It’s a simple question to answer: If you are not contending, why are you not rebuilding?
That is what Houston Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow, quickly realized when he took over and had to take his lumps from his fan-base. After an initial three-year run where they piled up 310 losses, it resulted in an organic turnaround of epic proportions.
Bottoming out isn’t a fun process, but it often leads to your ultimate goal. However, many of these scenarios have failed due to a specific front office’s lack of ingenuity that had them slumping back into mediocrity soon thereafter.
Escaping the bottom
General manager Ryan McDonough is about to guide the Phoenix Suns through his fifth draft thus far, but, as we all know, his opportunity is quickly approaching as far as moving all-in with a bevy of franchise-altering moves. McDonough has mentioned on multiple occasions how he studied the likes of Oklahoma City and Golden State before their jumps to relevancy, but Phoenix has also dipped its toes in the baseball world as well.
If you are looking for similar parallels on how the Suns can escape the bottom, look no further than what Luhnow did in Houston.
Much like Phoenix is undergoing at the moment with Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, and Brandon Knight as the only holdovers from the 2015-16 season, only Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, and Marwin Gonzalez survived the Astros’ gutting of their roster.
“Three years is kind of the right amount of time to acquire a decent amount of young talent, other draft picks and salary flexibility,” said McDonough at the end of season media availability last month. “I think if you go beyond that, the losing starts to set in and the guys start to become accustomed to that and the bar is lowered.”
Houston not only drafted Altuve before, but they then nailed selections of Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, and Alex Bregman that helped build the nucleus of their young talent. One could mimic a similar bridge being built in Phoenix with Devin Booker and Josh Jackson already in place, but that final possible superstar pillar is missing.
However the lottery balls fall on May 15 will likely decide the course of action for Phoenix this entire off-season.
Looking back on the tough decisions Houston had to make moving off their win-now core led by Lance Berkman, it had to be done in the end for the greater good.
Had they kept sympathy for their expired core group, the Astros would not have a World Series Championship banner hanging in Minute Maid Park.
Houston followed the blue print laid down to perfection. They stuck to their farm system developing blue chip talent into legitimate pro-ready players instead of making aggressive panic moves to stay above the Mendoza line of average.
If the Suns are able to land in the top two selections to obtain either Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton, it will go a long way toward solidifying what the Suns can build around their multiple alliterations of their roster.
Building a Strong Foundation is Better than Hunting a Cheap Win
As Luhnow told the Washington Post last year, the Astros decided to punt on competing for wins for a few years because of their long-term goal. Instead of being stuck in neutral, the forward-thinking Astros decided to play the waiting game on developing talent.
“It was recognizing that we were not going to win in 2012 and 2013, no matter what we did,” Luhnow said. “So we began to focus on winning in 2015 and beyond. It didn’t make sense for us to go out and sign free agents and try to win an extra game or two.”
If Houston had failed to recognize this probable hypothesis to achieve sustaining success, everything would have ended in a different outcome. That organic growth Houston saw out of Keuchel wouldn’t have occurred without sticking with him through his struggles his first two seasons in the majors.
Why Play Musical Chairs with the Roster?
It might be a bit of a stretch, but McDonough could easily see one or both of Dragan Bender in Marquese Chriss as the type of prospect who needed to take the initial lumps to become an everyday contributor.
Sticking to #TheTimeline beginning in 2015, McDonough shipped off all the following players for nearly zero immediate value: Goran Dragic for 2018 + 2021 1st round picks; Isaiah Thomas for pick used in Chriss trade; Markieff Morris for pick used in Chriss trade; P.J. Tucker for picks later known as Alec Peters + ?; Eric Bledsoe for first round pick in 2019 or 2020.
Virtually every single win-now piece from the Suns was moved off their roster outside of Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley, who were brought on specifically to mentor the insanely young rotation Phoenix worked with this past season.
So, McDonough has turned Dragic, Thomas, Morris, Tucker, and Bledsoe into Chriss, Peters, and maybe 1-2 more to be named later.
That’s not much at all, but it allowed McDonough to bring immediate salary cap relief alongside fetching more asset capital for whenever he decided to move all-in on a disgruntled superstar.
If Kyrie Irving didn’t fit into their window, would Kawhi Leonard fit if his frustrations boil over in San Antonio this summer?
The moves mentioned above, while they debilitated their win-now efforts, allowed Phoenix to subsequently bottom-out for three years and earn ample flexibility for when big names arise on the trade market.
When doing additional research on similar Moneyball-like moves franchises have made in recent years, Sam Hinkie is considered a folk hero in this sense nowadays. After painstakingly rebuilding the Philadelphia 76ers from the bottom up, Hinkie was forced to resign by the NBA due to immense pressure from other owners around the league. However, the blueprint was officially written in stone for NBA teams by Hinkie’s genius.
As he explained at this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, collecting resources for all three avenues is the best way to stay ahead. And what shouldn’t come as a surprise is McDonough seems to be following a similar outline.
