The Phoenix Suns have not reached the playoffs for six straight seasons, an ignominious franchise record of futility. The fourth winningest franchise in NBA history - winning 54% of its games over 48 seasons - reached the playoffs 29 times in their first 42 seasons.
To make matters worse, there's no serious playoff contention in sight.
Oh sure, it's quite possible that last year's roster could have made the playoffs if they'd been healthy all season and had no chemistry/effort issues among the players. It's quite possible that better handling of the roster's fragile egos could have secured playoff spots in the last two seasons, in fact. Remember when the Suns had the 8th spot for a month in the toughest Western Conference in a long time, right before the trade deadline of 2015?
But even if the Suns had squeaked into the playoffs in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the foundation of long-term success was just not there. None of the players on either roster were destined to even make consecutive All-Star and All-NBA appearances, let alone perennial nods. The days of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion being named year after year were long gone.
Which is why the Phoenix Suns find themselves on the outside looking in at the NBA elite.
The 2016 and 2017 NBA Drafts are the Suns' best chance to change their fortunes and build a foundation for long-term success. The 2016 Draft is not a great one. In fact, it's not even a kinda good one. The very best prospect in the draft may never see an All-Star game. On the other hand, the 2017 Draft is already being propped up as one of the best in a while, and so having good picks in that draft will be even more valuable than having good picks next week.
But even if the 2016 Draft is uninspiring, what the 2016 Draft represents, just like any draft, is hope. There is hope that the Suns strike it rich with their picks, using a combination of preparation, opportunity and luck. There is also hope that the Suns draft 'projects' over 'production', so that they ensure their 2017 picks in a stronger draft are high again.
Starting with the 4th pick in the draft next week, the Suns choice might give you a strong hint as to their intentions with the 2016-17 season.
Per John Gambodoro of 98.7 FM ArizonaSports, who has connections with the Suns, they are down to four players at the #4 spot next week.
At 4 the Suns will likely pick between Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Dragan Bender, & Marquese Chriss (via @Gambo987). pic.twitter.com/36YG9Zaxv9— Suns Nation (@SunsNation_NBA) June 15, 2016
Buddy Hield = playoff push?
A case can be made that a healthy rotation with Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, T.J. Warren, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler just needs productive additions/changes at the power forward spot to threaten for the playoffs in 2017.
There aren't any rookie difference makers at power forward in the draft. The Suns aren't going to be able to take Anthony Davis, for example. But even then, Davis couldn't have led his team to the playoffs as a rookie.
Buddy Hield, on the other hand, would be a perfect addition to a team fighting for the playoffs. Hield could step right into that heat-seeking missile scorer off the bench from day one. His long term NBA role might be the same as his rookie role.
The Suns could use the 2016 draft to nab NBA-ready players such as Buddy Hield at 4, Taurean Prince or Denzel Valentine at 13, or even Domantas Sabonis at 13.
Taking Buddy Hield, a senior shooting guard from Oklahoma, means you're ready to win now. It also means you're ready to trade Brandon Knight, because there's no way the Suns would take Hield in order to trade Devin Booker. Don't even put that kind of thought in your head.
There's talk that the Suns think Booker can be a small forward next to a great shooter at SG, but that worries me in a lot of ways. Booker isn't big enough to defend the post against bigger SFs. So while the Suns would be more devastating offensively, they'd suffer big time defensively. Putting Booker at SF for a lot of minutes also makes it hard to have T.J. Warren as a rotation mate, because they don't complement each other. Both are good offensively and disasters defensively, so the coach will always be having to worry about defense from other positions.
Bypassing Bender, Chriss or Murray to take Hield speaks volumes.
Bender, Chriss and Murray all have higher NBA ceilings than Hield, but may take 2+ years to realize those ceilings. Hield, on the other hand, is ready to play and contribute right now though his best future role might be the same as it is as a rookie: as a sixth man.
That's why I say taking Hield means committing to win, and make the playoffs, right now.
Jamal Murray will only work out for Boston (3rd pick), Phoenix (4th pick), Minnesota (5th pick) and New Orleans (6th pick), per @CelticsHub.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 9, 2016
Murray is also a shooting guard, but he's a lot younger than Hield and could be developed as a part-time playmaker. Some even say he's a future point guard, but they said the same of a lot of Kentucky guards in the past several years. Three of those guys are on the Suns right now, and I'm not even including Devin Booker in that.
Drafting Murray means you don't necessarily want to win now, but otherwise his addition creates the same logjam as taking Hield. By drafting Murray you're waving goodbye to Brandon Knight while getting a lot younger. Your long term back court includes a pair of 20 year olds in Murray and Booker, with neither of them a pure point guard or pure small forward, so the next few seasons would be about finding a way to play them together.
If the Suns take Jamal Murray next week, my opinion is that they are openly pushing off playoff talk for at least two more years. Taking Murray means passing on the draft's best big men to throw yet another combo guard into an overloaded mix.
Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss
Source: Dragan Bender has workouts scheduled in Minnesota on June 16, Phoenix June 18, and Boston June 21.— David Pick (@IAmDPick) June 13, 2016
Like Murray, drafting Bender or Chriss is a clear nod to the future. But unlike Murray, power forwards Bender and Chriss would fit perfectly into the roster without forcing other roster moves to keep everyone happy. The Suns would then have the luxury of trading people when it makes sense, rather than being forced to make moves to clear logjams.
Both Bender and Chriss have very high ceilings but are extremely young and raw, and would signal that the Suns are ready to take the slow road to the playoffs. They will take years to develop, which would allow the Suns spend this year on the development track while earning a high pick in the 2017 draft too.
Taking Bender, Murray or Chriss should also signal a roster purge. Those guys need minutes, but playing them will most likely result in lots of losses that Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler have no interest in enduring again.
I can't imagine the Suns adding Bender or Chriss, and then going out to sign veterans for a playoff push right afterward. Rather, they'd probably spend the summer trading away veterans for future picks and young players, much like the summer of 2013 that McD nailed so cleanly.
Who ever the Suns draft at 4th overall next week will provide a clear signal of their intentions for 2016-17. I'm happy to see that three of their four targets, according to Gambo, are signals of a true youth movement focused on taking the most talented players regardless of how long it will take to realize those talents.
Final, Final Word
Of those four potential finalists for the Suns pick, you've got to assume that Dragan Bender would be the top choice. If he's on the board, he'd better be putting on a Suns cap as quickly as the Suns can run the card up to Adam Silver.
But if Bender's picked 3rd by Boston (or by whoever they trade their pick to),
then it's worth noting that Marquese Chriss is the only one of the remaining candidates who participated in a competitive group workout in Phoenix. The Suns have been very clear that, while group workouts aren't the end-all-beat-all they are helpful in determining a player's competitive spirit.
Update: None of Chriss, Hield, Dunn, Bender or Murray have been to Phoenix for a workout yet, but Bender and Murray have already 'leaked' and the Suns keep it close to the vest until the day it happens.