After roughly a decade of near constant Western Conference competitiveness, the Phoenix Suns stumbled in 2012-2013, putting together one of the franchise's worst seasons. The loss of offensive stalwart Steve Nash, combined with a general decline in the overall talent level, more or less guaranteed the team a less than stellar campaign, though neither coach Alvin Gentry nor general manager Lance Blanks expected the team to perform as badly as it did. The end of the 2012-13 season signaled the beginning of the Suns' rebuilding efforts.
In this article, I will address the Suns' rebuilding efforts to date both in a broader context of how NBA teams seem to go about putting together their rosters and front offices, and also through a comparison of the Phoenix Suns' rebuilding efforts in comparison to contemporaneous rebuilds in Philadelphia, Utah, Boston and Atlanta. Orlando and Cleveland were possible inclusions, but were left off because they started their rebuild a little earlier.
Keep in mind that, as far as rebuilds go, this team is in the early stages, despite the impressive results this season. We still don't know how our roster fits whatever vision Babby, McDonough and Hornacek have for our team; nor can we answer those questions for most of the other teams in this article.
As is always the case, this article reflects my personal take on the situation and the background.
NBA teams are in a constant process of roster construction. I think of roster building as a one dimensional space, where on either end teams are either rebuilding or re-tooling, but in reality can fall anywhere in between. Rebuilding occurs when a franchise, in essence, has no singular core to build around, and instead is groping in the dark, hoping to find something reassuring to lift itself up with and build around. The quintessential modern example is the post-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers, a team which featured the star-studded starting squad of Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, Alonzo Gee, Anthony Parker and Baron Davis in 2010-11, and has since totally rebuilt the roster, with the most recent incarnation of the team featuring only 2 of the 15 players from the 2010-11 team. Rebuilding projects are usually characterized by large scale changes in front office personnel, coaching staffs and large amounts of year to year roster turnover.
A re-tooling project, in contrast, is when a team has identified a core of players (or, in rare cases, a core system and coach) to build around, and has made the conscious decision to rebuild around those players in an effort to compete, rather than burning everything down and starting over. Re-toolings usually feature a fairly constant front office, and oftentimes the franchise maintains the same coach, and by definition have a core of players that remains the same over time. A good example of this is the 2012-13 Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks, despite an aging team, made the conscious decision to continue to attempt to build around veteran superstar Dirk Nowitzki rather than destroying the team, despite a relatively lackluster season and the age of their superstar. The 2013-14 Mavericks featured a largely similar core of players when compared to the 2012-13 team, and the group led them to a playoff berth and a tough 7 game series loss against the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.
A common narrative around this constant roster maintenance is that teams have one of two options: either target roster growth through the draft, or through free agency and trades. I think, again, that this is more likely a continuum, where franchises are often somewhere in between the extremes of building purely through the draft or through free agent/trade acquisitions. The chart below provides a handy diagram of the decisions NBA front offices make in maintaining their rosters.
The green line indicates the presumed relationship between what types of players a front office will pursue, and where that team is on the rebuilding - re-tooling continuum. One would expect that, as a team gets farther from the initiation of its rebuild, it moves more and more to the right, having acquired a core of players that the franchise is now attempting to build around. We would then expect teams to focus more on the process of re-tooling and adding pieces to the new core. This is what all teams hope for in building up their roster - getting to a point where constantly shifting pieces is no longer necessary.
So, why did I just make you think about mathematical relationships and modeling? Well, largely because it helps us to compare the 5 teams of interest. All five of these teams, at least by popular perception, were closer to the rebuilding side of the spectrum than the re-tooling side. Evaluating where they are, today, is part ex post facto evaluation of what the teams have done, and part prognostication of where they are going in the future. When comparing the teams, I will make reference to where they seem to be on the rebuilding - re-tooling continuum, as well as where they fall on the draft - trades/free agency player acquisition continuum. This adds a little bit of objectivity to the analysis, I hope.
