The Phoenix Suns are now entering Year 3 of the Ryan McDonough Rebuilding Project. Just a year ago, it looked to be taking the express lane as the team shocked everyone by playing very good basketball and competing for a playoff spot. Since then, an almost comical amount of setbacks and controversies have arose, culminating in a late-season tailspin that ended with a disappointing 39 wins in the Western Conference.
Is the Big Plan still on track, or have the Suns yet again found themselves spinning away in the dreaded hamster wheel of being too good to bottom out, but too bad to compete?
I enlisted the help of two noble internet scribes who are known to carry opposing viewpoints from time to time, Dave King and Jim Coughenour, to assist in hashing out this burning question. First off, a quick disclaimer for you, the reader: We are fully aware that, as the past two years have exemplified, it is impossible to predict which way the road will twist or turn. Our Suns were supposed to be dreadful in 2013/14, and then were supposed to take a step forward in 2014/15. Obviously, neither happened. All we can do is speculate on where the immediate future might take us, which is exactly what follows in the conversation below.
Rollin: Oh hey guys! Fancy running into you two here in late-lotto land. So do you remember the summer of 2013, when the Suns finally committed to a full rebuild after years on the hamster wheel of mediocrity? Remember how they brought in Ryan McDonough to strip the roster down in the hopes of adding some elite young talent?
Well, a funny thing happened. I doubt anyone back then would've predicted two straight years of coming up just short of the playoffs and failing to acquire a single draft pick higher than 13th, but here we are.
While the McDonough Suns are undoubtedly more talented and younger than the Lance Blanks teams, the results are strikingly similar. There are a number of "nice" young players (nice being a euphemism for "not groundbreaking"), but all the draft picks that the Suns currently own are either too far out to factor into the current rebuild or very likely to be late first-rounders.
Adding to the worry lines on my forehead is the uncomfortable possibility that Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin and even Bogdan Bogdanovic might project to be not much more than very good role players, and the best hopes of a star player developing might lie with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight -- both of whom have logged enough NBA time that there isn't a whole lot of intrigue surrounding them.
To top it all off, assuming that Knight is re-signed, the Suns have essentially capped themselves for the summer of '15. Am I failing to see the forest for the trees, or did the rebuild culminate in yet another mediocre Suns team?
Dave: It's true the Suns don't have a star on the roster at the moment, and it's very unlikely that any of Bledsoe, Knight or Len become All-Stars in the West.
But I don't quite see all the gloom and doom that most people see. These Suns are basically the Rockets of three years ago, just before acquiring James Harden to break the treadmill. I know we've used the Rockets as example before, but every month that goes by is more and more like that Rockets progression. They refused to tank, with three straight just-about-500 seasons after Yao Ming got hurt, while Morey accumulated enough first round picks on the roster to trade away a few while still keeping the team quite young.
At the time of the Harden trade, the Rockets had just overpaid Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin with Chandler Parsons the only other major rotation player to return. All were 24-26 years old in 2012-13. In addition to them, they had only a couple of veterans and a bunch of unproven young players.
Without that Harden trade, they'd have once again ran the treadmill until someone else came along. But Harden popped loose for the price of a 2012 #1 (Lamb), 2013 #1 (Adams) and two future picks they'd acquired in deals, plus veteran Kevin Martin who was just a stopgap until Lamb would be ready.
The Suns have set themselves up for the same kind of deal, with a handful of recent draftees on the roster plus a handful of future picks ready to deal.
Sure, the Suns went the treadmill + assets mode, rather than the high-draft-pick mode which is en vogue. Rarely do teams succeed often at either mode, but at least the Suns picked one.
Jim: Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Beaver (Len).
I think Alex does still have some upside, which certainly seems apropos since he's the only high draft pick of McDonough's tenure. Very interesting that the most talented young player on the roster came from the only season where the Suns decided it was time to bulldoze the last remnants of a previous era and start fresh. Sometimes it's ok to embrace the suck.
