By far the biggest burden of sports fandom lies in perpetual disappointment—the knowledge that, no matter on how optimistic a note a season begins, the end is almost always a movement made in minor keys.
The 2013-14 Phoenix Suns, seen before the season began as basement-fodder in waiting, flipped that script like few teams in recent history. The result: a 48-win campaign and near-playoff coup that will have its youth-laden core looking to capitalize on their joyous crescendo.
Next year’s Suns promise an even lovelier symphony of beautiful basketball. If they go all-in this offseason, however, the result could be a modern-day masterpiece.
Heading into summer, the Suns appear poised to return with much of their roster intact. The most pressing concern, of course, will be the fate of Eric Bledsoe, the fiery fourth-year guard who is expected to fetch a princely sum in restricted free agency.
As recently as this April 18 post from The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), however, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough stated he intends to match any offer for Bledsoe, although he’d prefer to hammer out a deal before the market opens on July 1.
Coupled with guard Goran Dragic—fresh off a career-best year that netted him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award—the Suns potentially possess one of the best backcourts in the league for years to come.
Meanwhile, Phoenix can bank on plenty of upside throughout its ranks, with Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green all on the right side of 29 and destined to develop to varying degrees.
That alone would be enough to see the Suns as a team on the rise and a legitimate threat to crack the playoff picture next year and beyond.
Now consider that Phoenix holds five—five—first-round picks in the next two drafts (including three this year), and suddenly the prospects go from guardedly giddy to straight-up superb.
Conventional wisdom has the Suns picking their trio of prospects based on some balance of need and next-level potential. Up to and including packaging those picks to move up the board.
And they’d certainly be in their right—wise, even, on more than one level—to do so.
But what if there’s another move to be made? What if the Suns opted instead to strike while the stars are aligned? To transform themselves almost overnight from a feel-good fan favorite into a franchise feared and revered? To not just take the next step, but make the championship leap?
In Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony—two contractually embattled superstars desperate to join a winning situation—that possibility exists in scintillating spades.
In a recent story by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne, Love hinted he would not opt in to the $16.7 million owed to him for the 2015-16 season. The code is, of course, inescapable: Deal me as soon as you can, because come next summer, I’m gone.
Would, say, all three of Phoenix’s first-round picks, its lone second-rounder and one or both of the Morris twins amount to a potent enough package for the pickle-bound T-Wolves?
That would give Minnesota an incredible eight picks in this year’s draft, more than enough to trade up or repackage in a future deal for another building block—unparalleled flexibility, in a term.
Such a strategy could prove equally enticing to the Knicks, who jettisoned their only first-rounder in the trade to bring Anthony to New York in 2011.
In both cases, the biggest X-factor would be the willingness of the two star forwards to agree to a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, essentially locking them down through at least the 2018-19 season. Either that, or come to some sort of official understanding that Love or Anthony would sign an extension at the appropriate time.
At just 25 years old, Love seems the more realistic candidate, with a very real opportunity to sign a second max contract when the sweet-shooting forward is 29 or 30.
However, as Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley underscored in his recent piece on the Love soap opera, Phoenix has to be careful about compromising its hard-earned chemistry by including one of Dragic or Bledsoe in any prospective package:
Build an offer around a boatload of picks and bolster it with several young players (like the Morris twins, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len or Miles Plumlee), and that should be enough to get Phoenix into the conversation.
Then, the conversation would need to shift over to Love and the Suns. Sources told Stein that Phoenix has ‘strong interest in trading for Love, but the 25-year-old's interest in joining the Suns is unclear.’
If Dragic or Bledsoe is involved in the package headed to Minnesota, Phoenix must receive a long-term commitment from Love in advance. If a combination of picks and prospects proves to be enough, the Suns will have to consider pulling the trigger even without that commitment.
Anthony, on the other hand, would have to be convinced Phoenix gave him the best possible chance to win now—something suitors like the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets will doubtless be levying in their own pitches for the 29-year-old All-Star.
The interview may have been conducted in December, but if McDonough’s remarks to NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper are to be believed, Phoenix may well emerge as a potential draft-day game changer—one that could alter the NBA landscape for the next five years:
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. Our preference would probably be to maybe package a few of them. We’re obviously all looking for stars and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available.
The stars are certainly available. The question is how much Phoenix is willing to give up in return.
Which is what makes the Suns’ approach to any prospective trade just as crucial as the intent. Indeed, by patiently waiting to see how the trade market shapes up—up to and including draft day—Phoenix puts itself in a position to pounce at the last possible second, when Minnesota in particular could become panicked.
Even if Phoenix winds up whiffing on landing a star, the consolation prize remains no less attractive: a future of unrivaled roster flexibility combined with a colossally talented core capable of growing into one of the league’s best.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the palpable appeal of what this year’s team could be with a player of Love’s colossal caliber bolstering the frontcourt.
Phoenix’s defense might lack for impact, but its offense—marshaled by second-year maestro and Coach of the Year candidate Jeff Hornacek—would blow the doors clear off any arena.
Today’s NBA is structured to reward teams that masterfully manage their assets. Just look at the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers. Phoenix, if all breaks right, might soon be right there with them.
Sometimes, though, the proven path isn’t always the one best taken. Sometimes, the safe, smart, sensible things wind up being merely what keep you afloat.
To soar high enough to hang a banner, however, requires something a cut above: the recognition that, with the talent you have, all that's needed is a little extra Love.