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Who did the Suns pass on? A referendum on missed opportunity

Using hindsight, we take a look at five years of drafting for Suns GM Ryan McDonough. Where did he go wrong?

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Press Conference Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After five full drafts since hiring Ryan McDonough as General Manager to rebuild a team bereft of young talent, we might unbelievably be looking at a worse team than he inherited.

The 2012-13 Suns won 25 games against 57 losses. After five drafts, including three top-5 picks, the 2017-18 Suns will be lucky to win 25, and will probably finish closer to 20.

In his five seasons, the Suns will have four losing records.

Over the last three seasons, McDonough has churned through three different head coaches - with each turnover being an ugly mid-season firing affair - and might be looking at his fourth before long.

It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ‘em.

McDonough came to Phoenix as a draft guru, having been given credit for targeting the likes of Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, a pair of late first-round steals in Boston.

Let’s take a look at how his five drafts have fared, using the clarity of hindsight.

2013

Drafted Alex Len at #5 overall, notably passed on Noel and McLemore

Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore were expected to go 1-2 but injury and attitude concerns had them drop to 6-7 by draft night. Those concerns were valid. Now, McLemore is basically out of the league and Noel is riding the bench on a 5th year qualifying offer with one of the few NBA teams (Dallas) that are worse than the Suns. Among those three players, Alex Len is the most accomplished. So there!

While we would all love to have seen the Suns end up with C.J. McCollum (10), Steven Adams (12), Giannis Antetokuompo (15) or Rudy Gobert (27), not a single respected professional scout staked his career nor did any scouting site advocate taking any of those players in the Top 5 of the 2013 Draft.

Sure, McDonough could have traded down and made out like a bandit in retrospect, but the Suns needed top end talent and you simply don’t trade out of the Top 5 (or dramatically overdraft) in order to take a late lottery talent. You don’t.

Alex Len was actually projected to go #1 overall by the widely respected DraftExpress.com and was top-4 on every other scouting site.

So while in retrospect we’d all love to see Giannis, C.J. or Rudy on the Suns right now, none of us wanted that to happen on draft night.

2014

Drafted T.J. Warren (14), Tyler Ennis (18) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (27)

Notably passed on Jusuf Nurkic (16), Gary Harris (19), Rodney Hood (23), Clint Capela (25), Nikola Jokic (41), Jordan Clarkson (46)

While you could give McD a pass on 2013, you simply cannot do the same in 2014.

T.J. Warren was a very good prospect coming out of NC State, but his mid-range, no-threes, no-passing, no-defense game surely did not fit the mold of the surprising 48-win Suns team. Yet McD shocked the NBA world with a pre-draft promise to take Warren at 14 if he was still on the board.

To make matters worse, he passed on Gary Harris not once but twice to take Warren at #14 and undersized point guard Tyler Ennis at #18 overall. Rodney Hood and Clint Capela were available at #18 as well, and were all rated as good picks.

Then, with two rookies in the fold already, the Suns took Serbian shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic and asked him to stay Europe for a couple years. Bogdan instead waited out the rookie scale limitations, entered free agency and is now making $8 million a year to score 8 points per game for the awful Kings.

Let’s look at what the Suns passed up. They COULD have had the core of a very good team after that 2014 Draft, if they had the right crystal ball. Except for Jokic, who no one had as a solid first rounder, every one of those players the Suns “passed on” could have been taken with any of those three picks.

Could the Suns could have done SO much better with the 14, 18 and 27 picks? Imagine some combination of Gary Harris, Clint Capela, Rodney Hood and Nikola Jokic. So. much. better.

Could the Suns could have done worse? Oh god. Yes.

Let’s look quickly at some of the duds taken by other teams around the Suns picks that year: Adreian Payne (15), James Young (17), Bruno Caboclo (20), Mitch McGary (21), Jordan Adams (22), Shabazz Napier (24), P.J. Hairston (26), C.J. Wilcox (28), Josh Huestis (29). How many of us stumped madly for Payne that year? (raises hand in shame)

Then consider this: if the Suns had taken Harris or Hood, would we have Devin Booker today? We’d likely have someone like crazy-eyes, wanna-be-MMA-fighter Bobby Portis.

Speaking of 2015...

2015

Drafted Devin Booker (13), acquired Jon Leuer for mid-second round pick

Passed on... really no one better than Devin Booker

Booker was a talent, and when the Suns were on the clock he was clearly the best player left on the board. So let’s not pat McDonough on the back too hard.

But we all remember how badly the Suns wanted/needed a power forward that year. They reportedly tried to trade up for Frank Kaminsky (not verified), but failed. By the time they were on the clock, Myles Turner (11) and Trey Lyles (12... thanks Utah!) were both gone. So McDonough became a settler. He turned to Kentucky’s 6th man Devin Booker despite already having high-minute guards Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe entrenched as the long-term starters.

If the Suns really had taken Gary Harris or even Rodney Hood in 2014 they likely don’t “settle” on Devin Booker in 2015.

Who would the Suns have taken instead? Bright Side was advocating Bobby Portis (22) and Montrezl Harrell (32) like they were the next coming. They weren’t. And aren’t. Now Portis and Harrell can’t get consistent minutes on really bad teams.

2015 was a win for McD and the Suns fanbase. Let’s give him this one, even if it was a bit lucky. I mean, we all know McD would have taken Kaminsky or Lyles if he could have, right?

