Yesterday, our esteemed Jimmy C posited that the Phoenix Suns have a poor profile of potential improvement in the coming year in the Western Conference.
Phoenix's cap situation isn't favorable compared to the other rebuilding teams. The Suns have several very good, but not great, players. Phoenix doesn't have any high lottery picks to increase the odds of drafting a star or to dangle in a trade for one. The Suns assets just really aren't that great.
Jim is not saying the Suns ARE one of the worst in the West, or that they will drop to one of the worst in the coming year, but simply that they don't have a lot of options to dramatically improve from a lottery team to a playoff regular.
The Suns, meanwhile, will have to rely on trades and dramatic internal improvement in order to take that next step into the ranks of the West elite.
Here is why I think the Suns can rise into the West elite without a star already among their midst.
Aggressive front office
One of the things I loved (and hated) about the Colangelo years was the constant roster turnover until they found a core that would work. And even then, they couldn't resist tweaking the team anyway. A look at the most and least successful Suns teams of the Colangelo era never lasted more than a couple of years with the same roster.
In fact, the longest core (ie. more than 2 players) was the Hornacek group that went to the playoffs four straight seasons, including two conference finals, before Hornacek and others were traded for Charles Barkley.
During the mid-2000s SSOL years, after the Colangelos had bowed out, the Suns stuck with the same core for nearly that long before swapping Marion for Shaq, After that, it was all downhill as the Suns found brief success but otherwise began the post-Nash downfall years before he was actually traded.
Since Ryan McDonough joined the team, the lottery-bound Suns have made a flurry of roster moves. While none have turned into an All-Star, I give credit to the front office for continuing to try to find one. They drafted fairly well and have succeeded more often than not at improving via trade.
Averaging 43.5 wins over two seasons without sporting a single All-Star and with constant roster turnover is a testament to the level of player that McDonough and staff have acquired. Doing it with a very young core set of players makes it all the more impressive.
Has he acquired that All-Star yet? Of course not. But he's not afraid to make move after move until he's done it. He made four trades in the summer of 2013 and another five trades in the winter of 2014-15 when he knew changes had to be made.
Expect a lot more movement this summer, because we all know the team needs it.
While the Suns are not sitting around with max cap space, they understand they aren't the league's premier destination so they aren't just hoping someone takes their rose when offered.
After LeBron James and others rejected their rose last summer, the Suns have engineered a situation where cap space is available as needed but isn't the end all to beat all.
The Suns CAN create space this summer for anyone they want. But otherwise, they can keep their youth together until the opportunity for a big trade presents itself.
The Suns won't be left at the altar without a plan this time.
Youth will improve
We are all tired of hearing this used as an excuse, but the Suns ARE young. Their potentially best players and best leaders are very young: Brandon Knight (23), Alex Len (21), T.J. Warren (21), Archie Goodwin (20). All could be a lot better next year than they were this year. Will they be All-Stars? Likely not. But they are great assets on a winning roster and in a trade package.
It's still true that Ryan McDonough identified draft steals for the Celtics in Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley - both nabbed after the 20th pick in their draft.
The Suns will likely not pick in the top 10 again in the coming years because their coach likes to win basketball games, so it's incumbent on McDonough to find gems.
It's possible T.J. Warren is a gem. He's certainly a talented scorer and hard worker. But really, McD has not hit on a big time future player yet in the mid-teens.
He'll have to do that at least once to help the Suns make that next step.
Aggressive front office. Relentless scouting efforts. Trades. Cap flexibility. Quality, young tradable assets, with a proven ability to succeed in a winning environment.
Those are great tools to have, and the Suns have them.
Now we just need to see it come to fruition. Until the Suns actually nab an All-Star talent or two, all these building blocks are just that: building blocks.
No one wants to see a 43 win team next year.
Least of all, Ryan McDonough.