The Phoenix Suns have lost 21 of their last 27 games and begin 2015 much closer to getting the #1 overall pick than the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.
For the first time since early 2013, and only the second time in the past 30+ years, the Suns are losers in the most tanktastic way possible. And what's even better about 2016 than 2013, there is playable 22-and-under youth on the Suns roster with varying degrees of upside. Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker all could top out as future regular starters in the NBA. Even Archie Goodwin took advantage of an opportunity on Friday against a good team and played well.
In the wake of these developments, the Suns are ready to wheel and deal before the trade deadline.
"We obviously need to make some changes," Suns GM Ryan McDonough said on ArizonaSports 98.7 FM's Burns and Gambo show last week.
The tank is on
The Suns brain trust may finally be warming to the idea of letting 2016 hit rock bottom to add the highest possible upside pick to that young group for next season.
"When I came in here a lot of people said you guys should bottom out and get a top five pick," McDonough said. "We've taken a circuitous route to that point. I'm not saying we'll end up there, but we may. Maybe it's two years delayed what's going on now."
While the Suns are losing, they are at least playing their best young players. Brandon Knight (24 years old), Devin Booker (19) and T.J. Warren (22) are 3 of the top 4 in minutes played over the past 10 games for the Suns. Alex Len (22) has been battling hand issues, so his minutes have regressed a bit but should recover.
When McDonough came on board in spring of 2013, the Suns had already slogged their way to a high end pick which ended up at #5 overall after the ping pong balls were drawn. The roster he inherited was a mishmash of veterans and very little youth. Of course, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris turned out to be good NBA players, with both reaching their apex as regular NBA starters at one point, but there was no other projectable youth on the team.
So McDonough tried to bottom out, but the team responded with 48 wins anyway. In retrospect, all they did was push the rebuild timeline out while McDonough tried to hit it big on mid-first round picks. Warren and Booker look good compared to their immediate surroundings but neither is a Top-5 value pick in their draft.
Maybe now the Suns can add to their core with a true Top-5 talent. Of course, that requires the 2016 Draft to be a good one, and for the Suns to properly identify the draft's best available talent.
Unfortunately, early projections on the 2016 Draft have compared it more to the 2013 dud than the 2015 stud.
The 2013 Draft a cautionary tale
The only other time the Suns drafted Top-5 since the 80s was 2013, which turned out to be a dud at the top with few really good potential players dotted all over the draft map.
But none of the players drafted at the top are setting the league on fire in their first three years in the league. Anthony Bennett (drafted #1) has washed out. Victor Oladipo (2) has been good, but recently went to the bench to make room for Evan Fournier in the starting lineup. Otto Porter (3) has been a disappointment. Cody Zeller (4) has had a limited role. Nerlens Noel (6) and Ben McLemore (7) have been less than stellar as well.
The Suns' Alex Len, drafted #5 that year, ranks only 20th amongst his draft class in Win Shares this season and 25th in minutes per game. One of the largest guys in the class, he's only 10th in rebounds per game.
All are rotations players, but none are stars or even 10-year NBA starters. And that's the TOP of the 2013 Draft. Good value has been found in various spots later in the first round.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (drafted 8th), C.J. McCollum (10th), Steven Adams (12th) and Mason Plumlee (22nd) have had the most positive total impact this season (total Win Shares in 2015-16), with a lot of that having to do with playing opportunity. All have been healthy and gotten big minutes.
In terms of Win Shares per 48 minutes this season, which factors out playing time, guys like Rudy Gobert (drafted 27th) and Kelly Olynyk (14th) rise up the charts. Gobert has been hurt a lot, while Olynyk is part of a deep rotation in Boston.
The player with arguably the highest upside, Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th), has been up and down. Allen Crabbe, drafted at the top of the second round, has been fun to watch on offense this season for Portland. Dennis Shroder (17th) has looked good as a backup in Atlanta.
But let's not paint a totally rosy picture with the rest of the first round outside the Top 7 that year. While there were "hits" there were also a bunch of misses.
