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As trade deadline nears, Suns GM Ryan McDonough must choose between slow burn or pouring on the gas

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Acquiring a star will come with immediate benefits, costs

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NBA: Sacramento Kings at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s February 7th, and you all know what that means. Yep, it’s National Periodic Table Day! To celebrate this grand occasion, we will of course be spending the bulk of this article discussing chemistry, particularly accelerants.

(In the interest of full disclosure, today is also National Send a Card to a Friend Day, but celebrating that day went out the window on February 5th. Why you ask? Because February 5th was National Shower with a Friend Day, and when I went to take a shower last Sunday, I had zero friends in that shower with me. Zero. It was just me, all alone and sudsy…. But I digress.)

You see, chemical reactions are a part of life. In fact, none of us would be alive today without them. But chemical reactions can also be sloooooow, so to speed things along, people use accelerants to liven these processes up. Anyone who has ever fired up a charcoal grill knows it’s far more satisfying to spritz some lighter fluid on those briquettes than to let them warm up under their own power. Either way, those coals will eventually toast your marshmallows or cook your weenies; the lighter fluid method just gets you eating faster.

But accelerants aren’t the sole domain of outdoor cooking enthusiasts or arsonists. There are accelerants in the NBA as well — in the form of star players — and the Phoenix Suns have reaped the instant benefits they can provide a club in the past. Tom Chambers’ arrival for the 1988-89 season helped Phoenix go from 28-54 to 55-27. Charles Barkley turned a second-tier Suns team into one that was two wins away from a championship. And Steve Nash morphed a 29-53 squad in 2003-04 into a 62-20 one seemingly overnight.

Now the time has come again for the Suns, this time under the stewardship of general manager Ryan McDonough, to decide whether to let this young team that’s been cooked up grow at its own pace or throw gas on the fire with a premium acquisition at the trade deadline.

February is the month when the rumor mill hits high gear, and the first dominos may already be falling with the rumored deal sending Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor to the New Orleans Pelicans. Going forward, it’s safe to assume the Suns will figure prominently in most of whatever the mill churns out until the deadline passes on Feb. 23. That’s because the team has a handful of useful veterans, a lost cause at sixth man, and a record that rules out any hope of playoff contention for all but the nitpickiest of mathniks.

It’s also because the Suns have at their helm a GM who has for years openly pursued a star player. Neither finding himself the bridesmaid in free agency time and again nor miscalculating in the acquisition of Brandon Knight have blunted McDonough’s pursuit of his magnum opus acquisition, and now circumstances might finally be aligning in his favor.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro recently reported that the Suns have had trade conversations with the Sacramento Kings regarding All Star DeMarcus Cousins, and while there is some question over how recent these conversations were, it is not difficult at all to picture McDonough veering down this road, armed with a slew of talented young players and future draft picks to entice GM Vlade Divac and company into pulling the trigger.

Patience has never been a McDonough calling card. He managed to stick with rebuilding for almost a full season before deciding the team was ready to woo LeBron James and his friends in free agency. He overcrowded the backcourt soon after, possibly under the belief that if having one good point guard makes the team good, having three good point guards must make the team thrice as good. Heck, Tyson Chandler is only here because McDonough said, ‘Screw it, I’m getting Aldridge’ and pushed his chips to the middle of the table in 2015.

He finally seemed to resign himself to the slow build last summer, when he avoided courting pricey free agents in favor of role players like Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. He spoke about having patience as the team grows under head coach Earl Watson. All the while, though, there were signs the inaction was gnawing at him.

“It was a little frustrating to sit on the sidelines this year,” McDonough told former azcentral.com reporter Paul Coro back in July. In the same interview, he also told Coro that entering the season under the salary cap would allow the team to “look at either in-season signings or probably more likely in-season trades that are lopsided where we take back more money than we send out.”

More recently, McDonough was quoted over the weekend by Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee as saying, “We don’t talk specifically about conversations with other teams, but I do inquire about any star player that either is available or we think is available, and we’ve built an asset base of draft picks and young players to work with. We have all of our own draft picks going forward, and we have two of Miami’s first-round picks. We also have $13 million in cap space available, so we’ve positioned ourselves to be in the mix for elite players, though it’s more likely to happen in the offseason. But we’re open to it. We’ve been patiently waiting.”

You can almost hear the tortured restraint in his voice as he rattles off his accumulated assets, like a recovering alcoholic who insists on telling you how he hasn’t touched a drop in 11 years even though no one brought it up.

McDonough wants to deal, but can he get it done? The rumored package of T.J. Warren, Alex Len, and some draft picks just isn’t enough to grease the trade wheels. The Kings’ counter would assuredly begin with Devin Booker and picks, followed shortly by Eric Bledsoe and likely picks and/or one of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. That’s a steep price to pay for a talented player who has never pushed his team to the playoffs.

And all this could be nothing but static anyway since there is no way of knowing if the Kings are serious about moving their franchise player. That same article by Voisin claimed rival team executives were receiving mixed signals from Sacramento, with Divac open to moving Cousins while team owner and Cousins’ biggest fan Vivek Ranadive was resistant to those efforts. Then just yesterday, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that the Kings were not moving Cousins, with Divac quoted as saying, “We’re not trading DeMarcus. We hope he’s here for a long time.”

A lot can change in 17 days, and McDonough will surely circle around if he senses an opening in Sacramento. But if Cousins can’t be had, would McDonough push for other targets? Perhaps look to snatch Jimmy Butler off a reeling Chicago Bulls team?

It is no secret McDonough wants a star, but he surely knows the risks associated with such a move. He bought himself some time with both ownership and fans by putting forward the notion of a patient rebuild. If he packages a good deal of Phoenix’s young core for a star that puts the Suns back in win-now mode, it’s his job if the whole operation blows up in his face.

Accelerants can be good things, but they can also be dangerous. Proceed without caution, and the blowback can wind up costing you an eyebrow — or a job.