For the first time since 2013 and only the second time since the 80s, the Phoenix Suns are completely out of the playoff picture as the new year begins. Yet in January of 2013, the Suns had almost no hope for the future beyond a high draft pick. They had to wait until summer 2013 to completely revamp the roster and bring in some youth.
The year 2015 was bad news in Sunsland: the team that was supposedly on the upswing went 33-50 in 2016.
The year 2016 should start bad, but might end very well.
Getting most of the minutes these days are the teams youngest players, from Brandon Knight to Devin Booker to T.J. Warren to Alex Len. Each of them is inconsistent, leading to ugly losses (Spurs) sandwiched by moral victories (Thunder, Cavaliers).
Brandon Knight, for all his flaws, is accomplishing great things at his age. Only four other players in the entire NBA have exceeded his all-around game this season (points, assists, rebounds, steals) before the age of 25 in the past five years, and all are All-Stars.
T.J. Warren just dropped 29 points and grabbed 9 rebounds and 3 steals against the OKC Thunder last night.
Devin Booker is playing like a 10-year veteran. He just looks the part of a major player on a championship level squad. And Alex Len, while wildly inconsistent, shows flashes of All-Star talent.
All have had 'holy crap this kid is good!' moments this year. All will likely be long-time starters and/or 6th-Man-of-the-Year candidates for the next decade. But none is a sure-fire perennial All-Star.
Luckily, for only the second time in the last 40 years, the Suns have a clear path to a Top 5 draft pick in June. The 2016 Draft isn't going to be the best or deepest draft in NBA history, but it's projected to be better than 2013 (the only other time in 40 years the Suns drafted high) and a Top 5 pick is always good to add to a team.
Even better, unlike 2013 there are fewer awful teams in the league. The Suns path to a pick higher than #5 is fairly clear. They can easily spend the rest of the 2016 season with a regular rotation that boasts mostly 24-and-unders, and organically tank to a really nice pick in June.
Unfortunately, the 2016 Draft isn't full of awesome prospects beyond Ben Simmons. And even he has flaws.
This draft is shaping up to be the weakest since the 2013 draft, per CBSSports, and is also trending to be considerably weaker than the 2017 iteration. The reason for that largely has to do with the lack of players who have truly stepped forward as elite prospects to this point.
In that respect, the Suns really need to tank hard to get a good shot at #1 overall. They have serious competition, but at least there's not as much abject tanking throughout the league. Even the Sixers are trying to win games lately.
Really, the Top 5 will be talented, and could have a perennial All-Star or two in there. The Suns can only hope that's the case, as getting the highest pick possible is the best alternative at this time.
Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, Brandon Ingram and Dragan Bender all can be very good power forwards in the NBA - the one place the Suns have no prospects for the future. Put one of them in with C Alex Len (22), SF T.J. Warren (22), SG Devin Booker (19) and PGs Brandon Knight (24) and Eric Bledsoe (26) and you've got a nice core for the future. Add in SG Bogdan Bogdanovic (24 next year) for good measure.
Or, you could go point guard again and take a Kris Dunn, who might just upgrade the Suns passing abilities if they can clear the way for him. Though, to be honest, the likelihood of a guy like Dunn being a better NBA player than Knight or Eric Bledsoe is quite small.
Don't be too disappointed with the draft prospects quite yet. Every year, two or three new stars emerge in the second half of the NCAA season/tournament and overseas to solidify the Top 5. A year ago this time, we had no idea about Kristaps Porzingis or DeAngelo Russell and they ended up going in the Top 5. Other freshmen emerged as well.
As the Suns season becomes one of infuriating inconsistency and moral victories, enjoy the potential to add a very, very talented player to the mix this summer to supplement the young core the Suns already boast.