If you cast your mind back to last summer, a few of us…well most of us, had absolutely no hope for the upcoming season. The lockout didn’t actually seem like such a bad thing because it meant we wouldn’t have to struggle through a pitiful 82 game season of mostly losses. Remember, just prior to the shortened season tipping off, ESPN reckoned this team was the second worst in the West after the Hornets who had just traded CP3. They weren’t the only ones.
With the slow start and some awful losses to the likes of the Nets, Raptors and Cavs, it looked like that assessment was right. Calls for "tanking" were soon in full flow, as were the arguments to "free Nash" and do a "full blown rebuild" based around securing a high draft pick. In other words, a lost season.
We know too well how the team has turned it around. Right now there’s three games left, and the playoffs are looking good for this Suns team which has massively overachieved. In fact, after last night, the Suns can't finish the season with a losing record. That's amazing. I don’t mean to belittle the achievement of making the playoffs when I say that what happens from here onwards is irrelevant. I desperately want the Suns to qualify, even if a first round exit seems likely.
The fact of the matter is that whatever happens in these next three games and (hopefully) the playoffs, the Suns have already accelerated the rebuilding process in a huge way.
Robert Sarver has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe in a full rebuild based around draft picks, instead opting for an on the fly rebuild based around free agency and trades while retaining what few good pieces the team has. I totally agree with this plan. Right now, the Suns are in a fantastic position to achieve that.
A contending team needs more than just talent. Look at last night’s opponents for proof of that. The Clippers have some nice pieces but they’re not a contender. They lack chemistry. They lack a coach who knows his roster and trusts his players, trust which is likewise reciprocated. They lack experience. They lack professionalism. They lack leadership.
The Suns have all of those qualities and more, and they’ve shone through in almost every game lately. That’s why games are being won, and that’s what this season has achieved. Going forward, the results of this are threefold:
1. The chances of retaining Nash are high as a result of the progress made in this surprising season. Imagine if the Suns had taken the other route and just tanked. They’d be a team of below par players achieving absolutely nothing and just fulfilling fixtures for the sake of it. You think Nash would have stuck around? He’s loyal, but I think that’s pushing it. I absolutely think he’ll extend with the Suns as a result of this year. People say he can’t be the man anymore, at least, not in 2 or 3 seasons’ time. Maybe they’re right, but he doesn’t need to be. He can still be a huge part of the Suns, because he’s still one of the top PGs in the game.
This is arguably the least talented roster Nash has had since he returned, and yet look how it has performed. Look how he has performed. That bodes well for next season if the right pieces can be added and retained. Speaking of which…
2. The Suns now know exactly what they need in free agency. With a complete rebuild through the drafts, it would have taken a few years to assess talent and see exactly what they have. The Thunder are perhaps an exception but even they needed time for their draft picks to emerge and gel. The Suns have made their way through that process in one season, effectively. They know exactly what they need and exactly what they lack – a scoring two guard and a power forward that commands attention. They know that Gortat is a reliable center. They know what players like Hill, Frye, Dudley and obviously Nash bring to the table.
That works the other way too. Free agents this summer now know exactly how they’d fit into this Suns team and what their role will be. A player like Eric Gordon or OJ Mayo will know exactly what will be required of them if they were to sign with the Suns. The plan is clear. Isn’t that better than being a muddled team of uncertainty armed with cap space? If I’m a free agent, the current Suns situation is highly appealing.
3. The Suns have found answers to vital questions. Alvin Gentry has proven himself as a coach this season. It was one thing to be successful with a roster comprised of Nash, Amar’e, J-Rich etc, it’s another thing to get one containing the likes of Shannon Brown, Michael Redd and Sebastian Telfair to overachieve. I’ll admit I didn’t think Gentry had the ability. I didn’t think Redd had the ability (or health), or Brown. I didn’t think Elston Turner would make much of an impact defensively. Could Nash still perform? Could Telfair back him up efficiently? Could Gortat build on what he achieved last season? Could RoLo get back to 2010 performance levels? The list goes on. There were uncertainties.
It’s hard for a team to progress without having the answers to these types of questions. You need a learning process to figure things out. That process was this season, and the majority of the answers have been hugely positive.
You can’t just assemble talent and expect the team to be successful from the off. You need to develop the building blocks and lay the foundations for success. That takes time and several seasons, minimum. In that sense, this season has been priceless. To make the playoffs while doing that (or coming incredibly close to doing so if not) is pretty damn impressive and I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any other team recently that has been in a similar position and achieved so much in what is essentially a rebuilding year. Compare it to the type of year the Hornets have had. Most teams have to go through that. The Suns have avoided it.
Now the front office has to go out and get the job done in the summer. Take care of Nash, satisfy him - and us - with significant roster upgrades and next season could be fantastic. Who honestly thought the Suns would achieve so much with so little, being hugely competitive and entertaining at the same time?
You couldn’t really ask for a better way to be rebuilding on the fly.