2012-13 Record: 44-38 (Lost 1st round of playoffs)
Move(s) indicating rebuilding/re-tooling: Loss of Josh Smith, Firing of Coach Larry Drew, Trade of Joe Johnson (2012), Hiring of GM Danny Ferry (2012) and Coach Mike Budenholzer (May 2013)
Key Roster Moves: Drafted Lucas Nogueira (16), Dennis Schroder (17), Mike Muscala (44), Raulzinho Neto (47); Signed Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague (RFA)
Team Core: Al Horford/Jeff Teague/Paul Millsap/Lou Williams(?)
Photo Credit: Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports
Key Young Players: Dennis Schroder, Lucas Nogueira, Mike Muscala (TO), John Jenkins, Mike Scott (UFA), 2014 #15 overall
2014-15 Salary Cap situation: $48 million guaranteed to 9 players, $2 million in options (Shelvin Mack player option, Mike Muscala team option); Projected roughly $13 million in salary cap space (Source)
Evaluation: The Hawks are probably the outlier on this list, as they went through the softest rebuild. But they did, in a two year time frame, change general managers, change coaches, trade away their biggest contract player and allow one of their core pieces to leave. They were very close to allowing Jeff Teague to leave, as well, before their plans for a replacement were thwarted.
The Hawks came the closest to simply re-tooling of any of the teams I'll discuss. They identified early that they wanted to keep and build around Al Horford, and they did so partly through free agent acquisitions (namely Paul Millsap) and partly through the draft, even though only Schroder has played all that much for them at this point.
Looking forward, the Hawks are in a pretty similar position to the Suns. The year they were supposed to be really down, they put together a solid season and made the playoffs despite an injury to their best player (Horford). They have future assets coming in (though not nearly what the Suns have in terms of picks), and just enough cap space to be a player in free agency or a player/facilitator in trades.
- Current Team: B (Horford/Teague/Millsap is still a pretty good core)
- Future Assets: B+
- Salary Cap Space/Future Flexibility: B-
2012-13 Record: 41-40 (lost 1st round)
Move(s) indicating rebuilding/re-tooling: Loss of Ray Allen in free agency, trade of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, loss of Doc Rivers, hiring of Brad Stevens
Key Roster Moves: Lost Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; drafted Kelly Olynyk
Key Young Players: Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, 2014 #6, #17 overall
2014-15 Salary Cap situation: $46.5 million guaranteed to 7 players, $5.5 million in non-guaranteed (Bradley, TO on Christapher Johnson and Chris Babb) (Source); Projected around $10 million in cap space
Future Assets controlled: 2015 1st Round Pick (LAC), 2016 1st Round Pick (BRK), 2016 2nd Round Pick (Miami), Right to 1st Round Pick Swap 2017 (BRK), 2018 1st Round Pick (BRK)
Evaluation: The Boston Celtics witnessed the breakup of the original Big Three when Ray Allen left in free agency. The wheels fell of the bus quickly after, and the rebuild started after losing Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers not long afterwards.
The Celtics retained PG Rajon Rondo, who has only 1 year left on his current contract. They were saddled at the same time with Gerald Wallace's 2 year, $20 million contract. The team struggled all season, and has a significantly worse current squad than the Hawks, Suns or even arguably the Jazz. It is unclear at this point whether the Celtics plan to build around Rondo or to try to dangle him, but at the moment they seem firmly on the rebuilding side of the continuum.
What the Celtics may lack in current roster strength, they make up for in flexibility and future assets. They have the 1st round picks of the Nets locked down from 2016-2018, plus an additional pick in 2015 from the Clippers. They have a number of large contracts that are near to expiring that could be used as trade filler. And they are down for less than $30 million for the big 2014-15 free agent class.
