent would you like to see the Suns target?
Chris Paul and Dwight Howard aren't coming to Phoenix, and signing a superstar to a smaller market any year would be difficult. Even so, the Suns have a significant amount of money to throw at free agents, and they could potentially sign a great No. 2 or No. 3 scoring option to eventually accompany a superstar. That would be the justification in signing someone like Josh Smith, Paul Millsap or Monta Ellis to a reasonable contract.
And obviously, the Suns will rely on the draft to rebuild. Free agency can provide experienced, veteran players, as well as some decent above-average starters, but the draft will be the team's best shot at finding a star.
Fortunately for Suns fans, the team has quite a lot of picks in the next few years. In fact, the Suns have six first-round picks and four second-round picks in just the next three drafts.
No matter what the draft position is, that gives them 10 chances to find their superstar. No draft pick can be taken for granted, not even a second-rounder, as any pick could potentially be the savior of the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns aren't guaranteed to rebuild in the next three seasons. After all, a team like the Detroit Pistons took Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in three consecutive drafts and they are far from contending.
But for Suns fans, the NBA draft may be one of the most important dates to circle on a calendar for the next few seasons. In fact, expect the upcoming offseasons to be filled with suspense, excitement and hope for the future.