The Phoenix Suns are closing in on the second worst finish in franchise history. Three more losses and they surpass the futility mark set by... last year’s team. Three more losses and Phoenix secures the second best odds in the draft lottery. Three more losses and the Suns will have top 5 picks in consecutive drafts for the first time since the 1974 and 1975 drafts (John Shumate and Alvan Adams).
But here’s the thing: the Suns could potentially have two top 5 picks in this draft... if the Los Angeles Lakers get jumped by a team in the lottery. Which means a couple of trades from two years ago could have historic significance for the franchise.
Summer 2014: The Phoenix Suns are coming off an unlikely playoff push, finishing 48-34. It’s possible those ended up being the worst 48 wins in Phoenix history as the front office bought into the myth that they had a winning roster on their hands (but that’s a whole other TBT). What’s important is that the Suns’ success had been keyed by its strong backcourt play, led by Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. While Dragic had a slightly better statistical season, the 24 year-old Bledsoe was three years younger and still growing as a player. The one statistic where Dragic smoked Bledsoe? Games played: 76 to 43.
In January of 2014, Eric Bledsoe suffered the second major injury to his right knee, requiring the removal of his right meniscus. While he was able to return and thrive before the season’s, his durability had become a concern. That concern likely loomed as a large factor in Bledsoe’s restricted free agency that summer. The Suns, nor any other team in the league as it turned out, were not about to hand a max deal to player who just missed half a season and hadn’t demonstrated his ability as a bona fide superstar.
Enter Rich Paul, Eric Bledsoe’s agent. Paul wasn’t worried about injuries. He was worried about getting the best deal for his client, and that deal was a 5-year, $80 million max contract. And he was not budging off that number as free agency got into full swing. After a brief and futile attempt at wooing another Rich Paul client (LeBron James), the Ryan McDonough went to plan B: he signed Isaiah Thomas to a budget friendly 4-year, $27 million deal. The Thomas signing gave Phoenix insurance in case Bledsoe opted to either sign a max deal with another team that the Suns weren’t willing to match (though they said they would), it also gave them insurance against Dragic’s impending 2015 free agency. As we all know now, Paul and Bledsoe finally agreed to sign a 5-year $70 million deal in September.
So Phoenix entered the 2014-15 season with high hopes and 3 of the best... let’s call it 20 point guards in the NBA. I thought they could make it work. Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas were all potent offensive threats. There’s no reason the offense shouldn’t have positively hummed with the ball in one or two of their hands for 48 minutes each night.
Instead, a slowly building volcano of frustration built beneath the surface of a team struggling to attain mediocrity. Thomas, who dreamed of a starting role, didn’t think he was getting enough minutes. Dragic, at one time thought to be Steve Nash’s heir apparent, saw his duties as primary ball-handler diminished to the point where he felt his sole role on offense was to “stand in a corner” and shoot. For his part, Eric Bledsoe had a fat new contract and all the minutes and responsibility he could handle.
That volcano finally erupted two days before the 2015 trade deadline. Rumors swirled that Isaiah Thomas was on his way out to clear up minutes in the backcourt. Those rumors were not enough to assuage Goran Dragic. Just 48 hours before the NBA trade deadline, Dragic’s agent presented the Suns front office with a trade demand and a short list of teams he would like to be traded to. The results of what happened next will reverberate in this years draft as well as in seasons to come.
The Phoenix Suns front office responded to the controversy with three trades.
Trade 1: As part of a 3-team deal, Phoenix sent Isaiah Thomas to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Marcus Thornton and a conditional first-round pick. Thornton would play nine unmemorable games for the Suns and that first-round pick would eventually be traded to the Sacramento Kings in the deal that allowed them to acquire Marquese Chriss.
Trade 2: As part of another 3-team deal, Phoenix sent Goran and Zoran Dragic to the Miami Heat. In return, Phoenix received Danny Granger, John Salmons, a two first round picks from the Miami Heat: a 2018 top-7 protected first rounder and a 2021 unrestricted first round pick. Salmons was waived immediately, while Granger never played a minute for the Suns (due to injury) and was traded to the Detroit Pistons as part of the Marcus Morris dump in July 2015. The Phoenix Suns still hold both Miami picks.
Trade 3: Here’s the doozy. As part of yet another 3-team deal, the Phoenix Suns acquired Brandon Knight and Kendall Marshall from the Milwaukee Bucks, Knight being the big catch here. In order to get Knight, however, the Phoenix Suns had to give up Miles Plumlee, Tyler Ennis... and their biggest franchise asset this side of Eric Bledsoe: a barely restricted first round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers that had been part of the Steve Nash sign and trade.
Trades 1 and 2 are still working themselves out. If Marquese Chriss builds upon the improvement we’ve seen in his rookie season, he might very well end up as impactful as the All-Star Isaiah Thomas blossomed into after arriving in Boston. The Suns were up against a wall with the Dragic trade. It was trade him quickly, or lose him for nothing once free agency rolled around. The HEAT are a borderline playoff team, but those picks could turn into something eventually.
Then there’s trade 3, which boils down to that Laker pick for Brandon Knight. To say Brandon Knight has been a disappointment since arriving in Phoenix would be an understatement. While he’s had bright spots, including a 30-point triple double, his play has been underwhelming. He failed to mesh with Eric Bledsoe as the starting shooting guard and was eventually supplanted by Devin Booker. Relegated to a bench role and called “our most important player” by Earl Watson, Knight’s play tumbled even further. His +/- numbers were among the worst in the league and the Suns tried to trade him earlier this season, but couldn’t find any takers.
The Laker Pick and this year’s draft
That pick is top-3 protected this year and unprotected next year. Here’s where the lottery standings are right now (courtesy of tankathon.com).
The Lakers, after having a comfortable “lead” for the #2 pick, have inexplicably won their last 2 games, allowing Phoenix to “overtake” them in the 2 spot. But as long as they end up in that 3-spot, they keep their pick and have a shot at Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, or Josh Jackson.
However, those draft positions aren’t set in stone yet. There is a chance, via a fickle NBA ping-pong ball or two at the lottery, that the Lakers (or Suns or Celtics) get leapt by another team. At which point the Lakers are out of the top 3 and that pick conveys to the Philadelphia 76ers. And could have conveyed to the Phoenix Suns. All this in a loaded draft in a year Phoenix is finally committed to a complete rebuild.
The Phoenix Suns could have been looking at TWO top-5 picks in a top-heavy draft. That would give them a lottery-built core of players who could grow and thrive together over the next decade. Yes, salary cap restrictions would likely mean they couldn’t keep all of them, but too many young assets is a good problem to have.
Instead, they will have one, and a wildly underperforming combo guard with a questionable future. Draft picks are always a tantalizing gamble, as are trades. When a general manager trades one for the other, he’s hoping the player he gets ends up better than the player he could have gotten. As it stands, that player yet to be drafted would have a very hard time disappointing in the same fashion that Brandon Knight has.