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Going Gorilla: Phoenix Suns are ensnared in team's longest rebuild ever

The Phoenix Suns used to be really good at transitioning from era to era. Things have changed. A franchise with a history of consistent excellence is now mired in the limbo of a protracted rebuild.

If you rebuild it he will come.
If you rebuild it he will come.
Image provided by Dustin Watson

This is uncharted territory for most Suns fans.

After all, the Suns have historically been one of the league's flagship franchises. Even without a title to flaunt the Suns have been the darlings of the league for stretches of years on multiple occasions.

Between losing to the Boston Celtics in the 1975-76 NBA Finals and falling short of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009-10 Western Conference Finals the Suns only missed the playoffs seven times. That's seven times in 35 seasons. The Suns are currently on a stretch of four straight seasons out of the playoffs that will very likely extend to five next month.

Sure, the Suns are in the inauspicious position of looking up at what may be the best Western Conference 1-8 in NBA history, but that doesn't excuse the team's performance.

Compare the last five seasons to the Suns previous franchise record of five seasons.

From 1970-71 to 1974-75 the Suns won 197 games.

From 2010-11 to present the Suns have won 179 games.

Adjusting the 33-33 record to 41 wins to account the the lockout shortened season and the Suns are at 187 wins. That means the team needs to finish 10-8 just to get to that number.

Factor in the previous futility was in seasons 3-7 of franchise history and that the team actually missed the playoffs despite seasons where they won 48 and 49 games and there's definitely an argument the Suns are currently in the midst of the team's worst period of basketball ever.

Of course, a better qualitative assessment can be made by looking back at the rest of Phoenix's history with rebuilds.

Rebuild 74-75

In 1975-76 the Suns went from the only consecutive 50 loss seasons in franchise history to become one of the most improbable NBA Finals participants in league history. A team bereft of assets needed four new players to accomplish the feat.

Van Arsdale, the original Sun, had been around since the 1968 expansion draft. Curtis Perry and Keith Erickson (traded from the Los Angeles Lakers for Connie Hawkins on the tail end of his career) were the only other players from the previous season.

The Suns traded leading scorer Charlie Scott (24.3) to the Boston Celtics for Paul Westphal, who would lead the Suns in scoring (20.5), assists (5.4) and steals (2.6) per game. Scott ended up playing all 82 games for the Celtics that season and averaged 14.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in the Finals.

Gar Heard, who famously hit a buzzer beater to send game five of the Finals into a third overtime, came in a trade that sent rookie John Shumate to the Buffalo Braves.

The Suns were also bolstered by two rookies. Ricky Sobers was a 23 year old rookie out of UNLV that the Suns selected 16th overall in the 1976 draft. The much more celebrated Alvan Adams also came to Phoenix out of Oklahoma with the 4th overall pick. As a 21 year old rookie Adams had career highs in scoring (19.0), assists (5.6), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.5).

Rebuild 76-77

The Suns were back on the outside looking in the very next year after their miracle season. That one season was enough for the Suns to get the 5th pick in the draft and select Walter Davis out of North Carolina. After catapulting back to 49 wins in the 1977-78 season Phoenix won 50 games in 1978-79 and faced the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix lost a tough seven games series after leading 3-2.

Westphal lead the team in scoring (24.0) and assists (6.5). Davis averaged 23.6 points in his second season while Alvan Adams pitched in with 17.8 points and led the team in rebounding with a career high 9.2.

Truck Robinson came to the Suns in a midseason trade from the New Orleans Jazz and contributed 16.0 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Robinson was much less effective in the playoffs, though, as Westphal and Davis mostly carried the team.

Rebuild 87-88

A transitioning Suns team was rocked by a drug scandal in 1987 and it was time to clean house. Only rookie Armen Gilliam and second year player Jeff Hornacek would survive the attrition. In some ways, though, the imbroglio was a blessing in disguise because the changes it compelled the team to make ended up leading to a instant rebirth of basketball in Phoenix.

Two trades, a coaching change (back to a previous coach) and the first unrestricted free agent signing in league history fomented the foudroyant reversal of fortune.

First, the Suns traded Ed Pinckney, the 10th pick from the 1985 draft, to the Sacramento Kings for Eddie Johnson. Johnson would average 21.5 points in 1988-89 on his way to Sixth Man of the Year honors.

