Several weeks ago, I put up a FanPost on this topic. My conclusion was that franchise players - the ones who win championships - are almost always acquired via the DRAFT.
I only looked at the NBA since free agency started in full bloom, which limits the analysis to the past 20 years. The last 20 championships have seen the following players lead their teams to more than one championship: Michael Jordan (6), Hakeem Olajuwon (2), Shaquille O'Neal (4), Tim Duncan (4) and Kobe Bryant (2 by himself).
Of those only Shaq was acquired via free agency. The rest were drafted and kept.
Single-ring winners include the Detroit Pistons (no franchise star) and the Boston Celtics (3 stars, no one franchise player).
That's it. Two. Two championships won without a multi-ring franchise player at the helm.
You could argue that the Miami Heat's win in 2006 makes it 3 single-title winners (Dwyane Wade over Shaq) because Shaq was no longer the man at that time. Yet many people argue that Shaq was more deserving of NBA MVP in the 2005 season than Steve Nash. If that's the case, Shaq was not yet on the decline. And given Wade's limited (more like laughable) success since that season as his team's primary leader, an argument that Wade was the franchise player loses even more steam.
So we're still at 2. Two teams who won a championship without that one leading multi-championship player since 1991.
Pretty obvious that you need that one guy, and that one guy must be acquired via your draft pick.
But let's dig a little deeper.
Jordan, Olajuwon and Duncan were drafted by their team's own draft pick. O'Neal was signed as a free agent. Kobe was acquired via a draft-day trade with Charlotte. Boston and Detroit were cobbled together via trades and free agency.
And even then, Duncan was "won" via the lottery. San Antonio was bad the year before, but not worst in the NBA.
So, that brings us down to 8 of the last 20 championships won by a team whose leader was drafted by them as a result of their own prior-season horrors. Olajuwon and Jordan. Both were drafted in 1984, by the way.
Conversely, 12 of the last 20 championships were won by team who acquired their championships via luck (draft lottery), trade (Kobe, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen) or free agency (Billups and O'Neal).
So you don't need to completely tank your season to "earn" the #1 overall draft pick to get your multi-ring franchise player. There is NO NEED to completely rebuild. No need to sacrifice a single win in 2010-2011 or beyond.
Free agency seems to be a complete crap-shoot, but it can still work if you've got enough cap space and the right "draw". The Lakers had Hollywood. The HEAT, who just brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh) had unique friendship from the Olympics. And South Beach.
You need gobs of cap space and great location, and a little luck (just ask New York and New Jersey, who also cleared tons of cap space to end up with nothing).
The Pistons and Celtics won a ring thanks in the most part to trade. The Pistons got Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline, and the Celtics got Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. You could even make the case that the Lakers don't win the last 2 championships without Gasol, who was acquired via trade.
In all cases, the team had the right assets to make the deal (expiring contracts, cap space, young players, movable contracts).
The Suns have put themselves into a great position in this regard. No overpaid players (except Turkoglu), lots of depth, solid core of youth and veterans, and a $5.7 mil TPE.
Also, if Grant Hill and Jason Richardson expire next summer before the draft, the Suns will have $11 million of space under the cap at draft time. (trust that Grant will be re-signed, especially with Babby here, but that can be done using Bird Rights after the Suns spend the cap space)
OKC acquired the #11 overall draft pick this summer because they were willing to absorb a $5 million contract into their available cap space from a team desperate to shed payroll (New Orleans). In the past, they also acquired 2 #1s from the Suns to absorb Thomas' 8 mill. Those *could* have been high picks, but lucky for the Suns they weren't.
Utah Jazz acquired the #9 overall pick in this year's draft in a trade years ago (involving the Suns, no less).
Last year, Washington traded their #5 overall pick to Minnesota for a couple of warm bodies, in their ill-fated attempt to bring in veterans for a playoff push. Minny drafted Ricky Rubio, a pick that may yet pan out to be a great one (though he won't likely play in Minnesota).
Three years ago, the Celtics traded their #5 overall pick to Seattle for Ray Allen and a bad contract or two.
Remember, Kobe was drafted #13 overall via a draft-day trade. So these high picks *could* turn out to be franchise players.
Luck (Draft Lottery)
Utah had that #9 pick for years. There was a chance they could have won the lottery this season. Though Wall wouldn't necessarily fit alongside Deron Williams, they could have traded down a spot or two for yet another asset, plus drafted Evan Turner or Derrick Favors, two positions they really needed to fill. Utah won 53 games this year, and still nearly won the lottery.
The Suns, for their part, *almost* got Lew Alcindor in the 60s.
More recently, they *almost* got a #6 draft pick (would have been used to take Joakim Noah) in the summer of 2007. They had Atlanta's top-3-protected pick. Unfortunately, Atlanta got lucky and kept it by lucking into the #3 pick (taking Al Horford). The Suns had won 62 games that year and *almost* got the guy they needed in Joakim Noah that *could* have propelled them to a ring or two.
Acquiring higher draft picks from iffy franchises is a great way to go.
The Suns BEST chances keep winning a lot of games in 2010-2011 AND acquiring that next great franchise player without losing a beat are....
(drum roll please)
Use that $11 million in cap space after JRich and Hill expire in June to acquire a top-15 pick in the draft while absorbing someone's bad contract, and use it to hit on that next great player. It could be as high as #5 (as shown above), but not likely to be top-3, so you have to get real lucky.
Use J-Rich 2 months earlier for a talented PF on a long contract plus a high future #1. The key here is the ability to use J-Richs $14 mil to take someone else's cap-killer (who can help the Suns maintain their current season) for the big key: potentially really high future draft pick.
The free agency route. A crap shoot. Buuuuuuuttt, next summer there's a special situation.
Atlanta has high-priced Josh Smith and soon-to-be high-priced Al Horford. Both *should* play the same position (PF), and the 2 together are not winning any championships because their games don't mesh perfectly on the court. One of them ultimately has to go.
Suns could use that 11 million next summer to front-load an offer for Atlanta PF/C Al Horford. It's one or the other for Atlanta, and the Suns should be the recipients. If $11 mil isn't high enough as a starting offer, then the Suns can offer a sign-n-trade. Returning Altanta a future draft pick might be worth it to acquire Horford.
This guy is the best available next year. He's a 24-yr old 20/10 waiting to happen, but in Atlanta he's being stifled as their starting C so he's not hitting his ceiling. The Suns would be fortunate to get him before he really explodes. He could be a Duncan type, if played in the right system.
Alternately, if the Hawks pay a bundle (max) to keep Horford, the consolation prize is Josh Smith and that's pretty damn good too. That one could be done at the trade deadline, and could possibly be enough of a missing link to put the Suns over the top. In fact, absorbing Smith's big long-term deal for J-Rich's expiring one might also net a future #1 draft pick.
Fact is, both guys are underperforming in Atlanta. Suns can pounce, and they've got the right pieces to do it.
And all three options (acquiring a high draft pick via trade/cap space, or Horford/Smith next summer) could be executed without sacrificing a single win this season or next.
No need to rebuild. The future is out there. Suns just need to grab onto it.