Between hiring a new general manager and head coach and acquiring several players this offseason that improve the team's future outlook, it is clear that the Phoenix Suns' rebuilding project has officially begun.
The current roster that general manager Ryan McDonough has assembled is clearly lacking in talent, and most analysts and commentators predict Phoenix to finish this season as one of the worst teams in the NBA.
However, despite a potentially dismal record, the Suns are also clearly more prepared for the future than they have been these past few years. The Suns own five first-round picks in the next two drafts, they are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and they are below the cap.
But the process has only just begun. And exactly how long will it take for the Suns to become a force in the West again?
To answer that, perhaps we should first define the point at which a rebuilding process is completed. Is it only after a team becomes a legitimate title contender, or does any 8th seed qualify?
It really depends on the year and the conference. For example, the 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder finished with a record of 50-32, with Kevin Durant as the league scoring champion and rising stars Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green both contributing more than 15 points per game.
That certainly sounds like a team that has finished rebuilding, right? However, in such a tough, contested Western Conference that season, the 50 wins were only just enough to clinch the 8th seed and ultimately face a first-round defeat.
On the other hand, 50 wins would have been enough for the 6th seed in a weaker Western Conference last season. And in the East, it would have clinched the 3rd seed. So for now, let's mark the Suns' goal at 50 wins. Their rebuilding process will be over as soon as they can establish themselves as a real threat in the West as well as become a team with multiple promising young stars on the rise.
Now, the even more important question. How long will it take to get to that point?
To answer that question, several topics must be discussed. Let's explore the historical struggle of finding a superstar, the Suns' personal situation entering the 2014 offseason, and some of the notable draft prospects and free agents available over the next couple of years.
Just How Difficult is it to Find a Superstar?
If the Suns wish to become a top seed in the West again, the first thing they must do is find a legitimate superstar.
There's a reason the team chose not to chase after free agents such as Josh Smith and Al Jefferson this offseason. While those players may be good, they are clearly not capable of leading a team to the playoffs as the go-to scoring option.
Those are the types of signings that the Suns might want to consider in one or two years, but only for the purpose of surrounding and complementing a superstar with other talent. A borderline All-Star like Josh Smith should not be brought to the desert, however, until that superstar is found.
And since Phoenix is not Miami, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, signing free agent superstars such as Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James is practically out of the question. Rather, the Suns must instead focus most of their attention on the draft over the next two years, attempting to create a homegrown star with one of their five first-round picks.
And while five first-round picks might seem like a lot, drafting a superstar is much harder than one might think. Everyone remembers the top picks of each draft, but the busts are the ones that are often forgotten despite being quite common. You rarely hear about players like Joe Alexander or Michael Olowokandi nowadays, do you?
To show just how difficult it is to draft a star, I conducted some research on past drafts. I took 420 different lottery picks from the years 1979-2008 to see just how often top picks turn out to be All-Stars. Players drafted in 2009 or later were not included, as many of them have yet to reach their potential and still have time to blossom into All-Stars.
Note: Data and statistics for chart taken from Basketball-Reference.com.
As you can see, the overall success rate of top picks making one All-Star appearance is not very high at all. 127 out of 420 players made an All-Star appearance, which is only 30 percent.
On the bright side, the Suns are no longer cursed with having the 13th pick each year and being bad enough to miss the playoffs while also too good to have a significant chance of moving up in the lottery.
This season, it is safe to say that the Suns will likely have a top five pick, which is usually a much safer bet in the draft. On this graph, a total of 74 out of 150 top five picks made an All-Star appearance, a success rate of 49 percent.
That is much better, but it still means that Phoenix has almost a 50-50 chance of drafting a bust. While they might get lucky on the first try, it could also take two, three or even four top five picks before the Suns finally grab the star they're looking for.
Plus, we have to take into account the amount of time it takes to develop a star. Free agents like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James have an immediate impact, but prospects must be given some time to develop.
To see how much time it takes for prospects to develop, I again conducted some research, this time looking at dozens of active players with at least one career All-Star appearance. For each player, I looked at how many years they played before their first All-Star appearance, and then divided up the players into groups based on the number of career All-Star games. Thus, stars with only one career appearance are in a separate category from future HOF candidates with six or more appearances.
Again, players drafted in 2009 or later were not included, as they might skew the data. For example, a player like Paul George only has one career All-Star appearance because he is so young, but he has all the potential to make several appearances before his career is over. Only players who are already in their prime (or past it) were included in the research.
Note: Data and statistics for chart taken from Basketball-Reference.com.
What I found is that homegrown stars take more time to develop than fans often think, and as a result rebuilding through the draft will test the patience of a fanbase. Tim Duncan is the only active player to make the All-Star game as early as his rookie season, and many superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all took at least four seasons to become All-Stars.
Furthermore, notice how the lesser stars gradually take more and more time to develop. Players such as Jameer Nelson, Mo Williams, Josh Howard and Tyson Chandler certainly do not seem like stars that can lead your team to an NBA championship, and yet they have all participated in All-Star Sunday night. It would take at least two or even three of those players for the Suns to reach their goal of 50 wins, and with each one developing in an average of about six years, the rebuilding process would take a very long time.
But for now, let's say that the Suns get lucky. They draft an All-Star on their first try in the 2014 Draft, and not just any All-Star, but a superstar.
