The Phoenix Suns' expectation-defying campaign won't end with a playoff berth, but nobody associated with the upstart club will be disappointed for long.
That's because these Suns are just getting started.
With a pivotal offseason ahead, Phoenix can retain its entire core, expect organic growth and supercharge its roster with new assets from the draft and free agency.
With so many paths toward improvement ahead, the short answer to the question "What's next?" could be "Almost anything."
Phoenix will have to make a few tough calls this summer, but there's simply no team with better options.
Securing a Cornerstone
First things first: The Suns need to lock up Eric Bledsoe.
Because Phoenix couldn't reach an extension agreement with the combo guard last October, Bledsoe will hit restricted free agency this summer. Figuring out how much to pay a player after two meniscus surgeries, the most recent of which cost him nearly half of a season, is tricky.
But at least it's a situation the Suns completely control.
Bledsoe's restricted status means the Suns can match whatever offer he receives on the open market. It's hard to be sure what kind of cash other teams will toss at the 24-year-old, but his excellent two-way play in the season's final month (following surgery) should net a max offer from somebody.
There's certainly some risk in the Suns matching such an offer, but it sounds like one Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough is willing to take.
'Obviously we don't have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don't have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.'
Whatever it takes?
'Correct,' McDonough said. 'Any reasonable offer.'
The "reasonable offer" qualifier is a shrewd semantic play by McDonough, but it's not something we should view as a potential roadblock to a Bledsoe extension. McDonough is smart, and he knows there's no sense in giving away any leverage by committing to pay the absolute maximum from the outset.
That'd invite another team to toss out a max offer solely because the competition would want to force Phoenix to pay every penny it could for Bledsoe.
Suns owner Robert Sarver didn't approach things quite as tactfully, but his comments to Dan Bickley of AZCentral.com further solidified the Suns' intentions for Bledsoe.
"I think we had a pretty good idea of who Eric was when we traded for him," Sarver told Bickley. "So I wouldn’t say we need to see more of him to match any offer. Obviously, we’d like to see more of him because our team plays better when he’s playing."
One of the worst things a franchise can do is overspend on the wrong guy. Even if the Suns like Bledsoe's makeup, health prognosis and game (which they should), maxing him out remains a little scary.
Just imagine where Phoenix would be if the New Orleans Pelicans hadn't matched the massive offer it gave Eric Gordon three years ago.
Ultimately, the Suns are going to pay Bledsoe. They have the bucks to spare and know he's an integral part of their double-pronged backcourt attack of the future. With him firmly in place, they can move on to bolstering the rest of the roster.
The Other Moves
It sounds funny to say this about a lottery team, but it's difficult to pinpoint any glaring needs on Phoenix's roster. The fact that it missed the playoffs should reveal a few weak points, but if Phoenix had gotten another 30 healthy games from Bledsoe, it probably would have been sitting in the fifth or sixth spot out West.
This isn't a team in need of major improvements, so the first phase of the Suns' offseason will include retaining its current rotation players.
That's going to be easy.
P.J. Tucker is due a qualifying offer of just over $1 million, and Channing Frye has a player option he might decline to exercise. Beyond that, the Suns aren't at risk of losing any core players.
If we assume Tucker and Frye both return and that the team maxes out Bledsoe, they'll still have only about $44 million in salary commitments for 2014-15.
That means they'll have the cash to chase a couple of rotation players or another star-level talent. Gordon Hayward and Greg Monroe are both entering restricted free agency this summer alongside Bledsoe. Perhaps one of those two could wind up in Phoenix.
Or maybe the Suns will move a few assets around in an effort to chase Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh if either decides to move on from their current teams after exercising early termination options.
The point you should have absorbed by now is this: The Suns can do just about anything this summer.
And then there's the draft picks.
At No. 14, the Suns' own pick will be the highest of the three, but they could easily package their selections to move up or acquire a proven asset via trade.
Then again, maybe the Suns would rather take three home-run swings in the first round and hope they connect on one of them. Either way, Phoenix has the flexibility to attack the draft from a bunch of different angles.
It's always dangerous to project continued growth for an upstart team. Winning is easier when it's not expected, and the Suns won't have the benefit of surprising anyone next year.
But this organization has an absolute embarrassment of assets to play with—two star-quality talents in Bledsoe and fringe MVP candidate Goran Dragic, a dirt-cheap gem with upside in Miles Plumlee, bigs who can stripe it from long range in the Morris twins and Frye, and a young head coach everyone now regards as one of the league's best in Jeff Hornacek.
And who knows what last year's lottery pick, Alex Len, might provide next season?
In anyone's hands, those assets would be dangerous. In McDonough's they're lethal.
Remember, Phoenix has been a party to two significant trades since installing the 34-year-old exec, and both of them have been absolute coups.
Phoenix sent away Marcin Gortat for Emeka Okafor's expiring deal and Washington's first-round pick. That move allowed the Suns to play faster, get Plumlee key minutes and establish an identity—all while acquiring a first-rounder in a climate where those picks are almost never available.
Before that, McDonough poached Gerald Green and Plumlee from the Pacers.
Basically, the lesson here is McDonough knows what he's doing.
No team is better positioned to improve than the Suns are. Phoenix has its pair of combo guards, loads of bigs who can shoot and nothing but flexibility for the foreseeable future.
What's next for the Phoenix Suns?
Whatever they want.
Salary information via ShamSports.com.
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