Then, in possibly the best trade in franchise history, the Suns sent All-Star power forward Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and a draft pick that was used to select Dan Majerle. In his first full season with the Suns KJ averaged 20.4 points and 12.2 assists per game.

To top things off, the Suns signed Tom Chambers as the first ever UFA to replace Nance at PF. Chambers averaged 25.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game and was selected as an All-Star.

The Suns would ultimately lose to the Lakers in the WCF that season before falling to the Portland Trail Blazers in the WCF the following season.

Rebuild 01-02

The Backcourt 2000 experiment was a monumental failure after injuries (Anfernee Hardaway) and domestic violence (Jason Kidd) derailed the venture before it could crystallize. Kidd was shipped off to the New Jersey Nets for Stephon Marbury before the 2001-02 season.

Shawn Marion, selected 9th overall in 1999 out of UNLV, joined Marbury to form the building pieces for the post Backcourt 2000 period. Joe Johnson then joined the team during the 2001-02 season in a trade that sent Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk to the Boston Celtics.

The Suns prize for their first season out of the playoff since 1987-88 was Amar'e Stoudemire, a raw but explosive talent who bypassed college to enter the draft.

Free agency provided the last, and ultimately most important, piece to the puzzle. After dealing Marbury to create cap space the Suns gambled on Steve Nash after the Dallas Mavericks felt his body couldn't stay healthy through a multi-year contract. The Suns would also sign free agent Quentin Richardson to complete their new starting five.

New head coach Mike D'Antoni led the Suns to a 33 game improvement from the 2003-04 season and was named NBA Coach of the Year. Steve Nash (15.5 points and 11.5 assists) was named league MVP. Amar'e Stoudemire (26.0 points, 8.9 rebounds) and Shawn Marion (19.4 points, 11.3 rebounds) joined him as All-Stars.

The Suns fell to the the San Antonio Spurs, who became Phoenix's nemesis over the Seven Seconds or Less era, in the WCF.

Rebuild 08-09

After a one season hiatus from the postseason due to the botched coaching hire of Terry Porter and a Stoudemire eye injury the Suns swapped out some role players to reload for another run. This wasn't necessarily as much of a classic rebuild as it was a retooling.

Shaquille O'Neal, Raja Bell and Matt Barnes all left the team, opening up minutes for youngsters Jared Dudley, Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic. Channing Frye was then signed in free agency and helped form a formidable reserve group that new coach Alvin Gentry brought into games as a five man unit.

The Suns finally vanquished the Spurs in a second round sweep before falling to the Lakers in the WCF.

Live. Die. Repeat.

Since the expansion period it has taken the Suns two, three, three and one season/s to get back to the WCF. In all but one of those instances it led to sustained success.

The Suns haven't always taken the same route. Phoenix has used a combination of the draft, trades and free agent signings. It has done a complete blow up. It has built a young core and added a veteran leader. It has changed coaches and kept coaches. Each rebuild had its own unique characteristics.

But all of them were executed more expeditiously than the current one.

This time owner Robert Sarver failed to put the right people in positions to hasten the return to prominence. This time the Suns made the mistake of riding Steve Nash into the ground in two mostly forgettable seasons. This time an incompetent General Manager (Lance Blanks) left the cupboard embarrassingly bare. This time the new General Manager (Ryan McDonough) hasn't yet been able to pull off one of the hail mary's that have previously resurrected this franchise.

Ultimately, Sarver bears the brunt of the blame as this has happened under his purview. He hired the failed regime that crashed this vessel. Accountability goes to the top.

McDonough and President Lon Babby should be given more time. It's not reasonable to call for their heads after less than two seasons together. That kind of turnover could undermine any traction moving forward.

I don't think they're necessarily doing a bad job, either. They just aren't doing the job that their predecessors did. Being judged against the history of the franchise they simply aren't meeting that standard.

Every time Phoenix has needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat it has done so. Unfortunately, the prestidigitation prowess of the current front office is below the bar.

After a volatile series of events at this season's trade deadline it doesn't necessarily appear the team is getting any closer to getting back in the playoffs, let alone getting back to a Conference Finals. Phoenix is only within striking distance due to a slew of injuries to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even the New Orleans Pelicans seem to be closer to breaking through with a transcendent talent in the form of Anthony Davis.

So how many more years will fans have to wait? One more? Two more? What if this drought stretches into seven or eight seasons?

How long should the fans be patient when the Suns are creeping closer to what may be definitively classified as the team's...

Longest. Rebuild. Ever.

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