There are seven really good (Utah, Memphis & OKC) to great (GS, SA, LAC & Houston) teams in the West this season. Barring critical injuries, it's difficult to argue that these seven teams won't wind up as the top seven seeds in the Western Conference playoffs at the season's end. Even this early in the season only the final seeding order seems to be in doubt.
And then there's the eighth seed.
Portland (13-18), Denver (12-17) and Sacramento (12-17) are in a virtual three way tie for a very tenuous hold on the eighth spot at the moment but none of them have been playing well lately and even the Suns and Dallas Mavericks (who are presently tied for dead last in the Western Conference standings) are only four games behind them. That means that with around 50 games left in the season that the eighth seed is really still up for grabs and every team in the bottom of the Western standings still has a fairly realistic shot at taking that spot and making the playoffs. And every team will be able to tell themselves that if they can make a trade or two to strengthen their weak areas then making the playoffs is a very real possibility.
But with all the strength at the top in the WC this year that eighth spot really is "fool's gold". It's a one-way ticket to a likely 0-4 playoff trouncing by whichever one of the great teams gets the number one seed and, at least in the case of the Phoenix Suns, a goal that could short circuit their future if they decide to chase after it.
But it's still the playoffs and many Suns fans are hungry to get back.
Going on their seventh year out of the playoffs, I can see why chasing that eighth seed could be tempting for the Suns. Casual fans could see just getting back into the playoff as progress, would applaud Robert Sarver, the front office, the coach and the team and then spend the off-season thinking that the Suns might be just a good draft pick and/or a roster tweak or two away from returning to relevance in the 2017-18 season.
And it could all turn out that way... although it's extremely unlikely. What is more likely is that the Suns would have to trade away valuable future assets for a possible quick fix that may or may not result in getting that eighth seed and in doing so lessen their long term chances of returning to contention.
As constructed, the Suns are fairly rich in young players that could form a strong core in a few years. Booker, Warren, Len and Chriss all seem to be part of that future and Bender and Ulis are intriguing rookies with a lot of potential. But so far the Suns seem to be going nowhere except back to the lottery this season. They have a lot of talent but it doesn't seem to work well together and now that the trade season is upon us there are four options that the Suns can take moving forward.
First, they can basically do nothing or next to nothing. This team is already bad enough to make it into the lottery while trying not to get there. They can keep all or most of the vets that we have while just cutting back their minutes for the rest of the season to give more minutes to the younger players. Any trade or trades that the Suns would make would be relatively small. As long as the Suns are still as close as they are to that eighth seed this approach has the potential to create some bad feelings among the vets and potential locker room problems.
Second, they can "clean house" by trading away most of the vets for younger players, draft picks and/or expiring contracts. This would without a doubt make the team worse in the short term but also virtually insure a high pick in this year's draft. This wouldn't play well with casual fans. I also don't think that Robert Sarver would be happy with this option either so I think it's unlikely to happen.
Third, they can split the difference between the first and second options. Don't basically stand still but also don't trade away all or most of the vets. Make some good, solid trades that help the future of the team without sacrificing the present. This is my preferred option.
Fourth, they can decide to chase that "fool's gold" eighth playoff seed. As bad as the Suns are right now, I really do believe that with a few trades to bring in a few more steady veteran role players that they could possibly win enough games to compete for that eighth seed. But to get the players that they would need to do that the Suns would have to trade away draft picks and probably at least one or two of their rookies/younger players.
As much as I would like to see the Suns back in the playoffs, my opinion is that they must resist the urge to take that fourth option. It may led to a playoff appearance but it could also led the way to only being a fringe playoff team for a couple of years, just good enough for a 7th or 8th seed and a quick first round exit. And after that, the Suns slide back into being a team that picks 13th in the draft for a few years until the next attempt at a rebuild.
In an interview Earl Watson did with Zach Lowe less than two weeks ago Watson was asked, "Is the postseason still a realistic goal?" Watson's answer was, “Why not? We're like four games out.”
The Suns are still only four games out and with T.J. Warren finally returning to form after his absence due to a mysterious "minor head injury" the Suns might actually start gaining some ground on reaching that eighth spot. That's fine by me as long as it doesn't encourage the Suns to go all in on an attempt to make the playoffs and start trading away draft picks and/or younger players to try and get there. I'm not a fan of tanking but I'd rather go that route than possibly trade away the future just to try and avoid another season out of the playoffs.