The pillars are beginning to fall into place in Phoenix. Whether fans have bought into the youth movement yet or not, it’s going to be a process. There will be growing pains, but in the end, it could reap rewards that the Suns have never been able to experience in their 50-year history: an NBA championship.
Many believe they have their building blocks and rotation mainstays already with a nucleus of Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, TJ Warren, Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed, and Alan Williams moving forward long-term. Now, it’s all about creating that family atmosphere head coach Earl Watson has continued to establish upon with his first group of players as a head coach.
Sound familiar? That’s because ownership and management are in-synch and have bought in on #TheTimeline to contention.
“Doing what we’re trying to do and what I think we’re on the path to do takes some patience. It does for sure,” general manager Ryan McDonough said during James Jones’s introductory press conference back in July. “It’s hard to win with young players in this league we all understand that, but Robert (Sarver) touched on it a little bit, building a championship team is not easy and there’s no perfect way to do it. At the end of the day, what you need are elite players in their prime, you need several of them playing well and together.”
It’s an exciting process for the Suns’ brass to watch take place. Again, management sees this as a step in the right direction, with overnight success not likely in the cards. However, once the Suns return to relevance with a roster filled to the brim with potential and overall talent — which McDonough and Co. have been trying to construct since trading Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic — they should resemble a consistent title contender.
“I think how quickly we develop along our timeline depends on how quickly Tyler Ulis develops, Devin Booker develops, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, on and on,” McDonough said back at Summer League. “I think, at the end of the day, it’s up to our young guys. We think multiple steps over the next couple of years, maybe at some point, it is step-by-step the switch flips and we get pretty good overnight. If that’s the case, I think with the age of our team, the contractual situation of our group, we have a chance to stay good for a long time after that.”
The current juggernauts, Golden State, developed in such fashion, as did Oklahoma City when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were still in the infancy of their careers. Golden State’s nucleus of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green rose at a historic rate.
Golden State’s big three were all brought in through the draft, with Thompson and Green joining their main franchise pillar in Curry (2009) after the 2011 and 2012 drafts. Once 2012 rolled around, after three seasons with a combined 85-145 record (including 2011-2012 shortened year), the implementation of a rookie Green shot them up to 47 wins. And ever since then, Golden State has become the perennial force of this decade which led to them becoming the prime destination for veterans looking to chase rings, including star free agents like Durant.
Meanwhile, in three consecutive drafts from 2007-2009, general manager Sam Presti hit back-to-back-to-back home runs by acquiring Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. While the Thunder were still the Seattle Supersonics in Durant’s rookie season, they only finished with 20 wins. In the second season, this time after implementing Westbrook, they only improved to 23 victories. Once Durant and Westbrook began to click, while working an offensive dynamo like Harden in leading the second unit, Oklahoma City jumped +27 to a 50-win season and a playoff berth. From then on, the Thunder became a year-in, year-out threat out West to win a title.
With Booker and Jackson already in tow as their cornerstones, Phoenix hopes that one more year of development while obtaining another high lottery pick will lead to them making their first playoff appearance since 2010.
This was one of the main reasons that the Suns maneuvered the Kyrie Irving situation how they did earlier this summer. Why sacrifice Jackson, who many around the league believe will be the best two-way impact out of his draft class, for a noncommitment from your new face of the franchise? If Irving ended up leaving in the summer of 2019, Phoenix would be back at square one in terms of building a contender and, in turn, wastes a prime opportunity to succeed around youth led by Booker.
Like it was when rumors circled Phoenix as a possible destination for Paul George, Jimmy Butler or DeMarcus Cousins throughout the last year, simply the timing was not right. Infusing either one of those stars into the roster would not have brought them closer to a title with how green this roster is with age and it would have stripped McDonough of some key assets he’s been storing up for a major move a year or two down the line coinciding more with the current core’s trajectory.
Relinquishing Jackson also goes against what McDonough has mentioned previously: wings, specifically ones who shine on both ends, are the hardest to find. Phoenix believes they now have three of the best in the league when including Booker and Warren. And when it comes to complementing their team building, pairing one of the best scoring guards alongside a wing who oozes All-NBA Defense potential, they will be allowed to learn from their mistakes.
