The last two seasons for general manager Ryan McDonough's Phoenix Suns have seen a staggering fall from grace. Once perceived as the upstart darlings of the NBA as they clawed their way to a 48-34 record and nearly an improbable playoff berth, they have since fallen back to earth, landing harder than Icarus after their most recent 23-59 campaign.
The losing, which sits at a franchise record six straight non-playoff seasons and counting, has been difficult enough to endure, but the Suns haven't merely been beaten and bruised on the court. The front office has had an equally rough go of things, with virtually every well-intentioned and lauded move blowing up in their faces and more than a couple Suns lobbing salvos at management on their way out of town.
The list of front-office miscues will not be re-hashed here, however. (Think triple point guards or anything Morris twins related if you must.) That is because for all the head-scratching, forehead-pounding miscalculations by Phoenix's brain trust, they seem to have finally righted the ship this offseason.
General manager Ryan McDonough has signed a grand total of two free agents since free agency began and worked exactly zero trades. That is a seismic shift in protocol for a man whose lowest-key trade over the past two offseasons was the deal sending Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons for a future 2nd round pick.
But this restraint is what the team needed to see from McDonough this summer. It did not need him to be Captain Ahab, relentlessly pursuing free agency's biggest fish. This team needed him to be some other literary figure who was happy with smaller, well-fitting pieces, preferably fishy pieces to maintain this struggling metaphor.
With that in mind, his July transaction ledger lists only Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa in the addition column — two players who fit snugly into niche roles.
"We try to blend (youth) with guys like Jared and P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler, veteran guys who we think still have a lot of good basketball left in them but can mentor and teach the young guys," McDonough told azcentral.com.
That hasn't always been the case. For most of his tenure with Phoenix, McDonough has spoken about acquiring assets and being ready with a big offer in case a superstar becomes available. It is a strategy he learned well from Danny Ainge, his former boss with the Boston Celtics, but that course of action requires some good fortune and timing to be successful, as Ainge is coming to grips with this offseason.
So instead of beating his head against the wall, McDonough turned his focus away from acquiring a star player for the time being and picked up a couple solid role players who will be just as important to developing the team's future as they will be in improving its present.
The addition of Dudley makes perfect sense. He fills a pressing need on the court, with only rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss slotted for time at power forward before his signing. And while Dudley doesn't look the part of a prototypical power forward (unless the Suns take on the 1948 Providence Steamrollers), he fits perfectly as a player who can fight on defense with his athletic hands and space the floor on offense with his outside shooting, opening up the paint for penetrators like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, and T.J. Warren.
Barbosa's role on the court isn't as clear cut as Dudley's, with six guards already on the roster and five holding guaranteed contracts. However, only Bledsoe, Knight, and Booker of that group have proven themselves capable of extended minutes. With the addition of Barbosa, McDonough has added another reliable guard and versatile scorer who will push the pace on offense the way coach Earl Watson would like to see.
Both Dudley and Barbosa were targeted by McDonough, though, not only for their basketball ability but for their ability to act as mentors on the team, lending their veteran experience to the (hopefully) attentive youngsters. To that end, Barbosa recently stressed the importance of building chemistry between the players, and Dudley has expressed no issues ceding his spot in the starting lineup should Bender or Chriss earn the role. Both players understand how important it is in the NBA to play for one's teammates, and if they can get that message across to the rest of the team, they will have been worth every penny on that alone.
Something else that should not be overlooked is that in negotiating these deals, McDonough maintained flexibility going forward. Dudley's 3-year, $30 million deal starts at $10.47 million, then drops to $10 million and $9.53 million over the next two years. Barbosa's deal is only $4 million each of the next two seasons, with the second year guaranteed for just $500,000. Once again, McDonough avoided the pitfall of overreacting and agreeing to a bad deal, which has been one of his strengths since taking over in 2013.
But probably the most significant aspect of McDonough's two additions was their desire to return to the desert, bringing back players who have a genuine connection to the team and community and who share Watson's goal of having a team that embraces and bonds with the fan base.
"Phoenix will always be my home," said Barbosa during his press conference. "Everything started here. My whole career. I played here eight years already. I love you guys."
Dudley echoed similar sentiments during his press conference. "I've been secretly wanting to come back here for years."
Considering the beating Phoenix's public perception has taken over the past couple years, adding players who resonate with the fans and love the team for more than just the contract they've been given is a plus. As basketball moves, the additions of Dudley and Barbosa rate at about a shoulder shrug. But viewed with a wider lens, it becomes easier to appreciate their full scope.
Despite a lack of movement from his club, McDonough as done well this offseason. He has assembled a balanced team, mixing capable veteran leaders with a great deal of developing talent, and managed to steer clear of significant logjams at any position. In doing so, he has also maintained about $13 million in salary cap space for financial flexibility this year and beyond.
McDonough himself has expressed how difficult it has been for him to basically sit out free agency this summer, but if he can stave off the shakes and resist pursuing still-available free agents like Donatas Motiejunas, Dion Waiters, Lance Stephenson, and J.R. Smith, one would be hard-pressed to describe McDonough's summer as anything other than a success given the circumstances.
The Suns are no longer a collection of assets in search of a trade. For the first time since 2014, McDonough has assembled a true team and placed at its helm a coach who will move heaven and earth to mold that team into a cohesive unit. Whether that amounts to much in the wins column for this season remains to be seen, but for a young team in search of an identity, that is a much better place to be in going forward.