The Phoenix Suns missed out on postseason play for a fourth consecutive year in 2013-14. That equates to the longest playoff drought in franchise history since a five-season spell from 1970-71 through 1974-75.
Landing in the lottery for four straight NBA drafts hints at dire times for the fanbase. Nevertheless, the upstart Suns are actually in ideal position to rebuild a contender.
That prospect looked like an impossible task when Phoenix first entered the post-Steve Nash era. The two-time MVP’s departure was met with immediate catastrophe in the Valley of the Sun.
Head coach Alvin Gentry—who led the desert dwellers to a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2010—was fired despite receiving a vote of confidence from owner Robert Sarver just one month prior. He was subsequently replaced with interim coach Lindsey Hunter. That decision drew the ire of respected assistants Dan Majerle and Elston Turner—who both resigned out of frustration.
Hunter guided the floundering roster to a 12-29 record after his takeover, which was one game worse than Gentry’s 13-28 start. It wasn’t all bad, though. Just take a look at this highlight from the 2012-13 season under Hunter:
OK, I lied. Everything about that season was a disaster.
Remarkably, the Suns were able to flip the script in less than a year’s time. Credit the presence of general manager Ryan McDonough. He made numerous savvy trades to stockpile picks and add impact players like Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee—making him the favorite to receive Executive of the Year honors.
Against all odds and expert projections, the Suns won 48 games in the loaded Western Conference. It wasn’t enough for a playoff berth, but there were numerous uplifting takeaways.
The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic thrived together when healthy, Green reinvented himself as a three-point sharpshooter and a combination of team chemistry and first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek’s up-tempo system made Phoenix a joy to watch once again.
Suns fans were treated to a 23-win improvement from 2012-13 to 2013-14. But is the team still on track for the Association’s fastest rebuild?
When evaluating the Suns’ potential to rejoin “elite” status, their collection of draft picks stands out above all else.
Thanks to the Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola trades—which netted first-round selections from the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers, respectively—Phoenix has three first-rounders banked for June’s draft.
While the outlook of bringing in three young prospects is certainly tantalizing, McDonough isn’t planning to make that a reality.
According to BrightSideoftheSun.com’s Dave King, the Suns GM said, “I think it’s unlikely we’ll bring in three rookies to the Suns,” and, “Our preference would be to trade for a star.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Of course, trading for a star player in today’s NBA landscape is no easy feat. The big name that continues cropping up amongst Suns fans is Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love, but it’s still not clear if the rebounding machine is available.
T-Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders made it very clear on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike last summer that he doesn’t plan on trading Minny’s best player, per the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda:
Has that stance changed at all now that K-Love is potentially entering the final year of his contract?
He can decline a player option for 2015-16 after next season. Losing him for nothing would be a devastating blow to the Timberwolves organization, but Saunders and Co. will likely still do everything in their power to keep him up north.
The Suns’ three draft picks may not have enough value to pry Love away from Minnesota, so what are the alternatives?
“We could also draft a European player or two and leave them overseas,” McDonough said, per King.
That's a strategy that has paid off handsomely for the San Antonio Spurs—Tiago Splitter is the most recent example.
McDonough also added that Phoenix could trade current picks for future ones as a means of spreading the team’s own wealth.
At the very least, the Suns have options. Trading for a star like Love may not be feasible just yet, but there’s no downside to having three first-round picks.
The most obvious offseason move Phoenix has to make is re-signing Bledsoe through restricted free agency. Repeated knee injuries are a valid concern, but the athletic floor general still posted 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game when healthy. Those are elite numbers considering his first year in the desert was also his first campaign as a full-time starter.
When/if the Suns retain him, they will still have plenty of flexibility.
Emeka Okafor—another piece from the Gortat swap—is set to have his contract of more than $14.4 million come off the books this summer. With a plethora of bargains like Green ($3.5 million), Plumlee (approximately $1.1 million) and the Morris twins (approximately $6 million combined), Phoenix has wiggle room to add more firepower.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Suns should spend money just because they have cap room. That mantra worked out terribly for the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks in 2013-14, as additions of Josh Smith and O.J. Mayo were met with disaster.
McDonough should start by re-signing Bledsoe and bringing back P.J. Tucker at a reasonable price. Tucker’s defensive mentality helped hold the Suns together on that end of the court, which often makes up for his offensive shortcomings.
Bledsoe and the Morris twins are 24, Plumlee is 25 and Dragic is 27. All of those guys were huge rotational cogs for Coach Hornacek during his first year patrolling the sidelines. Their continued growth both as individuals and as teammates will continue to be an invaluable part of the Suns’ culture moving forward.
Of course, that fails to mention the presence of two seldom-used rookies: Alex Len and Archie Goodwin.
Len didn’t show much promise, finishing his rookie year with 86 total points and 68 total fouls. He dealt with injuries throughout the first half of the season, but fans need to remember that he’s still just a 20-year-old kid.
At 7’1”, the Maryland product has potential to be a game-changer on both ends of the floor. As long as he works on bulking up to compete with opposing (and imposing) NBA centers, he could create a nice platoon at the 5 with the “Plumdog” next year.
Goodwin, meanwhile, showed flashes of becoming a brilliant offensive talent. That was never more evident than in Game 82.
The 19-year-old Kentucky product recorded a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on 11-of-13 shooting from the field. He added four rebounds, two steals and one assist to the box score.
Whether or not Goodwin and Len are in the Suns future plans is up for debate. Either could be seen as a long-term piece to the puzzle, or a short-term trade chip to land an All-Star-caliber talent.
In any case, the Phoenix Suns have already become a relevant franchise after finishing in the Western Conference basement one year ago. They didn’t even have to make the playoffs to take the league by storm.
As long as McDonough brings Bledsoe back while continuing to make levelheaded personnel decisions, there’s no reason why Phoenix can’t make a playoff run in 2015.
The team still needs a star beside Bledsoe and Dragic to push the team into title contention, but that move is one blockbuster trade (or signing) away.