There is an adage around the NBA that goes “Don’t mess with the game.” The belief is that nothing good happens when one does not approach the game in the correct way. Looking back on the 2016-17 season, it is impossible to say with even a modicum of believability that the Phoenix Suns did not mess with the game by resting healthy players for significant stretches. Consider this a plea for a different tack in 2017-18.
When the order came down after the All-Star break to rest Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight in favor of younger players, the move, while somewhat unconventional, could at least be justified. After all, Knight was averaging just 11 points per game on sub-.400 shooting from the field, and even though Chandler was sweeping the boards to the tune of the fourth-highest rebound rate of his career, the Suns needed to evaluate Alex Len with his free agency upcoming. Valid non-tanking arguments existed to support the moves, arguments that didn’t require backbreaking contortions.
But when the Suns sat Eric Bledsoe a month later, it raised one big Dwayne Johnson-sized eyebrow.
The reasons offered to support the move at the time were flimsy at best: We need to save the wear and tear on Bledsoe; we want to give the young players a chance; the playoffs are out of reach.
The actual reason — obvious to anyone paying attention — was that despite sitting Chandler and Knight, the Suns were winning at a better rate than they were before the All-Star break. With this late-season resurgence jeopardizing the Draft Lottery master plan, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough was forced to further kneecap his team by pulling Bledsoe off the court. That did the trick, as Phoenix went 2-13 the rest of the way and finished behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the second-worst record in the NBA (24-58).
But when you mess with the game, the game messes back. Despite pulling out all the stops to “earn” as high a draft pick as possible, Phoenix fell to fourth and were forced to watch as the 26-56 Lakers went second and the Philadelphia 76ers (via the 32-50 Sacramento Kings) went third in the lottery. Afterward, McDonough faced the media and tried to play it off, saying “it was what I expected.” No, it wasn’t. No one handicaps his own team to that degree expecting they will drop two places anyway when it’s all said and done.
Things may have worked out for the best, and maybe the Suns got the player they most coveted in Josh Jackson; however, Phoenix’s draft fortunes had the distinct feel of the game sending a shot across the Suns’ bow.
So, have the Suns learned? Here’s what McDonough had to say about playing to win versus playing for the draft:
“I think the goal going into any season is not to look at next year’s draft or lottery. I think our goal is to win as many games as we can. How many that is, I don’t really know.
“In February I might have a different answer for you, but I hope not.”
Reading between the lines, the Suns aren’t looking at draft positioning with the team sitting at 0-0, but if the team has 20 wins at the All-Star break, there might be plenty of veteran butts warming seats down the stretch again, especially with a 2018 draft class that is expected to include Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr., DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, and the surprise addition Marvin Bagley III.
The Suns do not sound above pulling the same stunt again this season nor does McDonough sound ready to own up to the real reason players sat after the All-Star break.
“Last year we won 24 games,” McDonough said. “Call that what you will. Some people have different terms for it. We call it strategic resting and evaluating our young players, and by virtue of doing that, we saw that Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones Jr. and Alan Williams were legit NBA players who could play a role and contribute to a team that we think has a chance to be pretty good here over the next few years.”
Again, no one rests their top players for a month or two just to determine whether other players can be adequate 7th, 8th, and 10th men off the bench. This is pulsar-level spin right here.
But no matter how many justifications are run up the flagpole, the reality is that sitting healthy players who can help a team win is antithetical to the spirit of competition and is not a strategy the players would choose for themselves. Chandler, who undoubtedly would have liked to have played more than 47 games last season, took a diplomatic approach to the topic during Media Day.
“At the end of the day, the organization has to do what’s best for the future of the organization,” he said. “I thought they were very respectful about it and communicated with me beforehand what their plans were, and I understood it.
“I understand what they’re building here within the organization, and part of my job is helping them with that.”
Where Chandler did his best to deflect the issue and keep his personal opinions close to the vest like a media-savvy vet, Bledsoe was a bit more blunt during his podium time.
REPORTER: Did the rest make you feel any different other than maybe a little bitter going into this year?
Bledsoe: “I mean, it did spark a little fire, me coming back ready to step up my game even more to not be in that position again.”
REPORTER: Did you think you were playing your best basketball?
Bledsoe: “Without a question. I think I was playing by far the best basketball I’ve ever played in my life. …Things happened (last season) that I couldn’t control, but I was cheering my teammates on every step of the way.”
REPORTER: What can you do to make sure you don’t sit the second half of next season?
Bledsoe: “Win. What else can you do but win?”
REPORTER: You sound like you took that personally.
Bledsoe: “I did. You know, it is what it is. It’s a business. I understood what it was, and you know…I definitely have to work even more.”
REPORTER: But you didn’t like the DNPs.
Bledsoe: “Of course not. I don’t think no player would like sitting down from something they love to do.”
The league just recently amended the Draft Lottery rules in an effort to curb the outbreak of tread marks that have crisscrossed NBA courts in recent years, but those changes don’t take effect until 2019, leaving teams one more opportunity to go for the gusto, if you will.
Please Phoenix, don’t do it. Don’t sell your soul for a few more lottery combinations again, especially not in your 50th anniversary season. Have some more dignity than that. Have some more respect than that.
If the team is organically bad, then you’ll get a good pick. If there are injuries to key players, then you’ll get a good pick. If trades happen, then you’ll get a good pick. But don’t run the team like the Cleveland Indians of Major League. Let the guys go out and succeed or fail together. Don’t place your finger on the scales and try to influence the results if the team suddenly starts playing in March and April the way you would have liked to have seen in November and December.
That’s called messing with the game, and even Jobu won’t be able to help once the basketball gods turn against you.