- Current Team: C-/C (The Rondo effect)
- Future Assets: A-
- Salary Cap Space/Future Flexibility: B+
2012-13 Record: 34-48
Move(s) indicating rebuilding/re-tooling: Resignation of Coach Doug Collins, Hiring of general manager Sam Hinkie, trading of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner
Key Roster Moves: Traded Jrue Holiday for #6 Overall Pick in 2013, Nerlens Noel; Drafted Michael Carter Williams
Team Core: Michael Carter Williams/Thad Young(?)/Jason Richardson(?) (I'm grasping here)
Key Young Players: Michael Carter Williams, Nerlens Noel, Henry Sims(?), 2014 #3, #10, #32, #39, #47
Future Assets controlled: 2nd Rounders in 2015 (GSW, NOP), 2016 (DEN), 2018 (LAC)
Evaluation: The 76ers were terrible this year. Flat terrible. The only team worse was the Bucks, and the Bucks at least had injury problems. The 76ers were designed to be this bad, evident by the fact that over 20 players were officially part of the roster this past season. From a current roster perspective, this team has a lot of concerns, especially since Nerlens Noel, the player for whom they traded All-Star caliber PG Jrue Holiday, didn't play at all last season due to injury. A lot of hopes are lying with MCW and the #3 and #10 picks this season. The current roster lacks any really established player to build around, meaning this team is firmly on the rebuilding end of the spectrum, and looks likely to remain that way into the future.
Future assets wise, this team also isn't in all that great of a spot. Other than having an absolute boatload of 2nd rounders in the future and in this upcoming draft, there isn't much there. The additional first round pick in 2014 could be very useful, but they lack the absolutely massive number of 1st round picks possessed by both Boston and Phoenix.
In terms of flexibility, however, no other team has as much as the 76ers. In essence, they are not tied to anyone. There have already been rumors that they would be willing to move Michael Carter Williams for a pick or as part of a package. While this type of flexibility is tempered by the lack of great future assets and current roster strength, it does allow for strategically targeting free agents as well as draft picks, following the Daryl Morey strategy.
- Current Team: D/D+ (at least they're mostly young)
- Future Assets: C
- Salary Cap Space/Future Flexibility: A
2012-13 Record: 25-57
Team Core: Eric Bledsoe (RFA)/Goran Dragic
Key Young Players: Markieff Morris/Alex Len/Archie Goodwin/2014 #14/#18/#27 overall
2014-15 Salary Cap situation: $36.25 million guaranteed to 8 players (including Beasley), $2.2 million in non-guaranteed (Shavlik Randolph and Ish Smith), $6.8 million PO (Channing Frye), $3.7 million cap hold (Eric Bledsoe) (Source); Projected between $6-20 million (depending on if/when we re-sign Bledsoe)
Future Assets controlled: Protected 1st Round Picks (MIN (2015/206, after which it reverts to two 2nd rounders), LAL (protected 1-5 2015, 1-3 2016-2017))
Evaluation: The Suns were arguably the best of the rebuilding teams in this article (I lean towards Atlanta having a little better team currently), and went through an almost full rebuild faster than any other team in recent memory. This was basically an entirely new team this season - Dragic, Tucker and Kieff were the only major minute players to return. The core of Bledsoe and Dragic, with complimentary pieces in Green and Kieff and young assets in Archie and Len, mean the current roster has a lot of potential. The franchise moved with almost blistering speed from a full rebuild to a very real possibility of re-tooling around our core players.
Compared to the other teams, while we have good future assets, we are not quite at the level of Boston or Atlanta, who are seeing the returns of lopsided trades. The protected nature of our future 1st picks also works against us a little bit here: if Minnesota doesn't make the playoffs in the next two years, that pick reverts to two 2nd rounders.
In terms of future flexibility and cap space, the Suns are in a bit of a weird position. For the 2014-15 free agent class, we don't have a great amount of comparable flexibility once the PO on Channing Frye and matching Bledsoe are taken into account. However, for 2014-15 we actually project to have quite a bit of flexibility, with a very real possibility that the Suns will have close to $30 million in cap space if Goran opts out and there are no major free agent acquisitions this offseason.