Even then, they will still likely have to wait about 3-4 years before that prospect makes an All-Star appearance. By that time, the Suns will be pressured to offer a lucrative max contract to their young prospect.
And if the Suns make a couple of mistakes in drafting along the way, as is so often the case with rebuilding teams, the process could potentially take twice that amount of time.
Therefore, Suns fans should not expect too much out of this front office. The team may have the cap space to sign some free agents and assemble a great supporting cast, but they will not contend for a title until they can find a superstar in the draft. And that often take much longer than some fans are willing to wait.
Evaluating the Suns' 2014 Offseason Situation
So far, we have talked about the struggle to locate a superstar for rebuilding NBA teams in general, But now, let's focus on the Suns, and more specifically, the assets they will be able to use in the 2014 offseason.
First of all, Phoenix could potentially have up to three first-round picks in the highly anticipated 2014 Draft.
The first pick is their own, and with some luck in the lottery could be the first overall pick. Otherwise, it is likely to be another top five pick.
Another pick comes from the Minnesota Timberwolves, originating from the Hakim Warrick/Robin Lopez for Wesley Johnson trade in the summer of 2012. The pick is protected, but only for selections 1-13. That means that if the Timberwolves finish the season either as the best lottery team in the NBA, or as a playoff team, their first-round pick (probably in the 14-18 range) would go to the Suns.
In other words, if you're looking for a second team to root for this season, look no further than Minnesota!
Finally, the third pick is from the Indiana Pacers and the Luis Scola for Gerald Green trade in July. As long as the Pacers are not a lottery team this season (they are expected to be contenders), the Suns should receive a late first-round pick (probably somewhere in the 22-30 range).
Besides draft picks, cap space is another asset the Suns will likely take advantage of. Even if they don't have the money to sign any superstar free agents, they could use their cap space to re-sign players and make some more minor acquisitions over the summer.
This season, the Suns owe a total of $53,084,190 to all of their players.
But at the end of the season, the contracts of Viacheslav Kravtsov, Malcolm Lee, Marcin Gortat and Shannon Brown all expire. Additionally, the team will play the released Michael Beasley less than $1 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016, as opposed to almost $5 million this season.
Assuming that they accept the team options of Kendall Marshall, Miles Plumlee and the Morris twins, the Suns will owe a total of $34,343,075 to their players at the end of the season. Unless they plan to re-sign Kravtsov, Shannon Brown or Gortat, the only notable free agents that the team may re-sign are Eric Bledsoe and P.J Tucker.
If Eric Bledsoe has a successful season and establishes himself as a future star, he could easily command a contract offering eight figures annually. And then there's P.J Tucker, who was an absolute bargain for Phoenix last offseason but will almost definitely command more money if he hits the open market.
Even so, the Suns should be able to re-sign both players, sign their drafted prospects to rookie contracts, and possibly still have a few million in cap space left over. It won't be enough to sign a major free agent, but perhaps the Suns should conserve their money and wait until at least 2015 before pursuing above-average players on the free agent market.
Surveying the Field
If the Suns do have a top pick in 2014, as well as some cap space saved for free agency in 2015, then they should begin to research potential targets to pursue.
Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin appear to be the future of the team's backcourt. However, at small forward and power forward, the Suns are having journeymen, middling prospects and a veteran coming back from heart surgery compete for minutes. Therefore, the forward spots are the two positions they must improve in the next few years.
Center is no safe bet either, as there is almost zero chance that Marcin Gortat will be in Phoenix at the beginning of the 2014-15 NBA season, and rookie Alex Len is still unproven.
Regarding the draft, the two obvious prospects to start with are Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle.
Wiggins is easily the most coveted prospect in the upcoming draft, with the 6'8" small forward being known as a freakishly gifted athlete with a great frame and a smooth offensive game.
Meanwhile, 6'9" power forward Julius Randle is another explosive, outstanding athlete who is fantastic in transition and was an absolute mismatch in the post against any high school player he went up against.
College opponents are obviously more difficult, so we will see if Randle and Wiggins can make that transition. But for now, they appear to be the top two picks of the next draft, and either one would fit in the uptempo system that Jeff Hornacek is trying to build in Phoenix.
As for free agency, although the 2015 free agent class is not fantastic, it does offer plenty of options for the Suns at each frontcourt position.
Unfortunately, there really aren't many small forwards available, as Tayshaun Prince is perhaps the best unrestricted free agent option. However, Jeff Green could become available if he rejects his player option.
Power forward is the much more interesting position here. Carlos Boozer, David West, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap could all potentially be available, and the real superstar big name is Kevin Love, if he chooses to decline his player option and enter free agency.
There are even some valuable centers on the market as well, including Omer Asik, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol.
With free agents, the Suns do not need to worry so much about age. In fact, as the Suns become more and more focused on making the playoffs, perhaps it is better for them to sign a couple of veteran free agents, as these players can mentor the young rising stars that the team drafts.
Hopefully, this strategy will be able to get the Suns back to the playoffs, but don't expect it to be an easy process. With Dragic and Bledsoe in the backcourt, plus several promising prospects on the roster, perhaps the only two major moves the Suns need to make are finding a superstar and signing an above-average free agent. After that, they might make some minor adjustments to the bench, but in general they should be able to meet the goal of 50 wins.
And as that young superstar gets better, whether he is Wiggins, Randle or some other prospect, the Suns will only become more and more of a threat in the West.