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Phoenix Suns coach, management, owner looking up from the bottom of heap

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Have the Suns reached their rock bottom yet?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past week, the inevitable has occurred. Any attempt to rank the NBA’s coaches, front offices and owners affirms what we all know - that a team languishing at the bottom of the league’s standings will rate poorly.

Ownership

Robert Sarver and his ownership group came in at 4th lowest ranked, ahead of only the Nets (Prokorov), Kings (Ranadive) and Knicks (Dolan). Somehow, the Buss family feud gets higher marks than Sarver even though they’ve been a train wreck for the past half-decade. Sarver even ranks below the Pelicans’ Tom Benson, even though Benson has failed miserably as an NBA owner despite having all-world Anthony Davis.

The first six years of Sarver’s tenure were among the most successful in team history, but the last seven have indisputably been the worst.

Sarver had barely taken ownership of the Suns when they signed Steve Nash to lead the young core of Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa into the SSOL era. His roster demands over the years have been conflicting, inconsistent and franchise-draining, resulting in the worst seven-year stretch in franchise history. The Suns have not acquired a multi-time All-Star since Sarver took over 13 years ago (Shaquille O’Neal made it once) and have had only one winning record in seven years. No wonder he’s seen as one of the worst owners in the NBA.

Despite the team’s struggles on the court, their net worth has nearly quadrupled over those 13 years - from $450 million purchase price to it’s current estimated net worth of almost $2 billion.

Recently, Sarver appears to have finally embraced a rebuild of the franchise, tacitly approving a long-term plan back to mediocrity through the draft after clawing to the 13th or 14th pick in six of seven years.

Let’s see if this new operating position results in a better long-term outcome.

General Manager

Suns GM Ryan McDonough fares only slightly better at 6th worst, ahead of such luminaries as the front office messes in the Lakers, Bulls, Magic, Knicks and Kings. Somehow, the lowly Nets and Pelicans front offices are seen in higher regard, though the margin is narrow. Former Suns coach Danny Ainge ranks 3rd (Boston), while former Suns assistant GM David Griffin ranks 5th (Cavaliers). Suns current Asst. GM Pat Connelly’s brother Tim ranks 16th (Nuggets), while former Suns GM Bryan Colangelo ranks 21st (Sixers) despite having a really, really, really bad year managing that roster (his only bright spots are inherited).

McDonough has made some spectacularly bad decisions, highlighted by the panic-fest of the 2015 trade deadline that saw him send out Goran Dragic (twice led Miami to the playoffs), Isaiah Thomas (two-time All-Star since the trade) AND what is likely a top-5 pick this year or next for the modest return of Brandon Knight (worst player in NBA this year) and three future picks, one of which helped close the deal on the Marquese Chriss trade. Other poor decisions surrounded free agency in 2014 and 2015, resulting in the unnecessary loss of Channing Frye (while courting LeBron James and signing IT) and the unnecessary signing of Tyson Chandler (while courting LeMarcus Aldridge).

On the plus side, McDonough has done reasonably well on most trades, including the acquisition of almost-All-Star Eric Bledsoe for utility man Jared Dudley, and finally packaging picks to move up for Marquese Chriss in the 2016 Draft.

McDonough’s claim to fame as a GM is in the draft, at least since 2014. T.J. Warren (14th) is clearly a top-10 value in 2014 and Devin Booker (13th) is a Top-4 value in 2015. Likewise, Chriss (8th) appears to be a Top-5 value from the 2016 Draft, while Tyler Ulis (34th) is showing first-round talent. Even Dragan Bender (4th in 2016) looks like he has a bright future, though we don’t know yet if his future caps out at an Alex Len-type value (good rotation player but not great).

McDonough’s upcoming pick near the top of the 2017 Draft might be his final lifeline - if he hits on it, he finally acquires the team’s first multi-time All-Star since Steve Nash. If he swings and misses, we will likely see a new front office in the next year.

Coaching

This is where the Suns have been noticeably awful in recent seasons.

Rookie coach Earl Watson is 4th lowest ranked, ahead of only former Suns coaches Alvin Gentry (Pelicans) and Jeff Hornacek (Knicks) on the list, along with bottom-of-the-heap Fred Hoiberg (Bulls) who somehow has not yet been a Suns coach.

Watson is ranked on this list behind several other first-year-with-the-team coaches, while former Suns GM Steve Kerr is rated the 2nd best coach in the league and former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni is 6th overall and former Suns player Jason Kidd is 20th.

Mike D saved his legacy this year with the Rockets. His stints with the Knicks and Lakers would have ranked him in the bottom five of coaches any year before this one.

Think about this: Five coaches have been hired by Sarver since 2008. Two of them are out of the league entirely (Lindsey Hunter, Terry Porter), while the other three are ranked among the worst four coaches in the entire league this season.

Ouch.

Overall

We got ourselves a poo-poo platter, Suns fans.

The Suns are riding a 12-game losing streak with four likely losses to go, partially of their own machinations, and will almost certainly finish with the second-worst record in franchise history for the second year in a row.

Overall, the Suns organization ranks right where you’d think: a combined 5th worst in the entire league. Only the messes in Orlando, Chicago, Sacramento and New York are considered in worse shape than the Suns.

We could quibble that Brooklyn, New Orleans and the Lakers (ranked just above) are all worse than the Suns “package”, but that’s just splitting hairs. No matter how you slice it, the Suns are bad.

And the only way to get good is to win more games.

Over the last two seasons, and three of the past four seasons, the Suns have had no better than the 4th worst record among all 30 teams. Calling the Suns organization any better than 4th worst in the league is just putting lipstick on the pig. Good organizations win games.

The Future

Is there nowhere to go but up? Or are the Suns still on the downhill slide?

You might think seven straight seasons outside the playoffs is as bad as it gets, but there’s a few franchises out there who can only wish they had it as good. Whether you like it or not, we could still be on the downhill slope.

To their credit at least, the Suns ownership and front office have decided to get off the treadmill and change their ways.

After years of trying to chase the 8th seed and coming up just short, and probably buoyed by their luck with Devin Booker in the 2015 draft, the Suns have actively decided to tank for picks in a way that’s rankled many outsiders.

The Suns have failed miserably in their quest to acquire an All-Star talent via trade or free agency. So now they are doing everything they can to acquire that star via the draft.

Rookie coach Earl Watson sees the writing on the wall, openly admitting that he’s being put in a tenuous position that could be facilitating his own eventual firing.

He talked about getting punched in the face by his GM and owner.

“With me, I came into coaching, I didn’t have enough time to play this out in my mind because it happened so quick. I was like, ‘I want to play this way. I want to win. I want to get in the playoffs.’ I never thought about players sitting or the other side of the game. That was like a right hook I didn’t see coming. But I got back up. And I think our young guys have responded well.”

Watson’s response is to roll out the youngest starting lineup in league history, get down by 10-20 points in the first half, implore his guys to claw back into the game, possibly even take a 4th quarter lead, only give up a final run to the more talented team and lose the game.

If you had to draw a blueprint for the perfect tanking loss, you couldn’t do much better than that one right there.

Credit Watson for adjusting mid-season and still making this work. He is sacrificing his coaching future by allowing the losses to happen. No one will remember how the front office did this. They’ll remember that Earl Watson’s first two seasons as an NBA coach were the worst in the history of a storied 49-year old franchise.

Could all this sacrifice end up reviving the Suns franchise under Robert Sarver’s ownership?