After volunteering for this piece, I quickly realized that all projections of the Suns franchise would have to hinge on the superstar question, specifically who will it be, how will they get him, and when is he coming?
To attempt to answer these questions would turn this into little more than a loosely structured rosterbation exercise, so I decided to ask a different question: can the Suns build a contender without landing a big fish through trade or free agency?
Since Lon Babby was hired in 2010, the objective was clear.
- Maintain flexibility
- Stay competitive while retooling
- Pile their assets for the next star player
I think it's fair to say that the last four years have proved their mission statement to be rather unreasonable; especially that part about the star player.
The Big Names
As the Kevin Love saga proved, the superstar game is easy to play but damn tough to win.
Despite being armed with a boatload of assets Ryan McDonough had been pick-pocketing from rival GM's in the previous 14 months, plus the prized first-rounder from the Steve Nash trade, ultimately they stood no chance again the stupid luck of the Cavaliers. There was no way in hell that the Timberwolves were going to pass up on Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and a first-rounder.
There is also no way that Love bails on Cleveland with the hometown hero LeBron James on board.
Game, set, match. All the brilliant executive decisions made by the Suns recently were blown away like a fart in the wind, ultimately because LeBron James was born in Akron, Ohio.
I'm not even one of Love's biggest fans, but I'm still bitter. It's the principle that gnaws at me. Shrewd management should yield the spoils of victory, shouldn't it?
The Cavs, on the other hand, have taken more wrong turns than a carload of teenagers in a slasher flick. Yet they are all but guaranteed a deep playoff run, while the Suns will have to again fight tooth and nail for every inch they can gain out West.
As frustrating as the superstar game can be, count on the Suns being named as a potential suitor for nearly every big-time free agent until they finally bag one. The crop of 2015 free agents is currently headlined by LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and DeAndre Jordan. Kawhi Leonard will technically be available, but given the Spurs track record of retaining star players he hardly bears mentioning.
Suns are likely to pursue one or more of these players, but do yourself a favor and keep your expectations in check -- even if they succeed. After all, the Rockets hit home runs in two consecutive offseasons, and it still was only enough for a first-round exit. Two summers ago, the Lakers and Sixers landed arguably the two best centers in the game at the time, Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, respectively. Today both franchises are in the depths of rebuilding.
Even if you win, sometimes you still lose.
With that in mind, what if the the Suns don't land that big fish? What then would be their chances of building a contender?
12 months from now, some or most of the following things will have occurred if the Suns will have ended their four year playoff drought:
- Eric Bledsoe was re-signed, thus forming the Hydra. He even cracked a few smiles here and there
- Said Hydra was a revelation, offsetting the loss of Channing Frye
- Alex Len improved enough to lift the Suns defense to above-average levels
- Alex Len stayed somewhat healthy, thus keeping Markieff Morris from being overexposed with too many minutes at the center position
- Either Alex Len or Miles Plumlee, or preferably both, were able to knock down an open 15-footer with some regularity
- One or more of the Morris twins plus Anthony Tolliver were able to shoot 38% or better from 3
- Jeff Hornacek's reputation as a jumpshot whisperer proved as valid as ever, as the Suns improved on their 8th ranked .372 3FG%
- Markieff Morris proved capable of holding down a starting gig at power forward
- Miles Plumlee showed some usefulness on offense, and maintained or improved his ability to throw down dunks and play defense
- T.J. Warren was every bit as ready to contribute as his summer league play suggested
Let's say half of these things prove true; that would probably be good enough for a 48-win team. The problem is, 48 wins might yet again be insufficient for a playoff berth in the ridiculous Western Conference.
As long as I'm spitballing here, I'd say that the biggest key to making the playoffs in 2014/15 would be Hornyball (yes, I'm calling it that). If Hornacek's system of relentless effort, efficient shot attempts and innovative offensive schemes proves to be more than a short-lived gimmick, and becomes more effective than it was in 2013/14, it will carry more importance than any single player's contribution.
Another Year in Late-Lotto Land?
12 months from now, if the Suns yet again find themselves with a late-lottery pick, it is likely that some or most of the following things happened:
- Eric Bledsoe was somehow not a Sun, or was less effective
- Gerald Green and/or Markieff Morris were one-hit wonders
- Goran Dragic finally hit his ceiling
- The loss of Frye and inability of any frontcourt players to fill his shoes took a toll on the Suns' offensive efficiency
- Alex Len was either injured or ineffective, or both
- Isaiah Thomas was unable to transfer his previous production into a new system
- Both the Pelicans and Nuggets made a leap, and no other Western teams regressed
- Miles Plumlee played like he did in the second half of 2013/14
- T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin were unable to pick up any slack
In the cutthroat environment out West, the above events could easily result in a fate worse than a 14th pick if they come to fruition. Unless a considerable amount of catastrophes or disappointments should befall our Western brethren, there will rarely be any gimmes on the schedule. Even when there are, we're talking about a team that lost a combined 5 games combined to the Kings, Lakers and Jazz in 2013/14.
Tails And Donkeys
Allow me to preface this with a disclaimer: I will not even pretend to have a clue about which of the above possibilities will come true. If I were to attempt to clumsily place a few tails on a few choice donkeys, I would venture a guess that the triple-threat in the backcourt will be a revelation, a number of teams will quickly regret passing over T.J. Warren, and Hornacek will cement his young legacy as a true system coach.
I also have a hard time equating these things to a playoff berth, which is not a slight; the West is just that unfair. Perhaps 12 months from now a second straight 48+ win season without a playoff berth for the Suns forces the NBA to change the playoff format to 1-16 overall, rather than 8 seeds per conference? Hell, I'd call that a successful season.
Put a gun to my head, and I'll wager that the state of the Suns franchise 12 months from now will be largely unchanged. A solid upward trend could be nothing more than significant contributions from Alex Len and T.J. Warren, although it won't create the popcorn headlines that a free agency splash would.
Affirmation of the magic of Hornyball would also signify more progress than most rosterbatory fantasies. The most optimistic scenario that comes to mind -- within the bounds of reason -- is that 12 months from now the Suns have built substantially from the culture that was planted in the summer of 2013 and have established a system that thrives in spite of any roster turnover.
12 months from now, the Morris twins will no longer be on rookie deals and will either have to be invested in or replaced. Likewise, Gerald Green may also play his way into a Jodie Meeks contract. How badly they are needed by the Suns will depend greatly on the progression of Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin.
12 months from now, the Suns organization will be defined not by their ventures into free agency, but by their coaching and the intuition shown by the front office.
Long live Hornyball.