The 2015-16 Portland Trailblazers surprised the league by going from a preseason “bottom feeder” prediction to playoff caliber in the blink of an eye. Come to think of it, their rise and roster makeup almost exactly mirrored the surprising Suns just two years earlier.
Let’s hope for Blazers fans their team has a much better future than that Suns team.
So far though, even their post-cinderella summers have been quite similar too.
The Blazers doubled-down on their overachieving roster this summer one year after a total rebuild, re-signing all their own free agents to long term deals while adding a couple of new pieces to improve next season.
In all, the Blazers committed hundreds of millions to non-All-Stars and project to pay into the luxury tax as soon as next season to keep the spirit of their 44-win 2015-16 season alive.
With a couple major distinctions detailed below, the 2014 Phoenix Suns did much the same thing the summer after their surprising 48-win season - extending their overachieving core while adding a piece or two to ramp up a playoff run.
Even the makeup of the two rosters is surprisingly similar. Both teams built around a pair of starting point guards and an active front line, supplemented by high-scoring bench options.
How the Blazers were built
Last summer, the Portland Trailblazers lost the face of their franchise, LaMarcus Aldridge, without any return compensation. Rather than wallowing in their despair, they aggressively remade their roster to get younger around new franchise face and All-Star PG Damian Lillard.
Gone were four regular starters and overall six rotation players who had started at least 13 games for the 51-31 playoff team in 2014-15. The Blazers basically purged everyone older than the 24-year old Lillard.
The holdovers from the 2014-15 were guys younger than Lillard - Allen Crabbe, Tim Frazier, Myers Leonard, C.J. McCollum - and the venerable (read: untradeable) Chris Kaman.
Around those returnees, Portland added a smorgasbord of youth from other teams, including Noah Vonleh (Charlotte - trade), Maurice Harkless (Orlando - trade), Mason Plumlee (Nets - trade), Al-Farouq Aminu (UFA), Ed Davis (UFA) and Gerald Henderson (Charlotte - trade). Only Hendo was older than 26.
Both the 13-14 Suns and 15-16 Blazers were expected to occupy their conference basement alongside the Lakers, but instead blazed/scorched their way into playoff contention. The Suns won 48 games, while the Blazers won 44.
Both teams revolved around a pair of high-scoring undersized combo guards (Lillard/McCollum vs. Bledsoe/Dragic), backed up by a flame-throwing shooter (Crabbe vs. Green), and anchored by a surprisingly effective Plumlee (Mason vs. Miles) with a stretch-4/5 disrupting defensive rotations (Leonard vs. Frye).
One big difference between the two breakout seasons, however, was the opposition. The Suns won 48 games in 2013-14 but missed the playoffs in a historically tough conference, setting a record for most wins by a non-playoff team in league history. By contrast, the Blazers 44 wins got them the 5th seed last year and an opportunity to win the first round matchup before bowing out in the second round.
Both teams concluded their breakout seasons with similar roster decisions to make.
They both had a ton of cap space to throw at free agents in an effort to get even better.
They also had several players needing new contracts, having intentionally built their teams to allow for another reboot that next summer if needed.
Each team had to answer the question: “Do we have a core to build on? Or are we still looking for a star big man to support our great guards?”
So much the same...
Each team began the summer courting the top free agents. Portland would have loved to sign Kevin Durant. In 2014, Phoenix courted LeBron James.
Ultimately, both teams struck out and were faced with re-signing their own up-and-coming players instead.
The Suns re-signed Eric Bledsoe, and extended Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris while adding a new cog in Isaiah Thomas. On paper, the Suns should have gotten better even though Thomas was a head-scratching duplication on Bledsoe/Dragic.
The Blazers re-signed Leonard, Crabbe and Harkless, and extended McCollum while adding a new cog in G/F Evan Turner. On paper, the Blazers should be better even though Turner is a head-scratching duplication on Crabbe and/or Harkless.
In the end, both teams doubled down on their young core, committing tons of long-term money to keep them together and add one more big piece (Thomas/Turner) to the mix.
But not the same at all...
Below the surface though, the teams are markedly different in some ways.
The Blazers best player is already an All-Star, already under long-term contract and only 24 years old. The Suns best player from the 2013-14 season was older than the rest of the core and about to enter his free agent year.
In addition, the Blazers didn’t alienate their own free agents while fishing for free agent stars. Harkless, Crabbe and McCollum could have been offended by the pursuit of Durant, Turner and Chandler Parsons. Instead, they just played along and now are back in the fold with new contracts and a new running mate in Turner.
On the other hand, the Suns 2014 pursuit of LeBron cost them Channing Frye and their surprising contract to Isaiah Thomas frustrated both Dragic and Bledsoe.
The Suns front office exacerbated the situation with too little communication, while any communication they did have was ineffective and sometimes destructive.
The Suns of 2014-15 and Blazers of 2016-17 head into their “Year Two” seasons much the same way, in terms of roster construction.
Their rosters loaded with just-reaching-their-prime players, a top-5 back court and developing bench, but still missing that second or third sure-fire All-Star for sustained playoff success.
If everyone continued to progress, the future could be bright. But nothing was assured.
The 2014-15 Suns failed their test miserably. They started angry and failed to overcome their self-made chemistry issues. The addition of Thomas didn’t fit as well as the front office had hoped, and everyone from the coach to the GM to the players wanted to make a trade within weeks of the season opener. To make matters worse, some players regressed mightily from their career-best seasons. And everyone groused from day one about playing time on a deeper roster.
The Blazers have an opportunity to bypass all those issues. While there might be a problem getting enough minutes for Crabbe, Turner, Aminu and Harkless on the wing - especially with McCollum getting 30+ SG minutes - two of them are versatile enough to slide to small ball power forward at times, and none of the four are erstwhile team stars expecting big minutes in their natural position.
There still might be some regression from players coming off surprising career-best seasons, like Harkless, Plumlee and Crabbe, not to mention McCollum.
And even if no one regresses, there still is likely a “5-8 playoff seed” ceiling on this roster with no clear path for improvement as they pay into the luxury tax just to keep the current roster together.
But so far, the 2016 Blazers are way ahead of the 2014 Suns in one stark respect: there’s no drama around the Blazers like there was around the Suns. There were no all-summer holdouts. There’s no power struggle for alpha status. And so far, there’s no diva personalities threatening to make the Blazers a laughingstock.
A locker room of players that just want to play might spell the difference and keep the Blazers heading in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns start over again with an even younger roster than their 2013-14 version.
So while Suns GM Ryan McDonough hopes the new Suns have a cinderella season like last year’s rebuilt Blazers, it’s really the Blazers who improved upon the Suns 2013-14 blueprint first.