I think most Suns fans who scoff at the thought of tanking, a loaded word that carries an absurdly negative connotation, would wholeheartedly agree with my analysis of Len's position in the team's hierarchy. So, is it the deeds or the ends that are more important?
I like the charming notion that the Suns could be following in the Rockets footsteps... after all, Daryl Morey does work. Unfortunately, though, I think the Suns are still a team wanting to strike a blockbuster deal, but playing the role of perpetual bridesmaid. Some other team just always comes in with a better package at the 11th hour.
What's the Suns offer that can't be refused? Bledsoe, Tucker, underwhelming future firsts and possibly another young body? It just seems like they're still set up to have the second best package.
Meanwhile, they'll keep treadmilling... like a boss.
"Rarely do teams succeed often at either mode, but at least the Suns picked one."
The Suns were bracing to be bad... but instead turned out good. Then they tried to take the next step... and failed in bizarre, and sometimes amusing, fashion. If they do have a plan, they really suck at executing it.
Dave: Every plan appears incomplete until its been executed. Until then, we're just talking. Before Morey acquired Harden, many started questioning his team building skills. He'd acquired good enough players to have a .500 record for the 4th year in a row until voila! there's Harden. No set of assets seems good enough until it is.
When the Suns finally make that big deal, we will all be happy. I'll just be the one who didn't waste a lot of energy complaining until it happened. No matter what we think, we don't have an impact on McDonough or the Suns, so why complain about it?
It's really hard to build a team from scratch. Most teams fail several times over and/or take 5-10 years to complete it. Very few get lucky enough to have the star fall in their laps, or to have the right assets at the right time. There are 30 teams in the league, and each year only a handful can say they're good enough to potentially win the title, and all but one of those comes up short.
The Suns need stars, and when they finally do get one or two the foundation will be there to succeed right away. New Orleans got their star three years ago, and just this year got hot enough to make the playoffs. But it's not a sustainable supporting cast around Anthony Davis. Sacramento got their star, and they still suck. Utah has some good talent, but no star yet. And so on.
The Suns have a plan and are executing that plan. Yes, they haven't completed the journey yet, but 29 out of 30 teams each year "suck" because they can't finish the job.
Jim: I don't know that the Houston model is the best one to emulate. It seems to be more of an outlier than a paragon of rebuilding. Let's look at how the other top eight teams in the Western Conference got to where they are today...
Memphis had three seasons where they won 22, 22 and 24 games before they won 40... then had five consecutive playoff appearances. In the midst of that run down skid row they traded their best player, 27 year old Pau Gasol, for his younger brother Marc.
Golden St. 29, 26, 36 and 23-43 (lockout) before three consecutive playoff appearances. Drafted Stephen Curry #7 overall in 2009 after going 29-53.
San Antonio has obviously been good ever since drafting Tim Duncan #1 overall.
Clippers drafted Blake Griffin #1 overall, after eons of mostly wretched basketball, which changed the culture so dramatically that Chris Paul actually wanted to play there.
Portland rebounded quickly from the Brandon Roy tragedy and only missed the playoffs for two seasons before reloading with Damian Lillard (2012 #6) for consecutive 50+ win seasons.
Oklahoma City won between 35-45 games seven times in eight seasons before embracing the suck. 31, 20 and 23 wins produced Kevin Durant (2007 #2), Russell Westbrook (2008 #3) and James Harden (2009 #4).
Dallas has made the playoffs 13 times in the last 14 seasons. It seems like they're clinging to life support now... which many people think is a mistake.
New Orleans took Anthony Davis #1 overall in 2012 after finishing with the third worst record in the league the year after trading Chris Paul. Their win totals through three seasons of Davis have been 27, 34 and 45 (playoffs).
What are the key points here?
1. None of these team really sucked long term before climbing back up to respectability (except the Clippers). Consecutive years out of the playoffs from first season with less than 30 wins - Memphis (4), Golden St. (3), San Antonio (1), Clippers (4), Portland (0), OKC (2), Dallas (0), NO (3).
2. Three #1 overall picks and a #2 headline theses teams. Other players like Paul, Westbrook and Harden are all top 5. Curry (#7) is a little bit of an anomaly, but even he was picked much higher than where the Suns draft every year (#13).
