Phoenix Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough realizes there's no single way that works to build a championship contender. One strategy is to hoard several years of high lotto picks. Another is attacking the free agent market. Yet another is trading for your star. All are fraught with risk, all more likely to fail than succeed.
McDonough's plan is a simple, yet ambitious one.
"First and foremost, to try to get the great players," he said. "If we can't get them right away, try to be patient and deliberate, try to build through the draft, maybe through trades if we have to, to bring in some young players who maybe haven't hit it yet, haven't broken through, and then hopefully we're building up and we're going in the right direction."
The hope is that he knows the difference between great (Howard, Paul) and not-so-great (Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, Paul Millsap). The not-so-great will just get you back to mediocre. There's no reason to sign a late-20s free agent who won't be top-5 at his position for the next 4-5 years. Not when you're just starting on the road back to respectability.
"I am not looking to patch this together, to get better in the short term but have no model of sustained success."
If you don't know what mediocrity without a model of sustained success looks like, just roll back your memory banks to the 2010-2012 Phoenix Suns. Granted, that was a different day and time. The Suns were riding out the Nash contract, honoring the Suns best player since Barkley with a chance at a run while also building to the future. A failed model, to be sure, but a well-intentioned one.
The Suns plan is clear. Build through the draft, while being aggressive when the time is right to strike.
"What OKC did was hang onto those guys and win with those guys," he said. "What we did in Boston was we drafted very well for a number of years, and then we kept some of the guys, traded some of them for Kevin Garnett, and traded some for Ray Allen. So it's a combination of those different things. There's different ways to do it."
While there are different ways to do it, both examples started with stellar drafts. You can't build a model of sustained success without good draft picks. Like they did in Boston, quality draft picks either become stars for your own team or assets in a trade for a top-notch player.
Just before Boston acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to make consecutive Finals runs, Danny Ainge was about to lose his job. The Celtics had descended into the doldrums of repeated lottery appearances, winning only 33 and 24 games the previous two seasons. Then they traded the #5 pick for Ray Allen, and young Al Jefferson and parts for Kevin Garnett and they went on to the Finals.
Just before OKC matured and became lauded as the best young team in the game, they had suffered through seasons of 20 and 23 wins with those same guys. In fact, during the 2009 offseason, there was (per a league source) considerable worry in the OKC front office that this group would never be playoff-caliber. Durant was one of the league's worst +/- players in 2008-09, and Westbrook was a shooting guard in the PGs body. But they stayed the course and they're all happy now.
Neither team signed the best player in free agency. They did it through the draft to start with, and they suffered a bit without any guarantee that the plan would work.
Does that mean the Suns are hunkering down this summer, eschewing the big names while they fill their war chest over the next few years?
"If a great player wants to come here, we're going to go get him," Ryan McDonough says without hesitation.
McDonough has made that declaration several times since being hired. He's not going to back down, just because the Suns are where they are. Top free agents available this summer include Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.
"Trying to get guys here," he explained. "I think we have a lot of advantages: the market, the training staff, the tradition, the franchise. But you know it is a tough sell when you won 25 games the year before."
McDonough isn't fooling himself, but he's not taking himself out of the game either. If a great player wants to come to Phoenix, he wants to be in a position to get that guy and build around him.
"My initial instinct is it's unlikely we'll get one of them," he admits. "Just given that the team won 25 games and where we are.
"But if we can get one of them then we're going to try to accelerate the process and supplement them the best we can to win right away. I guess a team like Houston has done that, all of a sudden they got James Harden and that lifts your whole ship, lifts the whole program, and I think they're a team specifically that's very well positioned going forward."
The Houston model is interesting, bordering on disaster as they missed the playoffs for three years in a row, tore it down and struck out last summer on trading for Dwight Howard. But then James Harden became inexplicably available and Houston quietly engineered a trade with OKC for parts that, looking back on it, just weren't a fair trade.
Houston stockpiled first round draft picks (which the Suns have done) and then started trading their best players for even more picks (which the Suns have not yet done). Young starting-caliber PG Kyle Lowry was traded for a future pick which ultimately closed the deal on Harden. Fan favorite Luis Scola was amnestied. Other veterans were let go despite their love for the city. But no one's crying now. Houston is on the rise and still in the market for another star to pair with Harden.
McDonough is realistic though.
"We're always going to try to get the top free agents," he said. "But building through the draft is a more likely path. Veteran free agents, especially guys who are later in their career, they usually want to go somewhere they can win a championship for the next few years."
The Suns make a call to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to guage their interest in coming to the Valley. Likely, those guys are already looking in other directions.
I just hope the Suns stay the course and refrain from calling the older veteran free agents that won't turn the Suns into a Finals contender.