Two of new GM Ryan McDonough and President Lon Babby's first major moves as a tandem were to hire a coach, Jeff Hornacek, and acquire a point guard, Eric Bledsoe, to become the faces of the rebuilding Phoenix Suns franchise in 2013. Two years later, the Suns uncertain future still rests in their hands.
Neither Hornacek nor Bledsoe had ever done the job full time before, but the Suns brass could afford to take that kind of risk for a franchise coming off its second worst season in 45 years. If either or both failed, they could shrug their shoulders and move in another direction, unfazed.
But Hornacek and Bledsoe achieved wild success in 2013-14. Behind an unexpected 48-34 record and near-miss on the playoffs, Hornacek emerged as a Coach of the Year candidate while Bledsoe got himself widely ranked as the Suns co-best player on the way to a brand new $14 million per year contract.
But their second year together was much rockier than their first. It's easier to be the hunter than the hunted, of course. Expectations, including those of Hornacek and Bledsoe themselves, were through the roof entering last season. They returned almost the exact same team from 2013-14, swapping just a couple of rotation players, and had a healthy Bledsoe. So why not reach the playoffs this time?
But expectations are, by definition, borne of assumptions. Both Hornacek and Bledsoe, along with the Suns brass, assumed that their their co-best player, Goran Dragic, would be happy in a secondary role. They assumed new signee Isaiah Thomas would accept the 6th-man role he signed up for. They assumed that they'd each make their own strides, organically, and that behind them the Suns would continue to flourish.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, Hornacek enabled Bledsoe to become the primary point guard in the Suns starting lineup, a shift from the prior season when he and Dragic shared play calling duties. Bledsoe entered the season wanting to prove himself, and he quietly took on more ball-dominant role in the back court with Hornacek's tacit approval.
Unfortunately, that little shift became tectonic. Fellow point guard Goran Dragic, coming off his best season in the NBA and entering the final season of his contract, felt frozen out.
For reasons still unknown to this blogger - which in no way indicates the reasons are unknown to smarter people - Hornacek and the Suns front office were made aware of Dragic's concerns but did little to nothing about it until it was too late.
I have no knowledge of what Dragic may or may not have said to the Suns brass behind the scenes, and even if I had quotes they would be out of context and void of expression. You can say the same words in five different ways, and the person hearing you can even have five different reactions than you expected them to have.
So, I refuse to comment on what the Suns brass knew or didn't know about the level of Dragic's unrest.
What I can comment on is what I saw on the basketball court, and what I heard from the coach in pre- and post-game media sessions throughout the year.
What I saw is that Dragic spent a lot more time off the ball in 2014-15 than he had in 2013-14 while Bledsoe and Thomas did most of the work. This observation was contrary to the Suns offensive style, and stood out like a sore spot on what was developing as a painful season anyway.
Several times, I asked the coach about that dynamic, and his answers were at once consistent and a bit dismissive (probably because he was taking a question from a blogger who didn't know what he was talking about).
No, he had not changed the offense to get the ball more often into Bledsoe's hands. Neither had he told Dragic to simply stand in the corner for entire offensive possessions. And when the play called for Dragic to rotate from the corner to the wing to accept a swing pass, he had not told Dragic to simply pass the ball back off and return to the corner.
The Suns offense is designed to have the guard without the ball run to the corner to spread the floor while the guard with the ball dribbles across the timeline to set up the play. Watch any Suns play, heck any NBA play, and you'll see the off-ball guard sprint to the corner at the start.
From there, the offensive action starts. The ball handler might initiate a pick-and-roll with a big, and use the two-man game to get the score while the other three players wait for the outlet pass. Quite often, the outlet to the corner for a three is open despite that being the easiest three-point shot on the floor.
Or, the other big or the small forward sets a pick or pin down on the side to get the off guard open on a swing pass, from which the new ball handler can quickly re-start the offense against different defenders. Often, an NBA team has fewer than five good defenders on the floor at once, so the ability to turn the weak side into the strong side by re-starting the offense mid-shot clock is a great way to find a mismatch. That's the whole premise of a dual point guard system.
What evolved for the Suns last year, though, was that Bledsoe and Thomas were first to the outlet pass what seemed like 90% of the time, allowing them to initiate the offense while Dragic ran out on the break for a quick score or, if well guarded, flare to the corner. This left Dragic at the mercy of Bledsoe or Thomas's swing pass to him later in the clock.
Too often, Bledsoe and Thomas ran the play for themselves first and left Dragic as the outlet pass late in the clock. Hornacek couldn't, or wouldn't, get them to share the ball often enough to get Dragic the touches he needed to be most effective.
Why Dragic didn't become more aggressive at grabbing the outlet pass, and why Hornacek didn't come up with ways to force the swing pass to him more often, I don't know. Smarter people can figure that one out. But what's done is done.
Now entering the 2015-16 offseason, Bledsoe and Hornacek are still joined at the hip as the faces of the franchise.
Everyone speaks of creating more harmony next year, and doing whatever it takes to set up the Suns for success. Hornacek sounds like he's back to 2013-14 outlook of building a franchise back to where it belongs, which may refocus him on keeping both Knight and Bledsoe engaged in the offense.
"We've already seen a couple of our guys, they're already back in town," Hornacek said last week. "A couple of them look like they're in even better shape, for this time of year. I think it's going to be exciting."
Bledsoe, for his part, has decided to spend the summer in Phoenix working on his game under the watch of the Suns coaches and staff. He wants the Suns to succeed, and hopefully realizes that as the point guard it's your job to make everyone else happy. And that includes his probable back court mate Brandon Knight.
P.J. Tucker and Archie Goodwin have been regulars at the arena for the past week, making appearances at the predraft workouts along with Bledsoe. Alex Len never left. Even Brandon Knight has spoken of signing quickly this summer and starting as early as possible this summer to engage with his team. Knight is a restricted free agent, giving the Suns the upper hand to re-sign him.
"You know, what happens with NBA players when you have a tough finish to a season," Hornacek said last week. "They come back pretty hungry the next year."
Barring a trade, if the Suns are going to succeed in 2015-16 like they want to, Bledsoe and Knight will have to embrace their dual point guard roles, and coach Hornacek will have to make sure that sharing happens as expected.
The president, GM, coach and both point guards all say they like the dual point guard system. It's built to break down the defense from whatever angle is necessary. You may not like that most often the shot is taken by the point guard himself, but that's the design and the personnel. If the outlet receivers would just make a higher percentage of kick-out threes, much of the optical problems will be solved.
Bledsoe is the closest thing the Suns have to an All-Star, and he's still growing into his lead role. Hornacek is an excellent coach with roots in the valley.
They need each other to succeed.