Are Phoenix Suns on Pace to Be NBA's Next Breakout Powerhouse?

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJanuary 1, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 30: Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns handles the basketball against Jared Dudley #9 of the Los Angeles Clippers at STAPLES Center on December 30, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns have obliterated all expectations en route to an astounding 19-11 start to the 2013-14 season—positioning themselves sixth in a loaded Western Conference.

Their dumbfounding level of play thus far even prompted ESPN’s Marc Stein to ask the following question via Twitter:

Before NBA teams had played a single regular-season minute, pundits and fans alike were writing this team off after a last-place finish in the conference a season ago. The Suns organization, however, has flipped that script and positioned itself to be the NBA’s next breakout powerhouse.

Young Roster

For the Suns, everything starts with youth.

The oldest player on the roster is 31-year-old Emeka Okafor, who was acquired from the Washington Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade. He’s spent the entire season on injured reserve due to a herniated disc in his neck.

The oldest functioning part of the Suns is 30-year-old Channing Frye.

The sharpshooting big man is playing some of his best basketball despite missing the entire 2012-13 season due to a heart condition that threatened to end his career.

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His ability to spread the floor with his outside shooting has been a major key to the Suns’ winning ways. Paul Coro of azcentral.com wrote in a recent article, “Channing Frye is as much of a daily essential to the Suns as deodorant. Without him, they might stink.”

Aside from Frye and Okafor—whose sole purpose on this team may be shedding salary at season’s end—no player on the Suns roster is older than 28. The mean age of Suns players is 25.5 years old—an average that makes them the eighth-youngest NBA team.

Phoenix is winning the majority of its games without a strong veteran presence. The average NBA experience of Suns players is 2.9 years. Only the Philadelphia 76ers (2.5 years) have less professional experience on average than the Suns.

Despite having the eighth-youngest roster in the league and an experience level—or perhaps inexperience level—only trumped by Philly, the Suns are winning games. In some cases, they're doing so emphatically:

This young core is only going to get better with more experience. Eric Bledsoe is already thriving with an enhanced role, while Miles Plumlee is making the most of his opportunity to start on an NBA team.

A successful rebuild starts with youth, and the Suns have plenty of it.

Front Office Personnel

While Suns players deserve the bulk of the credit for their hot start, two new integral members of the organization are directly responsible for putting a winning product on the floor: head coach Jeff Hornacek and general manager Ryan McDonough.

The wealth of young players on the roster has bought into Hornacek’s teachings. His uptempo style has allowed Bledsoe and Goran Dragic to thrive simultaneously in the backcourt.

In addition to the backcourt tandem, numerous other players are averaging career highs in points per game: Plumlee, Gerald Green, the Morris twins and P.J. Tucker.

Hornacek's coaching abilities even captured the attention of Grantland’s Bill Simmons:

In all, the Suns have seven players averaging double-digit points.

Without the visionary mind of McDonough, however, this roster would not be in a position to win.

“We wanted to clean up the nonsense, frankly, that had gone on here in years past,” McDonough said, according to an article by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

Former Phoenix Suns general manager Lance Blanks (left) with Michael Beasley.
Former Phoenix Suns general manager Lance Blanks (left) with Michael Beasley.Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Decisions made by previous GM Lance Blanks would certainly qualify as “nonsense.” Blanks signed Michael Beasley to a three-year, $18 million contract in July 2012—a deal that culminated with a buyout. He also traded Dragic and a first-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Aaron Brooks, who played a grand total of 25 games in the Valley of the Sun.

In a matter of months, McDonough has already surpassed the lackluster accomplishments of Blanks.

He orchestrated the three-team deal that brought Bledsoe to Phoenix while surrendering only a second-round pick and veteran swingman Jared Dudley (who has been disappointed with his poor play this season).

According to Wojnarowski’s article, Clippers GM Gary Sacks and head coach Doc Rivers said, “Ryan made that deal happen.”

McDonough also dealt veteran forward Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Plumlee, Green and a first-round pick—a trade that continues to benefit Phoenix in a gigantic way.

Drafting Alex Len out of Maryland with the fifth overall pick in 2013, however, has been met with criticism. Considering that Len didn’t make the All-ACC first, second or third team in college and had two surgeries in two months to repair stress fractures in each ankle, that skepticism is certainly warranted.

In just four games played for the Suns this season, Len has recorded more fouls (eight) than points (seven).

Jun 28, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby , first round draft choices Alex Len and Archie Goodwin , general manager Ryan McDonough , and head coach Jeff Hornacek pose for a photo at a press conference at US
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

While Len hasn't been able to stay healthy, 19-year-old rookie guard Archie Goodwin has shown flashes of becoming a solid NBA player.

Being an NBA contender goes far beyond talent alone (just look at the Brooklyn Nets). Legitimate competitors need a confident coach and a savvy general manager pulling the strings. Now the Suns have both.

Future Options

The Suns' 2013-14 campaign has been remarkable, but the future in Phoenix is even brighter.

McDonough’s team can potentially land four first-round picks in the 2014 NBA draft: their own pick, the Indiana Pacers' top-14 protected, Minnesota Timberwolves' top-13 protected and the Washington Wizards' pick top-12 protected.

As of Dec. 27, 2013, all three first-rounders from the other teams would transfer, per Pro Sports Transactions.

The future of this team starts with re-signing Bledsoe, who is set to become a restricted free agent at season’s end, but the Suns have the cap flexibility, young assets and draft picks necessary to build a perennial contender.

Instead of placing a hodgepodge of below-average players around Steve Nash with the hopes of returning to prominence—as the Suns did in 2010-11 and 2011-12—the franchise finally has a logical plan of action.

Regardless of whether management decides to build through the draft or trade young players and/or picks for an immediate star, they have options.

With exciting young players, a Coach of the Year candidate on the sidelines and a GM who understands the business of basketball, Phoenix has the pieces in place to become a Western Conference powerhouse once again.


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