3. Five of these teams won less than 30 games for multiple seasons to build through the draft. The Spurs getting Duncan was a miracle. Dallas and Portland never hit bottom.
So why follow the Houston plan? Doesn't accepting being bad for multiple seasons seem like the plan that has worked more often? OKC tried the Houston plan and it didn't work. Then they tried the suck route and it did. What did it cost them... 11 seasons with only three playoff appearances and one series victory.
Rollin: I don't have many qualms about the Morey plan in and of itself. What troubles me is how the Suns got there. They seem to have painted themselves into a corner by not once but twice acquiring a second-tier player that was heading into restricted free agency, which leaves few options aside from opening up the vault and gambling on said player's potential, given the complications of pulling off a sign-and-trade.
Perhaps I'm out of my element here, but this doesn't seem like the proper method of asset-acquisition to me. The roster looks to be in the awkward middle stages of growth -- puberty, if you will -- and the front office is spending money to solidify themselves in this position.
I should point out that no one can reasonably claim that the Suns should have reverted back to tank mode following the 2013/14 season. That would've entailed trading Dragic, fresh off an All-NBA season, for picks/assets and either finding a trading partner for Bledsoe or calling his bluff with the qualifying offer. Both would have been immensely unpopular moves at the time and I don't recall a single person imploring for the tank last summer. Everyone wanted to see what they would do for an encore.
Be that as it may, we have had a tale of two strikingly different offseason strategies: the summer of '13, when they aggressively shed all the dead weight they possibly could in only a few months, and the summer of '14, during which they swung for the fences. Now we have the summer of '15, and judging by the early indications, they are poised to do neither. McDonough has prioritized adding veterans to help the young core grow, and one might take this as a sign that they're ready to let things settle in.
While a reprieve from yet another transition period does sound nice ... is this it? Is this the core? I remember arguing two summers ago that Kevin Love, while being a very good player, wouldn't be a big enough pot of gold at the end of the rebuilding rainbow to make it all worth it. Now, I would do a wide variety of illegal/immoral deeds to land Love, if only for there to be a brighter sheen on the franchise's image.
One could make the argument that they'll still be in position to strike when a star player shakes loose, but in an effort to improve their short-term outlook, they have slowly but steadily chipped away at the two things needed to play the trade/free agency game: Cap space and assets. I think it's obvious that Suns fans need to drastically recalibrate their expectations for the short term -- and I think most already have. The most realistic hopes for 2015/16 at this point are pinned to positive growth from Bledsoe, Knight, Len, Warren and Goodwin.
Even at my most optimistic moments, I still see another 13th or 14th pick. But tangible improvement from each of the young players would make that pick much more palatable, however inevitable it might be. I would also be remiss not to acknowledge the bigger picture of the McDonough era: Before he arrived I had to watch the likes of Luis Scola, Wesley Johnson, Shannon Brown and Michael Beasley.
I'll just let that ferment for a moment.
Dave: Okay, so you're advocating the Golden State / Portland, which is to get lucky on a #6, #7 or #9 pick after sucking for a few years but not sucking hard enough to get a sure-fire #1. True, the Suns have not even tried to get "that" bad more than one year, but really if your plan is getting lucky on top 10 picks, then that's really not a plan either.
Let's look at the teams who didn't make the playoffs this year, to see how successful the "get high draft picks to eventually win big" plan works.
Minnesota, since 2006: Brandon Roy #6 (traded for Randy Foye of course), Corey Brewer #7, O.J. Mayo #3 (traded for Kevin Love, the big one!... now they're cooking!), Ricky Rubio/Jonny Flynn #5/6 (oh boy, here we come!), Wes Johnson #4, Derrick Williams #2 (ruh roh, doesn't the 'get lucky in the top 10 range' plan work?), Trey Burke #9, Zach Lavine #13... and now they are right back at #1 this year....
Strike one for the "get bad to get good" plan.
