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Phoenix Suns might just have that chance to find star through draft

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Forget that lightly-protected Los Angeles Lakers pick that was handed to Philadelphia for Brandon Knight. If the Phoenix Suns don't make a dramatic shift from awful to awesome in the next two weeks or so, they might just be battling for a Top 5 pick of their own next June, while the Lakers look intent on keeping their pick anyway.

Sitting at 12-18 coming off an epic stinker on Monday night against the short-handed Jazz, the Suns look and feel like a team completely unready to succeed during a really tough stretch of their schedule starting the turn of the year.

A lineup that includes two 20-point scorers, a former Defensive Player of the Year and a pair of stretch-fours to space the floor has been particularly awful in recent games. The biggest problem begins with poor on-court decision making that's exacerbated by a coach who insists his players make smart decisions in crunch time.

Coach Hornacek appears to design plays in timeouts that outline initial actions, then leave the final play execution up to the ball handler - either a drive, dish or kick-out, based on the defense's reactions. This is not much different than every single NBA coach, though it's likely many of them would have adjusted by now to lock down the entire out-of-timeout play rather than set the PG up to make decisions from the mid-point. Alvin Gentry and Mike D'Antoni were lucky to have a great decision-maker at their disposal in those situations, while Hornacek is not as lucky.

After two years of failed crunch-time situations, including a new rash of them in the past few weeks starting with that disastrous road trip, it appears the coach and the players are so fed up with their failures that they're waffling between "I have no idea what's wrong" to "let's shake things up", sometimes on an hourly basis.

The result is a dispirited team that hasn't shown enough backbone to survive and succeed this season. Now that the season's start has gone from good to bad, the schedule begins to pile on after this holiday weekend.

We are more likely to see the Suns fall into the bottom doldrums of the West than we are to see them fight off a half-dozen challengers for a playoff spot.

The same fortune that flip-flopped the Conference schedules this year is likely to result in the Suns drafting no worse than 10th or 11th - even if they right their ship - and possible as high as 4th or 5th.

Standings-12-23

The Suns may be sitting in 9th place in the West at the moment, but if you look at the standings that no longer means the 13th or 14th pick in the Draft.

If the season ended today, the Suns would draft 10th next June.

A couple more losses than their closest competitors and the Suns might even draft 5th without trying too hard to tank. If the Pelicans surge at some point, the Suns could jump to 4th.

*Note that the Lakers are particularly awful, and quite intent on keeping their pick

In the last two seasons, I was heartily against playing for draft picks. This was mostly due to the Suns position in the West - and the paucity of talent in the East - making it really, really hard to have drafted any better than 12th in either season after Christmas.

When Gibby advocated for tanking last January, the Suns were already fairly well locked into no worse than 10th in the West which would have meant the 13th pick no matter how bad the second half went. In reality, the season went completely sour and my fear was proven right. Despite losing 10 of their last 11 games, and going 10-18 in the second half overall, the Suns still couldn't get any better than the 13th pick.

This year could be different.

This year, the Suns appear to be able to play both of their 20-point scorers, their former Defensive Player of the Year, their stretch fours and a small handful of developing young players and STILL lose enough games to grab a pick in the 5-10 range next June.

Couple that with a flood of cap space next summer and the Suns might now have a special opportunity to finally have that rebuild we've all wanted, including drafting their next big star, while only suffering badly for another few months.

And it doesn't appear that there's anything coach Hornacek (or his successor, if that happens) or GM McDonough could do to prevent it, even if they wanted to. Almost never do midseason trades make a large positive difference. Trade the big scorers, and you're still struggling to win games. Trade bit parts for other bit parts, and you're still struggling.

As the Suns take on the Nuggets tonight - who just lost to the Lakers last night - maybe we all should stop stressing out and just accept the Suns team for who they are.

Who they are might possibly be the team that finally earns the Suns that Top-5 draft pick who could be a star. Add a new star to most of the current core, and this team might just get exciting again.