The Phoenix Suns are still in rebuilding mode. Of course they are, and no one disputes it.
But so are at least 20 other teams in the NBA. Maybe 25.
All 14 lottery teams, plus at least half of each season's playoff teams go into the summer with the intent to improve their roster significantly for the next season, which means that nearly every player is available in trade or may be replaced in free agency. That's just the way of the NBA.
No, the Suns do not have a core around which to build a perennial 50-60 win team. Everyone is available this summer.
The Suns are building a team, one brick at a time.
Part of that building process is to use assets to acquire more assets, and to keep turning over those assets until you get a star or two around whom to build.
I think it's pretty obvious that two years ago, the front office was planning to build through the draft. They traded quality veterans for youth and draft picks and entered the 2013-14 season with a plan to play well enough to earn another Top 5 pick or two on their own merits.
I recall a preseason conversation off the record with a key front office member who chuckled when I said fans would begin to expect a winner as soon as the young Suns had a good two-week run that season. He doubted the Suns had a good two-week run of great play in them. They were starting unproven Miles Plumlee at center and unproven Eric Bledsoe at point guard. They'd moved Goran Dragic to shooting guard. They had Channing Frye at power forward, and at that point even Frye didn't know if he could play before New Years.
But the Suns won anyway, and the front office loved it. Except that it kinda hurt the chances to acquire a star, given the precipitous drop in draft pick asset value as a result.
But building an NBA team is a game of chess, not checkers. You have to think two, three, six moves ahead. Not every move is a winner, but they all build toward that final move that puts you into a winning position.
Can you imagine a chess player blog, where the player only makes one move a day and the board is three times bigger than a normal board. The comment section would be epic.
"OMG I'm so f-ing tired of watching him moving another pawn."
"Really? Are you friggin serious?? I'd have moved the rook! What dumb ass moves another pawn when the rook was right there waiting to be moved!"
"By my calculations, the queen hasn't moved an inch in the past 22 moves. This is ridiculous. If you're going to get the queen to the other side, she mathematically should be 38% closer to the other gahddam side by now."
The Suns are still moving pawns around, trying to get into position to make that big strike, to acquire some elite talent that will propel the team to long playoffs runs year after year. One of these days, that strike will come. Until then, fans are going to be frustrated.
Right now, the Suns front office is amassing assets and trying to improve on those assets year over year. Some assets come, some go. But the overall ground swell should be rising.
Are the Suns assets better than two years ago? Yes.
Two years ago, the Suns didn't have much, if any, cap space. They had a #5 overall pick, a future Laker pick that might be pretty good some day and four solid role players on good contracts. The Suns swapped out three of those six pawns for a handful of new pawns. Pawns for pawns. No stars, but at least two potential stars in Eric Bledsoe and Alex Len.
Are the Suns current assets better than last offseason? Yes.
Last off season, their two best pawns - Bledsoe and Len - were not good assets. Bedsoe was a free agent and Len had barely played due to injury. The Suns tried to use their cap space and/or any of three middling first round picks to acquire a star, but couldn't do it. No one took the money. The immediate first round picks were middling. The future Laker pick looked at least two years away. The Suns really had little to offer for a star in trade.
So the GM who'd executed four trades in his first summer on the job did not execute any in his second summer at all. In the end, they just added two new pawns, Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver
Are the current assets better than they were in December-February this year? Maybe, maybe not.
Between mid-December and late February, McDonough swapped pawns named Shavlik Randolph, Anthony Tolliver, Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic and the future Lakers pick for three new future first round picks, Reggie Bullock and free-agents-to-be Brandan Wright and Brandon Knight.
A step back? Sure. Two steps back? Maybe.
But again, these are just chess moves. Sometimes you sacrifice a piece or two to set up future moves. It's impossible to win a game of chess without losing many of your own pieces along the way.
Which brings us to this summer's chess pieces.
Now, the Suns have what they hope are their best chess pieces yet: potential future stars Eric Bledsoe and Alex Len. Bledsoe and Len are more tangible than a future draft pick or two. They've proven they can start on a winning team, and can provide two-way skills that put them in the top-half of the league at their position. And best yet, they are both under long term contract. Bledsoe had four more years under contract at a very reasonable rate, especially considering the rising cap. Len has two more rookie-deal years and then is an RFA with team control.
A year ago, Bledsoe and Len were iffy assets with injury histories and lack of resume. Now, Bledsoe has proven he can stay healthy and, at the least, will produce 17/5/5 for the foreseeable future. On top of that, he can play game-changing defense. This combination makes him a great #2 or #3 on team wanting to contend. The Suns would love to keep him for themselves, but he's not a #1 and might be needed to acquire that #1.
Len has shown glimpses of his potential while already displaying ready talent at rebounding and shot-blocking. He'a a double-double talent who can actually defend the pick-and-roll - a rarity among NBA centers.
But best of all, they have the youth and the talent to, optimistically, someday be top-10 or even top-5 players at their position. Those are the kind of chess pieces needed to get that All-Star. In order to acquire an All-Star you almost always have to give them someone with the potential to become one.
The problem with trading Len is that the Suns don't have a ready replacement on deck if he is traded. He really needs to be traded for his replacement, which narrows the landscape of trade possibilities considerably. Otherwise, trading Len for a star at small forward, for example, would simply be creating a new hole in order to fill another one and might not make the Suns better off.
Such is not the case with Eric Bledsoe. The Suns already have a ready replacement in Brandon Knight. They can retain Knight this summer (he is a restricted free agent) and slot him right into a starting point guard role and expect 18 points and 5 assists a night, if not more as he improves.
This allows the Suns to trade Eric Bledsoe for a star at any position on the court. If the Suns can swap Bledsoe and other assets to acquire an All-Star at any position, then all these chess moves will have paid off.
Would you not swap any of the Suns set of assets in the past three years for a sure-fire All-Star?
Dudley, Scola and Gortat for two seasons of playoff hopes and an All-Star in 2015? You bet.
Dragic and the future Lakers pick for Knight and an All-Star in 2015? Heck yeah.
I know that makes some mental gymnastics, but really if the Suns can turn Bledsoe and any number of other assets into a long term All-Star front court player this summer, all the chess moves of the past two years will be worth it.
The supporting pieces are in place, for now and for years to come. Now it's about making that big move to tilt the game in the Suns favor.