In the never-ending saga that is the Phoenix Suns message to fans, this week's twist came from the team's managing partner.
In a panel hosted by azcentral.com this week, Robert Sarver admitted the team is in a little bit of a rebuilding phase but summed up his expectations in one sentence.
"You're either close to the top or getting assets to raise up," Sarver said of the NBA. "What we want to stay away from is being in the middle for an extended period of time."
Ummm... yeah... hrmmm....
By that statement, Sarver admits that the Suns existence for the past eight years have been something he wants to avoid. Since 2008, running eight seasons now, the Suns have had five "in the middle" seasons dotted with three outlier finishes. Eight years sounds like an extended period of time to me.
Only one of those outlier finishes was positive - the now legendous (ie. so long ago some might think it's no more than an embellished story told by old men in a bar) run to the Western Conference Finals stopped short only by a lucky put back after an air ball.
The other seven seasons in those eight have been either abject embarrassments or middling disappointments. Zero playoff appearances. Two "really bad but not bad enough to earn a Top-3 pick" seasons. Five "just bad enough to miss the playoffs, settling for the 13th or 14th pick in the Draft" seasons.
That sure sounds like being in the middle for an extended period of time.
Now, let's be fair.
It's not like Robert Sarver went into his front office's offices every offseason and said "Let's finish in the middle of the pack! I don't want to host any playoff games, and I don't want college's best talent either!"
But it's also not like the Suns have intentionally avoided the middle of the pack either. The offseason message given to fans in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 has been consistent: "We don't have the best talent in the league, but if everything falls into place we think we can snag a low playoff seed."
Let's recap the summer messaging each year since the WCF appearance:
- The summer of 2010 saw the Suns replace Amare Stoudemire with Hakim Warrick with a promise to compete for the playoffs, and finishing just outside the playoffs.
- Summer 2011 was a promise to try the same basic lineup again, which gave the same result.
- Summer 2012 was marked by replacing Steve Nash with Goran Dragic and Kendall Marshall, with a brash promise that the talent improved. Missed playoffs again.
- Summer 2013 was finally about rebuilding... and a barely missed playoff spot.
- Summer 2014 was about building on last year without adding any major talent... and ended with a barely missed playoff spot.
- Summer 2015 was about building on last year without adding any major talent... and ended in abject failure
Notice that none of those seasons started with a vastly improved roster from the end of the prior season. Hard to do that when you're stuck in the middle and the draft picks were 13th or 14th overall nearly every time.
As our old friend Jim C. used to say, the Suns were "Treadmilling like boss!"
We all thought the Suns liked being on the treadmill. They said they hated the idea of being one of the league's worst teams, so they'd just try to keep building from the middle.
After this season abomination, you'd think the Suns would finally embrace the rebuild. I mean, the treadmilling hasn't really worked for the past eight years so why not try something new?
If you're going to go young, focusing on a Top 5 pick this summer, plus another lottery pick, plus Devin Booker, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and a handful of other young players is a perfect opportunity to do that.
Hiring a novice head coach whose most noticeable skill is to keep players focused during long losing streaks is the message of a rebuilding team, not the message of a team ready to compete right now.
But of course, the Suns don't still don't think that way.
"We do value and emphasize the development of our young players," general manager Ryan McDonough stated at Watson's introduction as the permanent coach. "That's something extremely important to us. I think we're going to try and continue to do both is the best way to put it. We want to win games. We want to establish a culture, and a framework of an organization that is conducive to winning, and is sustainable over a long period of time. At the same time, we do want to develop our young players. We're gonna toe that line as best we can. I think coming into the season we hoped to be a playoff team and also get our young guys experience. I know that can be difficult to do at times."
Playing young guys, keeping veterans happy, and winning games over developing youth... is the recipe for middling finish at best.
In my humble opinion, the Suns should enter the 2016-17 season the way they entered the 2013-14 season. Stop trying to pretend to be good. Trade Tyson Chandler to a contender. Make room for Alex Len at center, and just sign a journeyman to back him up (not Earl Barron).
Keep P.J. Tucker if he wants to stay under those circumstances, but if he doesn't then sign Jared Dudley to play his "veteran leader by example" role.
Roll with the kids. Win when you can, but win the right way by having the kids be the ones you're winning with. Be okay with another Top-10 pick.
But alas, the Suns aren't going to do that.
They're already pimping Earl Watson as the free agent whisperer, and the developer of young talent, and rock upon which the old-timey veterans can stand tall. All rolled into one second-year coach.
So while Robert Sarver says he doesn't want to be stuck in the middle for an extended period of time, the message he's making his front office eschew is exactly that.