As we slog through the last six weeks of the Phoenix Suns 2015-16 season, we are left to wonder just what exactly is the blueprint of the franchise rebuild?
It's actually been crystal clear all along, but one could argue the Suns are no further on the rebuild than they were in 2013.
While unconventional and certainly unsuccessful to date, Suns GM Ryan McDonough has had a consistent plan since taking over for the deposed Lance Blanks. McDonough's roster moves have had little to do with signing veterans to cobble together a winning record and much more to do with accomplishing one of two divergent tasks.
#1: Acquire a superstar around whom to build the franchise
or, if that doesn't work out,
#2: Acquire more young assets and movable parts, that just happen to play the game of basketball but are more valuable as assets in a trade for #1
Make no mistake, the only reason McDonough has this particular #2 on the list is to use those assets to acquire one or more #1's. When McDonough took over in summer of 2013, he had neither. Not only did the 25-57 Suns not have a superstar, they didn't have a lot of young talent to use in acquiring one from a team dumb enough to trade theirs or let him go.
As we can see across the NBA, every sustainable winning franchise has a superstar or two or three under long-term contract that embodies everything the organization wants to be. The league's Collective Bargaining Agreement is built around teams keeping their stars, and with the rising cap number that task will be even easier as the years go on.
Now three years into his tenure, McDonough has yet to accomplish item #1 on his list, which leaves him continuing to execute #2 over and over again until #1 finally materializes. And every year that goes by, meddling "helpers" among the Suns' decision makers have had more and more opportunity to try to short-circuit the blueprint for a playoff chase.
But McDonough keeps circling back to his original plan.
The acquisition of cheap, young talent has two-fold advantages: not only do you have young talent for trades, you also have cap room for outright signings in free agency.
After not even being in the free agency game their first summer under his watch, McDonough tried hard in both the summer of 2014 (LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony) and summer of 2015 (LaMarcus Aldridge) to sign the very best free agents available using his cap space. He also tried to use his young assets and draft picks to trade for stars, including Kevin Love.
But not only did he come up short in each case, the fallout of each of those star-struck summers has negatively impacted the franchise in its wake.
While trying in vain to lure James/Anthony/Bosh in early July 2014, erstwhile forward/center and glue guy Channing Frye was left hanging out to dry and signed elsewhere. In a recovery move, the Suns got great value in Isaiah Thomas but it was clear to all that replacing Frye with Thomas was more of an asset-collection move than a team-building move.
While trying to lure LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, the Suns overpaid for Tyson Chandler and jettisoned one of the Morris twins for immediate cap space without fully predicting the negative long-term implications of those moves if Aldridge didn't sign.
Ryan McDonough knows that he needs to acquire a star in order to truly jump start the rebuild of the Suns franchise. Until then, they are just treading water.
But three years in, water-treading is becoming treacherous. The team still has to play 82 games a season. They still have to sell tickets to keep the franchise afloat. To sell tickets, they have to sell the fans on the chance to watch a winning basketball team. To build a winning basketball team in the interim is counter to asset-collection, though. Hence the treachery.
Three years later, are the Suns any closer to what McDonough wanted to accomplish?
Assets with which to acquire said superstar? let's see here.
Summer of 2013 assets
Youth: Michael Beasley (23), Markieff Morris (22), Marcus Morris (22), Kendall Marshall (20). Beasley and Marshall were disasters, and are now largely out of the league. The Morrii are good rotation players who ended up hurting the Suns franchise more than their talent should have been able to. None of these four projected to be long-term NBA starters that summer.
Movable veterans: Jared Dudley (27), Marcin Gortat (28), Goran Dragic (27), Luis Scola (92). Of all the assets acquired for those veterans in trade, only Eric Bledsoe and two still-future first round picks (2018 and 2021) remain.
Draft picks: That summer, the Suns future draft picks were ranked as the #1 value in the league, including likely Top-10 picks of their own every year plus the Lakers' potential Top-10 pick in 2015, 2016 or 2017. Three years later, the Suns best talent comes from these picks, but not one of them is a superstar.
Money: The Suns had one of the league's lowest payrolls in McD's first two years, and was able to be among the few teams with max cap space available for free agent runs in 2014 and 2015.
Summer of 2016 assets
Youth: Brandon Knight (24), Alex Len (22), T.J. Warren (22), Archie Goodwin (21), Devin Booker (19). Both Knight and Booker have ceilings as long-term NBA starters, and Len and Warren project as long-term rotational players. Four of the five have higher career ceilings than the kids on the 2013 Suns squad, but none project as All-Stars.
Movable veterans: Eric Bledsoe (26), P.J. Tucker (30). That's it. McDonough has shifted the roster away from mid-career veterans in favor of youth, short-term deals...and Tyson Chandler.
Draft picks: The Suns draft pick potential is back among the best in the league. Their pick this summer should be among the Top 3. Probably in 2017 too. Plus, they have Washington's likely mid-rounder and Cleveland's late first in 2016, and lightly protected Miami picks in 2018 and 2021.
Money: The Suns have a lot of cap space, but so does everyone else. The Suns will have more competition than ever for the services of free agents who will get deals 50% higher than any deals ever given before. On the plus side, Chandler's deal won't matter much after we get a look at the moolah being handed out THIS summer.
Where we are now
After all the trades in the last 12 months, the Suns are largely stripped of all their mid-career veterans - you know, those guys who help your team win games - in favor of undeveloped youth and future assets. Hence, the Suns are now stumbling to the bottom of the league.
While many are scratching their heads, McDonough is simply continuing to do what he's been wanting to do all along. Collect assets (#2) until you finally hit on that superstar.
Unfortunately for McDonough, he may not be around long enough to finally get that superstar he needs so badly.