“What are the two to three levers (draft, free agency, trades) and pull like hell on those, right? In Philadelphia, that was a lot of what we were trying to do on all three of those,” Hinkie said. “Obviously the draft is important and people think about that, but how do you save your resources in a place that someday two players want to team up and join up with another guy you already have in house? You’ve got enough resources to do it.
You have enough young, interesting players and picks to be able to make a blockbuster trade if one comes along. How do you invest in things that really appreciate over time and how do you save some of that power to be ready when it’s your turn to strike.”
That sounds very similar to what McDonough has currently constructed with the Suns, if that is the route they choose to move in.
Setting Phoenix up for success in 2020s
Alongside the new picks in the war chest, McDonough has assembled a glut of young talent that could appease opposing general managers in trade situations. Whether it is promising yet still raw, big men in Bender and Chriss or wings like Jackson and Warren, Phoenix is set up nicely for whenever the next big name goes to his agent to request a trade.
McDonough himself has mentioned before, Phoenix is building towards the future.
As Luhnow said before, which goes for all other executives in sports, their goal was to maintain a championship contender.
“I don’t like that word, because it suggests you’re trying to lose, and I can tell you there is nothing further from than truth,” Luhnow told WaPo in a sit-down interview. “Our goal was and always will be to build a championship team and sustain it as long as possible. And the best path to get there was by focusing on young players and using the draft and other means to acquire them. And to do that, we had to trade away some veterans, who frankly weren’t helping us win that much anyway.”
Phoenix carried a cumulative win percentage of 27.6% through the first three years of #TheTimeline rebuild attempt. Compare that to others on the list (Warriors = 37%; Thunder = 35.5%; Cubs = 41.2%; Astros = 33.3%) and it’s possibly an even better job of trying to completely bottom out for a longer stretch to help their draft odds.
If there was no such thing as the NBA Draft Lottery, Phoenix would have been set up to add the No. 4, No. 2, and No. 1 pick to build around Booker. They still scooped up Jackson two spots later in last year’s draft, but the point still stands as to how this could easily throw a wrench in rebuilding teams’ optimum outlooks.
Other Teams’ Successful Building Strategies
Bouncing back over to the Warriors, Thunder, Cubs, and Astros, take a gander at how each of them improved in the critical fourth year of rebuilding:
Warriors = +24 jump
Thunder = +27 jump
Cubs = + 24 jump
Astros = +19 jump (+26 jump on top of that in fifth season)
Unlike Houston, the three others before them swung for win-now trades that pushed them over the top compared to staying patient.
Before the Warriors took their championship jump, it wouldn’t have occurred without the sign-and-trade for Andre Iguodala in 2014 followed by the free agent signing of Shaun Livingston a year later. Both of these veterans had injury risk attached, but were paramount in helping boost their second unit to elite standards.
Around four years earlier, Oklahoma City decided to push in some of their chips by making trade deadline moves for Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder had to surrender Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic for Perkins and Nate Robinson while Chicago asked for the first round pick that turned into Taj Gibson.
Those two moves didn’t seem like much on the surface, but Perkins and Sefolosha were big culprits as to why Oklahoma City made their second half ascent into a legitimate Finals contender who met up with Miami’s historic Big 3 in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
Taking a different path than Bob Myers and Sam Presti, McDonough has made some efforts but pretty much ignored making huge moves in the summer recently.
Outside of signing Chandler in 2015 to help swoon LaMarcus Aldridge and trading the No. 10 pick in the 2018 Draft for Knight, we have seen Phoenix stick to the grindstone as far as the waiting game on development goes.
If this ends with the No. 1 pick next week, 21-61 would have been worth it for the Suns’ front office but all sides know this upcoming season is one where progress needs to be seen immediately.
Expect the Suns to attack all avenues of this off-season via the draft, free agency, and various trades to help improve this roster. With how they are currently set up, expect some wheeling and dealing if they want to mimic similar paths of ones who were successful.
“Next year, we’re going to try to raise the bar. We’re going to try to raise our standards,” McDonough said. “I think our approach will be different and the talent level will rise because of that.”
When analyzing successful rebuilds spanning across multiple sports, the main question is always answered correctly: bottoming out is the best for long-term success.
As Golden State and Oklahoma City kept just over 50% of their roster homegrown off drawing and developing, the Houston Astros went even further by eclipsing those percentages banking solely off the drafted talent.
It’s Go Time
Sports Illustrated predicted the Astros as World Series champions for 2017 three years earlier. Will a similar occurrence happen for the Suns?
Not from me today, but this off-season will tell us all we need to know as far as how close they are to resembling these rebuild success stories.
Usually, it’s best to invest in the idea of a rebuilding team achieving peak success between years 5-7. Entering their fourth year of #TheTimeline, we are inching very close to decision time for how this roster will be shaped around Booker throughout McDonough’s extended tenure.
It’s go time for the greater good, Phoenix.