The Phoenix Suns are in the unenviable position of playing in a Pacific Division featuring the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, two Western Conference playoff teams from 2013-14. The good news is they have plenty of ways to improve immediately in order to compete with them.
A favorable salary-cap scenario, multiple picks in a deep draft and a bevy of young talent give the Suns reason for optimism in the short-term future. Second-year coach Jeff Hornacek appears to be the leader who can mold this raw squad into a powerhouse with the right additional pieces.
The Clippers and Warriors, who will each return their star-studded cores, figure to be the only major hurdle in allowing the Suns to be the next up-and-comer to make waves in the postseason given the frequency they'll mach up against each.
Before any of that takes shape, however, the Suns have more work to do this offseason. If things go well, they can vault into playoff contention.
This June, Phoenix has an opportunity to improve drastically via the 2014 NBA draft. Three first-round selections, including one lottery pick, give it the flexibility to add a veteran via trade or find a young player to complement the improving roster.
In order to make a splash next season, the Suns will likely need to do both.
They have the cap space to sign an All-Star-caliber player with just $32.5 million in salary committed to the current roster. That means trading one or two picks to make a major splash is a real possibility, as they'd still have a chance to add and develop young talent in addition to bringing in a star.
Draft Express has the Suns taking Nik Stauskas out of Michigan with the projected No. 14 pick. For a team that ranked inside the top 10 in three-pointers made, attempted and in percentage, adding a player who can do this would be a welcome addition:
Can Phoenix find Love?
Amid reports that superstar forward Kevin Love will test the free-agent waters next offseason, via Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, asset-rich teams like the Suns could vie for his services as early as this summer.
Phoenix can offer up an attractive package, but with Love committed to seeing what's out on the market, it would likely need a commitment in the form of a sign-and-trade in order to feel confident enough to pull the trigger on such a deal.
If such a megadeal happens, then Phoenix would be in the mix right away. The greatest challenge will be selling Love on the fact the team is in position to win with the current group.
Ride the rising star
Goran Dragic had his best season in 2013-14, and for the Suns to take another step toward being recognized as legitimate contenders out West, they'll need more of the same upward trend next season.
The 28-year-old averaged a career-high 20.3 points per game and amassed a 21.4 Basketball-Reference.com player efficiency rating. He was a featured component of the offense and a coach on the floor.
The shot chart above shows he was a capable scorer from all three levels but was especially adept at getting to the rim. Point guards who can do that effectively as scorers tend to open the game up for everyone else.
As Hornacek works to implement his schemes into the framework of a roster that could look different come October, he'll need Dragic at the helm continuing to do the things that earned him the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 2013-14.
Things like this:
Any status of being an elite team will ultimately go through him. Phoenix has the framework to be a great team, and starting with the offseason, it's time to execute the plan on and off the floor.