Friday at home against the Heat, both T.J. Warren and Devin Booker sat out for the fifth straight contest. Between Warren’s right ankle and Booker’s hamstring, injuries took the Suns’ two best scorers away and left the team desperate for a fighting chance, even against one of the worst squads in the East.
But the real difficulty for Phoenix that night didn’t come from Booker or Warren’s body, or even who suited up that night. This feeble stretch instead is cursed by the lack of depth that comes from years of poor player development. The Suns have their max star in Devin Booker and four potential stud rookies, but the inability to put together a cohesive rotation in Year Eight of the rebuild can be traced back through many fumbled drafts.
When the Suns traded Steve Nash in the summer of 2012, they added two first-rounders to their treasure chest and looked determined to rebuild. Two years later, they were coming off a surprise 48-win season with a new general manager and coach. They had a hop in their step as a franchise that would doom them the next five seasons. By the time that general manager, Ryan McDonough, was fired this fall, the Suns had no players left from when he took over and aside from Booker, no sure thing moving forward.
Most teams don’t end up this way. Look at the 76ers, who despite losing on purpose for years not only ended up with two superstars in the draft between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but also great role players like Robert Covington, Dario Saric, T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes. Several others salvaged enough value to be flipped in deals to upgrade the roster.
Take the Magic, who this year appear on the cusp of the playoffs at long last. Not only did they develop a potential All-Star-level over the years in Nikola Vucevic, but they have a half-dozen young role players to supplement the roster after years of drafting near the top. They may have let 2015 top-five pick Mario Hezonja go this summer, but filling in behind him are exciting youngsters like Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Jonathan Isaac.
This is not to praise the Magic or 76ers (or the similar Kings in the West), teams who lost for years and still face a fight to title contention despite progress this year. All-out tanking for a generational star (or multiple) is still the best way to eventually contend for a championship. But teams that fall short of an MVP talent often still run away with a barrel of fun, developing players the Suns just don’t have.
The number of young former Suns still growing as players elsewhere is almost impressive. In Miami, Derrick Jones Jr. is growing as a playmaker and shooter after the Heat snatched him up last season. The Bulls may turn Shaquille Harrison into the versatile two-way player we saw flashes of over the summer. Even Alex Len is suddenly more efficient, shooting threes for the Hawks.
And think longer about the guys who just didn’t pan out. From Archie Goodwin to Tyler Ennis to Davon Reed to Tyler Ulis to Alan Williams to Marquese Chriss, the list gets ugly quickly. Even on the team’s current roster, Dragan Bender is losing a year of his career while the Suns wait for his contract to expire. It’s tough to tell what you’ll get from Josh Jackson night to night.
That’s about a dozen guys drafted under Ryan McDonough who flamed out and can’t help these Suns while Booker and Warren recover. Things would certainly look different had the Ryan Anderson acquisition worked out or if the team had a starting-caliber point guard, but it all would be different had the Suns’ player development mechanisms turned more youngsters into real NBA players.
There’s a lot to be intrigued by between Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. It’s still possible Jackson, just 21, reaches his potential. But that’s a lot of maybes eight years into a rebuild with no legitimate end in sight for a 4-22 team.
It’s hard to win in the NBA when injuries hit but it’s even harder to win consistently when you fail to make promising young guys better.