2016

Suns drafted Dragan Bender (4), Marquese Chriss (8), Tyler Ulis (34), traded #13 and #27 away

Passed on guards Kris Dunn (5), Buddy Hield (6), Jamal Murray (7), and later Skal Labissiere (27) and Dejounte Murray (28), and then took Ulis over surprise rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon (36). And traded away Bogdan Bogdanovic.

If the Suns had landed Kaminsky, Lyles, Turner or even Portis in 2015 and were still looking for a shooter after Knight flamed out, then maybe Buddy Hield or Jamal Murray would now be the shooting guard of the future.

This is where the roster-building gets tricky.

Would you rather have a combo of young Jamal Murray, Skal and Lyles (and Bogdan) over Booker, Chriss and Bender? Maybe. Maybe not.

But the Suns DID take Booker in 2015, so they didn’t need any more guards. And they needed big men in the worst way by the 2016 draft.

Enter Bender and Chriss. Bender had been touted for years as a top prospect, and was even mock-drafted to Boston at #3 overall while Chriss was a late-riser. General consensus had Bender and Chriss among a “Top-8” set of prospects with a huge drop-off after them. A year later, that still appears to be true. While Thon Maker (10) might turn out to be good, not a single scout would have taken him in the Top 8.

The Suns took the two best power forward prospects in the 2016 draft. Can’t really fault them for that. Didn’t we all give the Suns an “A” for getting both?

But that doesn’t mean hindsight is kind.

Will McDonough some day regret even bothering with Marquese Chriss? To get Chriss, the Suns gave up the 13th overall pick (that could have been Juancho Hernangomez, for example) and with the 27th he could have had Skal Labissiere, who dropped further than anyone thought he would.

And he could have kept Bogdan, and paid him $8 million per year to be the Suns second-best three-point shooter. Imagine Bogdan taking Troy Daniels’ and even Mike James’ minutes. Okay. Yeah. Okay stop punching the wall now.

Bender, Juancho, Skal, Bogdan and Ulis could have been the “booty” from the 2016 draft. Would the Suns have kept all of them? Of course not.

Would Juancho, Skal and Bogdan be better long term than Marquese Chriss? Maybe.

We don’t know. And it’s still early. Given the roster at hand, including the picks taken in 2013 and 2014, the Suns took the best players available at their picks in 2015 and 2016.

2017

Drafted Josh Jackson (4) and Davon Reed (32)

It’s way too early to second-guess anything about the 2017 draft. Way. Too. Early.

However, we can’t help but notice the impact that De’Aaron Fox (5), Dennis Smith (9), Lauri Markkanen (9), Donovan Mitchell (13) and Kyle Kuzma (27) have already had for their teams this season.

And really, following the theme of “what ifs”: if the Suns had passed on Bender and Chriss in 2016, and still needed a young big man, you can’t discount the future of the lanky 7’1”Jonathan Isaac (6).

That’s all the second-guessing we can stomach right now. Josh Jackson was clearly the best option at #4 for the Suns, given their needs and his talent level. Many scouts called him the best prospect in the draft. He needs time to develop, but Jackson could end up being an extremely valuable top-end NBA player on both ends of the court.

Let’s give McDonough the same kind of pass in 2017 that we gave him in 2015: he took the best player on the board when it came to his time to pick.

Draft Summary

Can’t fault any picks in 2015 and 2017.

Could McDonough have done better in 2013, 2014 and 2016?

Yes.

On draft day, SHOULD he have known better and taken better players?

You could argue that even on draft day 2014 we knew that he could have done more with his picks. Warren, Ennis and Bogdan were underwhelming.

But then, if he’d have done better in 2014, we probably don’t get to watch Devin Booker every night.

The draft is a crap shoot. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.

Roster Comparison

Let’s just look at the rosters in terms of best player to worst player. I realize this is a subjective ranking, but I’m the writer of this here article and I did all the work to put it together, so just suck it up.

By my calculations, the Suns have improved on the top end of their roster, regressed in the middle and propped up the prospects.

I would take Book, Buckets and Len over Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola. Mostly because the future of Book and Buckets is currently expected to be better than we thought the future of Dragic and Gortat was in summer of 2013.

The wild card here is Brandon Knight. Simply looking at this roster, Knight has to be in the top four in terms of talent. But I’d much rather have prime Jared Dudley than prime Brandon Knight.

Where McDonough has failed in roster building is in the middle. I’d rather trot out the 2012-13 version of P.J. Tucker, Jermaine O’Neal and Markieff Morris every night than this year’s Greg Monroe, Tyson Chandler and Marquese Chriss. Only Troy Daniels would beat out Shannon Brown for playing time.

It’s the bottom of the roster that looks so much more palatable, if not more playable yet.

I’d rather watch Alan Williams, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and old Duds than 2012-13’s Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Sebastian Telfair and Marcus Morris.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that a point guard tandem of rookie Kendall Marshall and D-league standout Diante Garrett is more talented and prospect-y than Tyler Ulis and Mike James.

Bottom line

McDonough has built a marginally more interesting roster than he inherited, but not necessarily more playable. The youngest players are just too young to be impactful, with the exception of Booker.

Around that young talent, this current team could really use prime Duds and Tucker, though they would eat into the minutes of Buckets and Jackson.

What say you, Bright Side?

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