I've been very resistant to post this story. In fact, I wrote it four months ago, at the beginning of the lockout, figuring I'd trash it once the lockout was over and the prospect of Suns basketball gave me goose bumps again.
Well, the lockout is effectively over, and I'm not feeling goose bumps.
The more time that passed without basketball, the more objective I feel I can be with this Phoenix Suns team. Without major change, this Suns franchise is hovering in the 25-win (in the event of an inevitable Steve Nash injury) to 35-40 win territory (even if he is "healthy") for the next couple of years. And then after that, if the front office doesn't perfectly plan the transition to the inevitable post-Nash era, we could be looking at 10-15 of years of rebuilding (eye-opening Scott Howard article) while becoming a lottery staple amongst the Clippers, Twolves, Warriors, Pistons, Kings and so many others.
Even in the near term with a healthy Nash, the likely 35-40 wins a year is the WORST place to be in the NBA. You don't get a star draft pick (yet another eye-opening Scott Howard article) and you don't make the playoffs. You just exist in limbo, signing mid-level free agents and drafting mid-level college players in hopes of getting lucky.
The Suns need young, healthy superstars around whom they can build a new winner into the future. Yet, a slow fade by Nash keeps you shopping in the dollar store.
But where do they come from? How do we get that 1-2 superstars in the desert?
If you'll remember, I wrote an article in summer 2010 detailing how "carry-your-team-to-a-championship" superstars must be found via the draft. Trades and free agent signings almost never hit that jackpot. Just look at all the league champions since 1989, covering 22 seasons. Shaquille O'Neal (4 rings) is the only free agent example to date. Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace/Chauncey Billups (1 ring per pair) are the only trade examples.
By contrast, Michael Jordan (6 rings), Tim Duncan (4), Hakeem Olajuwon (2), Kobe Bryant (2 as the head honcho), Isaiah Thomas (2) and Dirk (1) have led their teams to 17 of the last 23 championships as their team's draftee. Even O'Neal (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade) and Garnett/Allen (Paul Pierce) had a superstar draftee on their team when they won the championship.
If you want a championship, forget the outlier (Pistons in 2004) and accept the truth: the Phoenix Suns will not win a championship until they DRAFT the superstar who will carry them there.
And the Suns will not draft their next superstar while Steve Nash remains in Phoenix. He wins too many (but not enough anymore) games. Plus they need the cap room in summer of 2012 by not having his 10+ million on the books.
And when is the best time to trade Steve Nash?
As soon as the lockout ends.
Reason 1: Money. The Suns have already sold the tickets they are going to sell for next season, and that one's only 66 games. The key is the summer of 2012 and a new ticket-selling season. As long as the Suns acquire a new "ticket-seller" by next August, Sarver won't have lost much of anything.
Reason 2: The 2012 Draft is loaded, already being hailed as the best draft since 2003 (which boasted LeBron, Anthony, Bosh and Wade plus 4 other all-stars). If there was a year to have a top-5 pick, 2012 is it. Six top young college players pulled out of the 2011 draft to wait out the lockout in college. Another half-dozen incoming freshmen are considered the best in a long while. By the end of the college season, a handful of these guys will have "multiple future all-star games" on their prospect profiles.
Reason 3: There are a lot of major free agents available in the 2012 offseason, with a more-Suns-friendly CBA on the horizon to help sign them. You get Nash off the books and spend next season cleaning house, you're looking at $30-40 million available to spend on the draft and free agency. Unrestricted free agent stars: Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams. Restricted free agent stars: Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook.
Not convinced yet? Compare these two scenarios...
Scenario 1 - Keep Nash, Close Eyes, Cross Fingers and Hope For The Best
Keep Steve Nash and Grant Hill through at least the 2012-2013 season. Pray you hit the jackpot with an all-star player at the 11-18 slot next June.
In that scenario, the Suns would likely have about $43 million committed to 9 players entering the 2012 season: Nash @10 mil, Hill @3mil, Morris @2mil, new rookie @1.5 mil, plus Gortat, Childress, Frye, Warrick and Dudley.
Basically, the same team we've got today and only about $10 million to spend on free agency. That's 1 or 2 more mid-level veterans. No way a superstar (Howard, Paul, D Williams) comes to play with a fading Phoenix team still hanging its hat on Steve Nash.
Another couple years of 30-45 wins, here we come.
Trade Steve Nash and Josh Childress to the New York Knicks for SG Landry Fields, PG Chauncey Billups, combo G Toney Douglas and the rights to rookie PG Iman Shumpert. Really, there's nothing else on that team worth having that NY would give up for Nash.
Figure out how not to play Billups. Either buy him out or trade him again for more young talent.
Win 20-25 games, resulting in a top-5 pick. Draft the player with the best potential, regardless of position.
That summer, the Suns would have only $24 million committed to 8 players:
- 1 high-quality 3rd-best starter (Marcin Gortat)
- 2 good-enough-to-round-out-a-lineup starters (SF Dudley, SG Fields)
- 5 quality backups (PF Morris, PF/C Frye, PF Warrick, PG Shumpert and combo G Douglas)
Scary? Sure. That lineup right there would win 20 games a year.
Tons of options? YES.
That lineup leaves $30-40 million to spend on a "star" free agent PLUS your top-5 draft pick and one more starter to fill whatever hole is left. $30-40 million is a lot of cheese, folks. And a top-5 draft pick next spring will likely net you a multi-time all-star.
Forget Dwight Howard. That would be just mean to the Polish Hammer.
But if you're PG Deron Williams or Chris Paul, would you want to step into a young 10-man rotation with a rookie superstar plus 3 solid starters and 5 proven backups ready to raring to go?
I'd think yes.
And that, Suns fans, has a much better future.