It's fitting that in a year the Phoenix Suns dazzled with a win column higher than anyone could have imagined, it took a loss to put everything in its proper prospective.
A 97-91 defeat at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night sealed their fate. The Suns will be left out of the playoff picture for the fourth consecutive season, the longest drought this franchise has seen in nearly 40 years.
Yet you won't see a single tear shed in the desert for coach Jeff Hornacek's team. Sadness has no place during a time of jubilation.
"If one must stop to recognize the end of this season, make it a wake," Hardwood Paroxysm's Andrew Lynch wrote. "Celebrate the fantastic ride Phoenix offered to diehard supporter and general NBA observer alike."
While other NBA teams collected their gear at the start of the 2013-14 season, the Suns were given a toe tag. Apparently, not even a death certificate can withstand the magical healing touch of the NBA's top-training team.
What transpired over the past six months falls outside the limits of a best-case scenario. Success was supposed to be measured in lottery odds—Phoenix opted for victories instead.
"Instead of ping pong balls being the most important ones bouncing to determine the course of the Suns future, it was basketballs," Suns.com's Greg Esposito wrote. "Instead of playing out the string and having 82 meaningless games, this team fought and clawed their way into playoff contention through 81 of them."
Phoenix kicked off the campaign supposedly so woefully short on talent that it needed to sacrifice the season in pursuit of a front-line prospect. When an anonymous general manager told ESPN The Magazine's Jeff Goodman his team was ready to tank, some wondered if first-year Suns GM Ryan McDonough might have been the man behind the mask.
If this group intended on tanking the season, no one bothered to tell the players. From October to April, they grew into tank-worthy talents themselves.
Point guard Goran Dragic added nearly six points to his previous career-high scoring average (20.3, up from 14.7) and another four to his old personal-best field-goal percentage (50.5, up from 46.2). Eric Bledsoe, plucked from the Los Angeles Clippers' reserve team last summer, posted career marks nearly across the board (18.0 points, 5.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 19.7 player efficiency rating).
Dragic narrowly missed the cut for All-Star selection but has since tossed his hat into the Most Improved Player award race. Bledsoe had his own M.I.P. bid derailed by a knee surgery that cost him nearly two months but didn't sink the Suns. Phoenix has won 47 games this season, despite playing almost half the year without one of its top two players.
Yet, it wasn't just this explosive backcourt powering the NBA's eighth-most efficient offense (107.1 points per 100 possessions).
It was Gerald Green's maturation from flamed-out prospect to key contributor (15.8 points, .445/.400/.848 shooting slash). It was Channing Frye returning after a year-long recovery from an enlarged heart and immediately finding his form (11.2 points, 37.1 three-point percentage). It was Markieff Morris providing 26.6 Sixth-Man-of-the-Year-caliber minutes off the bench (13.8 points, 6.0 rebounds), Miles Plumlee patrolling the paint (8.2 points, 7.9 rebounds) and P.J. Tucker producing at both ends (9.5 points, 1.4 steals).
It was having all hands on deck and never hesitating to give fingers, toes or whatever else was needed.
"Sometimes, effort, energy and a collective belief in one another is all you need," Suns.com's Ben York wrote in early November. Five months later, that assessment still holds true.
For everything this season was, though, it's the potential for what will come next that's truly mesmerizing:
Phoenix is already further along in the asset-collection stage than we thought, and its cupboards could be overflowing by the end of the offseason.
The Suns could have as many as four first-round picks in the upcoming draft. If that wasn't tantalizing enough on its own, it's worth mentioning that this rookie class shines not for its top talent but rather for its overall depth.
Then again, Phoenix might have the ammunition to go star-searching on draft night should it choose to do so. The team was entertaining the idea of combining some of those picks in pursuit of a true difference-maker as early as December.
"I think one of the things that’s important for people to realize is that we may not draft four players even if we have four picks,” McDonough told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper. “Our preference would probably be to maybe package a few of them. We’re obviously all looking for stars."
The Suns couldn't find a worthwhile offer before the trade deadline, but perhaps they'll have better luck over the summer. If not, Phoenix will add even more artillery to a collection already rife with talent and youth.
This franchise's weapons don't stop at draft night, either. It has just $35 million committed to next season's payroll ($28 million without contract options), via ShamSports.com, so the funds are available should a big fish present itself in free agency.
One of those fish will come from Phoenix's own waters—and won't move any further. Bledsoe will be a restricted free agent at season's end, but Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic reported the Suns have long planned on matching any offer sheet the guard might sign "or even beat any team to it with the advantage of offering him an extra year with larger raises."
Of course, with players like Dragic ($7.5 million), Green ($3.5 million) and Morris ($2.9 million) already outperforming their budget deals, there's enough money to keep the in-house talent around and search for external assistance:
Phoenix hasn't traditionally been a major free-agent draw, but even that could change. With a talented roster, a stat-sheet-friendly system, a world-class training staff and candidates in both the Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year races, premier players might have a hard time denying its appeal.
Then again, maybe the Suns don't need to go shopping for big-ticket items. They're scary enough as it is:
That's what makes this not a bitter ending but a brilliant beginning.
In terms of poise and experience, the Suns were in over their heads. They just never appeared that way.
"If we had three All-Stars and don't make the playoffs, then you go, 'Oh, my goodness,' but we had guys who proved they can play in this league and play at a high level," Hornacek said, via Coro. "I thought we did the best we could."
The Suns will learn from this experience.
They developed their talent like a young team should, but they were able to do that in a playoff-type atmosphere. They didn't jump the gun on their rebuilding, but they didn't pass up an open opportunity, either. Between their internal improvements and external moves, the Suns will be even more prepared for the next go-round.
The original might not have had the feel-good ending we all wanted, but imagine what's in store for the sequel.