LA Lakers - treadmilling since 2012. In 2014, they took Randle at #7, their highest pick since Bynum. And now this year they get the #2 pick to take a guy in Jalil Okafor who doesn't really fit next to Randle. At all. Not a real plan yet.
Sixers - took Evan Turner #2 in 2010 and got back to purgatory. They embraced the suck by dumping everything in 2013, took Nerlens Noel #3, then Joel Embiid #3 and now in 2015 pick #3 again... This isn't a good example of making it work yet by getting really really bad. They have promise, but have done nothing to prove it's a good plan to WIN basketball games some day.
Knicks - they've been on the treadmill for years, and plan to stay there. Any plan of the Knicks' is a good... well, moving on.
Magic - After Dwight left, they went hard for the suck and took Vic Oladipo #2 and Aaron Gordon #5 in consecutive drafts. And just fired their coach for not winning enough. They don't yet have a star, and they won't get one this year either (#5). Their best case scenario is the Suns.
Kings - Since 2009, they've taken Tyreke Evans #4, DeMarcus Cousins #5, Thomas Robinson #5, Ben McLemore #7, Nik Stauskas #8... and are still really, really bad. They fired their coach halfway through the season last year. TWICE!
Pistons - Greg Monroe #7, Brandon Knight #8, Andre Drummond #9, Caldwell-Pope #8... and they are still terrible. Even with legendary Stan Van Gundy in the fold.
Key points here:
1) most of these teams have sucked for a really, really long time. They haven't done well even though they've drafted high for years.
2) Lots of top 5 picks even as high as #2, though no #1 overalls. With the lotto the way it is, you can't blame the teams for not being bad enough. They've each been bad enough to "earn" the #1 pick.
3) All but the Lakers and Knicks have been real bad for a real long time. The Lakers and Knicks KNOW it's fools gold to count on the draft to get good again. They are looking to their right and left and seeing it first hand.
So why follow the "suck really bad and good great draft picks" plan?
Rollin: I think we can argue indefinitely over which rebuilding method is more fruitful; there are successes and failures across the board either way.
One thing we can all agree on, hopefully, is that a star player is extremely important to any hopes of contending, and the Suns haven't fielded an All-Star since Nash and their All-NBA 3rd teamer has since taken his talents to South Beach.
It's probably safe to assume that the Suns' chances of picking in the top 5 in the draft have waved adios for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, there is a crop of young players on the roster that most likely have their best years ahead of them, including Knight and Bledsoe, who are already pretty damn good players.
With all that in mind, plus the ramifications of the recent personnel moves in relation to the salary cap, do you feel the chances are greater that the next Suns All-Star will come from another team, or internally?
Jim: I'll say internally.
Using the rising tide epigram, if the Suns can turn this around in the next couple years it should increase exposure for the better players on the team. At this point those appear to be Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Either of those guys is capable of putting up the type of numbers that could earn them a nod and both are still young and have the potential to improve.
The problem, of course, is the current hierarchy of guards in the West. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and James Harden seem to be annual locks and others like Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson are also far ahead in the pecking order. Injuries, trades, etc. can always change the landscape and may be necessary to open up a spot. Another problem could be that Knight/Bledsoe dilute each other's numbers.
This is just for a Suns player to sneak into an All-Star game, though, not become a perennial selection. I don't think anyone on the team has the requisite talent to become a superstar player. Len has some potential, but there probably should have been more wow moments by now if that was in his future. I also don't think the Suns are in a position to trade for an established star or lure one in free agency. I think the team's best chance at acquiring a star player is getting one that isn't yet established... through a trade or the draft (which is tough picking 13th every year).
Dave: Yeah I'll agree that a perennial All-Star is not yet on the roster. It's a good sign that Bledsoe is staying in Phoenix all summer this year, hopefully to work on parts of his game that need fixing under the gaze of the Suns coaches rather than just being on his own. But even so, he's not a perennial All-Star.
The Suns next multi-time All-Star will have to come via trade or free agency, or there's always the draft. But I wrote earlier how that's a total crap shoot.
We are in the wait-and-see mode until it actually happens.