As Jackson mentioned when he spoke to the local media, Watson said at his pre-draft workout in Sacramento how they plan on allowing their core ample opportunities to hone their craft before they rise toward contention.
Even if Booker and Jackson shock the NBA world this year and Phoenix sees vast improvements, McDonough has put the roster in a position to still obtain an established star or a top pick with them controlling all their future draft picks, including 2018 and 2021 selections from Miami.
Also, when a young roster clicks earlier than expected it leads to similar circumstances that led OKC’s superstar to join the further west version of what was taking place their originally.
“Most teams with young players don’t win a lot of games, we get that part of it, but if the guys work hard and grow together and grow on the same timeline, you can turn it pretty quickly and take off pretty quickly,” McDonough said. “I think with the experience our young group has now, in terms of the players who’ve been on our roster a year or two or three years, those guys are starting to get to the point we’re more ready to win consistently. What we think and hope is what those guys have done and what coach has done with them will help elevate these guys and acclimate them quicker into the NBA level and help us do pretty impressive things for a team that looks like it will have a young roster.”
When discussing Watson, he’s probably the best fit for what they wanted to implement when they hired him after his interim stint during the 2015-2016 season. Watson wants to build a similar culture to what Golden State has in place under Steve Kerr.
Right now, with Phoenix resembling more of a college roster than a professional one in terms of overall experience, Watson will be judged this season more on how players come along in their developments under him while trying to establish a winning culture.
So far, so good as players have bought in on Watson’s mentality and team building. As Watson mentioned earlier this summer after selecting Jackson, relationships on this team are already strong. Chriss would FaceTime Watson at midnight while he was at Target, not exactly just an on-court relationship taking place as some teams have struggled to mask.
“I think for (Earl Watson) last year, maybe this year, he’s going to be judged less on wins and losses and more on, as you said, environment and the growth of their players’ development,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said to me during our State of the Suns earlier this month. “At some point he will be judged on winning and losing, everybody is in the NBA, but I think now he’s at a point where he’s being judged on some other things.”
Compared to other offseasons, majority owner Robert Sarver seems at peace with how the Suns are coming into place. After seeing how McDonough flipped around a terrible situation that former general manager Lance Blanks left him upon being hired, in terms of assets and overall young talent, Sarver finally sees a legit vision to stay patient and let take its course.
Throughout Sarver’s tenure, he has had front office positions switch around like musical chairs. For example, when he extended McDonough earlier this summer, that was a first for the Suns’ owner. Whether it was Bryan Colangelo, Mike D’Antoni, Kerr or Blanks, none of those names received any sort of job security under the eye of Sarver. Now, McDonough has given Sarver some assurance of a plan he believes will pay off.
And for the man who owns a franchise without a championship yet in its 50-year history, he is realizing organizational stability on all levels for an extended period helped those teams achieve new heights while accumulating elite talent.
“I think consistency is important. I learned that over my last 14 years, and I think the consistency with Ryan here and following through on our plan we put in place a few years ago, in terms of how best to compete for a championship.” Sarver said.
In retrospect, Durant, the one who was apart of both Oklahoma City and Golden State’s timelines at respective times, reflects what the Suns hope to accomplish here by that 2020 playoff deadline that Sarver has mentioned prior. That coincides when McDonough’s extension would run out, too, so the timer has begun.
Phoenix wants to grow their talent around the best environment possible to engineer wins immediately and down the line as their roster matures into a viable contender, which leads to those blue-chip free agents considering donning Suns colors.
Once Curry, Thompson, and Green showed how much of a force they were on their own around such an infectious environment for success that Golden State had built, Durant saw that opportunity and helped raise them to levels really never seen before in terms of efficiency and overall dominance last season. Now, the Warriors are set up for a long stretch of being the top contenders around four future Hall of Famers due to management following through with their plan instead of consistently trying to circumvent it for years on end.
As the Suns enter the final phases of their rebuild to contention over the next few seasons or earlier, again dependent on how their current core develops, allowing their young roster to gel together over time should lead to a fruitful era of basketball in the Valley very soon.
“I don’t say Golden State started the trend,” McDonough said in terms of building out a competitive roster. “They have mastered it in terms of getting a bunch of guys like that at a high level and we’re trying to see if we can do something similar.”