- Current Team: B-/B (Has to be a little lower than ATL since no playoff berth)
- Future Assets: B/B+
- Salary Cap Space/Future Flexibility: B/B+
2012-13 Record: 43-39
Move(s) indicating rebuilding/re-tooling: Allowing Randy Foye, Al Jefferson, Mo Williams, DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap to leave in free agency
Key Roster Moves: Taking on of empty contracts in Richard Jefferson/Andris Biedrins/Brandon Rush; otherwise, just players they added in the draft - Trey Burke/Rudy Gobert and adding a bunch of journeyman and undrafted guys
Team Core: Gordon Hayward (RFA)/Enes Kanter/Derrick Favors
Photo Credit: Chris Nicoll, USA TODAY Sports
Key Young Players: Enes Kanter/Derrick Favors/Trey Burke/Alec Burks/Rudy Gobert/2014 #5, #23 and #35
2014-15 Salary Cap situation: $32 million guaranteed to 11 players, likely around $11 million for Gordon Hayward(Source); Projected nearly $20 million in cap space
Future Assets controlled: 1st Round Pick 2017 (GSW), 2nd Round Picks 2016 (GSW), 2017 (GSW), 2018 (DEN)
Evaluation: The Jazz were probably a little worse than the front office expected this season, considering they fired coach Tyrone Corbin. It wasn't entirely unexpected, however, that a team with a rookie PG would perform all that well. Even with the poor performance, however, this team featured a number of talented players, and a ton of young talent. In fact, almost their entire returning player base is under 25, and it should be expected that they won't be this bad again next season. The Jazz seem to be attempting to build around their existing young core, putting them likely somewhere in the middle between rebuilding and re-tooling.
The Jazz are in a place similar to the 76ers in terms of future assets. They get some pieces, and the extra 1st rounder in 2016 will be nice, but overall they aren't in as good of a place as the Suns, the Hawks or the Celtics.
In terms of flexibility, the Jazz have both immediate and long term flexibility. They could be big players in the 2014 free agent class, but also likely for the 2015 class, where the only players up for extension will be Kanter and Burks.
- Current Team: C/C+ (again, at least they're young)
- Future Assets: C+
- Salary Cap Space/Future Flexibility: A
The Suns have a somewhat unique set of problems in their rebuilding process. With the presumption that this franchise started last summer with the intention of completely rebuilding the roster, the rebuild has gone faster than almost anyone expected. Compared to, for example, the 76ers or the Boston Celtics, the Suns look to be in a much better place in the near future despite at least ostensibly starting from just as bad a place.
In the medium to long term, the Suns are also in an interesting position, with a fairly large number of future first rounders. In terms of future assets controlled, the Suns look to be in a middle of the road position, with more assets than Utah and Philadelphia, but less than Atlanta and Boston.
The conundrum the Suns may face in their rebuilding process could be that they have moved too fast. In transitioning from the full rebuild stage to the re-tooling so quickly, they may run into a number of problems. Players might end up peaking at awkward stages. The Suns could end up with a roster that mixes too much old with too much new. There may be struggles within the front office in determining whether the core we have is good enough to attempt to fully transition into re-tooling and acquiring established players to surround the current core; doing so would indicate a want to win now, and would likely be signaled by the front office attempting to jettison their stocked assets a la the 2013 Dallas Mavericks. The other path would be to decide that the team, with its current core, is not enough or doesn't fit the franchise's vision, at which point we would expect players to be traded in order to acquire a superstar or more assets.
Of the teams on this list, I think the only team that could legitimately lay claim to having as good of a short term and long term outlook as the Suns is the Atlanta Hawks, who I think feature a somewhat better roster at this exact moment and have the very coveted Brooklyn first rounders coming their way. The other teams feature as much if not usually more long term uncertainty as the Suns, while not featuring the short term stability of having a competitive roster.
In other words, the Suns have work yet to do, but they sure look better than most of their rebuilding peers.