And none of the class of 2013 - no matter where they were picked - looks like an All-Star waiting to happen.
The 2014 Draft class had Andrew Wiggins at the top, who looks like a future All-Star, and 2015 likewise had a future star at the top in Karl-Anthony Towns. Throughout the Top 5 there's potential 10-year NBA starters, but it remains to be seen where the All-Stars are coming from.
Will 2016 be another dud like 2013, where drafting Top 5 is worse than a later pick?
Who knows. But at least top projected pick Ben Simmons looks like a stat-stuffer from day one, though he's not a good defender. And overseas guy Dragan Bender looks like a great young player, though he might take a while to adjust to the NBA. And some other young guys might step up this spring, and someone always does.
But no matter what, the Suns really need to roll the dice on the 2016 Draft to find their next star, because he's not going to just show up in free agency or a trade. Teams just don't trade stars very often.
Trades a comin
This is where GM McDonough has decidedly changed his tune in recent weeks. He's no longer lauding their closeness to a playoff spot, but rather he's prepared for the Suns to draft high.
And he's ready to make some deals in the coming weeks.
"We are looking at a number of things between now and the trade deadline," he said to Burns and Gambo. "We obviously need to make some changes."
One of those will have to be Markieff Morris.
Interestingly, coach Hornacek threw in a comment in the middle of his pregame presser the other night that Markieff expressed concern about playing short minutes. He implied that as a reason - along with the main one of not being committed to the team - that Markieff has been largely out of the playing rotation entirely.
This could be a bad conclusion on my part. I'm sure Markieff didn't say "play me full minutes or nothing at all". I'm sure that's not how it came out. It may have been he and the coaches concluding that short minutes might elevate his desire to perform immediately, rather than letting the game come to him, which results in fouls, missed shots and bad decisions. Morris is the team's worst player this year in advanced stats that show net impact on games.
Return for Mark
Will Markieff, who's been playing more like an everyman 'Mark', be traded soon? McDonough would not commit to anything on the radio, of course, but all signs point to a trade at some point before the trade deadline.
The key here is that the Suns trade demands have likely changed in the past month. A month ago, the Suns likely wanted someone to step in at PF in Markieff's place. But with the Suns tanking, and Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic (both FAs at the end of the season) filling the minutes, the Suns no longer need a PF who needs 30 minutes a game in return.
Now, it seems more likely the Suns would prefer any deal to include expiring salaries and future assets.
Sure, Houston could still be the target. The Suns could still take back one of Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas, who are losing time to Clint Capela these days and have Montrezl Harrell waiting on the bench. Both Jones and D-Mo are restricted free agents this summer who will get strong contract offers from around the cash-flush league, making them essentially expiring contracts if the Suns draft a replacement.
But it also seems like the Suns would now want to add in someone like Archie Goodwin if necessary to get an asset in return (beyond Corey Brewer's necessary salary-matching inclusion).
Is there a chance the Suns are waiting on the Houston poo-poo platter of Jones and Brewer because they've already decided to expand the deal to include Goodwin, and receive one of Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker or a 2016 #1 in addition? That would make the deal worth eating Brewer's contract.
Veterans on block too
Otherwise, look for any and all Suns trades to be future-focused. The Suns will likely look around the league to see if contenders want a good backup or starting center (Tyson Chandler) or a good hard-nosed small forward (P.J. Tucker) or a dead-eye three-point shooter (Mirza Teletovic).
"I don't want anybody to jump to conclusions," McD said to Burns and Gambo. "If we can't [get back in the playoff picture] closer to the trade deadline, will we look at some things with our veteran players? I don't know. Maybe."
The Suns could trade anyone and everyone over 22 on the roster, and it would not hurt their future. Heck, for the right return, the 22-and-unders could be made available, but only for a player who helps the rebuild.
It's time for the Suns to be trading with 2017 and 2018 in mind.
This year is the year to tank.