Starting in Devin Booker’s rookie season, the Suns decided to begin playing the dangerous tanking game.
If all went to plan from the beginning for former general manager Ryan McDonough, Phoenix would have a duo of Booker and Ben Simmons in their backcourt. Instead, following a 23-59 record, which included firing Jeff Hornacek mid-season and not officially interviewing anyone else before hiring interim head coach Earl Watson, they stayed at No. 4 overall selecting unknown European big man Dragan Bender.
Then, in the spring of 2017, the Suns started to really capture the art of tanking as they were winning too much too fast. They sat Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler, and Brandon Knight over the final quarter of the season to have their record improve by only one game. It helped Phoenix finish with the second-best odds to land the No. 1 pick, but somehow, someway they slipped two spots in the lottery back to No. 4.
Double whammy a few months later, because Bledsoe forced his way out of Phoenix two games into the regular season leaving a gigantic hole at point guard that hasn’t been filled since. The main reason was not having Phoenix offer him an extension during the offseason, but best believe that sitting Bledsoe when he was 100 percent healthy played a big role.
Quick reminder that this Bledsoe fiasco happened 15 months ago. Also, the Suns could have flipped Bledsoe on draft night in 2017 when Denver reportedly offered Emmanuel Mudiay and the No. 13 pick. That pick near the end of the lottery turned into Donovan Mitchell. It beats me how the Suns still don’t have an answer there outside of rookies or acquiring stopgap options like Elfrid Payton last season, and you have to think this option could be happening again in the next few weeks (for example, maybe someone like Cory Joseph?).
Again, another chance to find Booker’s long-term backcourt partner in Lonzo Ball, ranked No. 1 on the Suns’ board at the time, was gone in an instant due to luck of the draw. Phoenix was able to snatch up Josh Jackson, rated their second-best prospect in the draft anyways, a few spots later with some help from his agent B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.
Third time is the charm for Phoenix in 2018 when they pull the tank card again, right? Luckily enough, it was as they got their first No. 1 pick in franchise history. But with no real hesitation, Deandre Ayton was their selection as McDonough believed he had true Hall of Fame type of upside, rather than addressing needs in the backcourt.
Through three years, the Suns had a combined record of 68-178 as McDonough and Co. indicated that the rebuild was over at September’s annual Media Day. Little did McDonough know he would end up being fired two weeks later after laying his fingerprints all over the roster via the draft and free agency.
Now, in Year 4 where the switch was supposed to flip from tanking to winning games, the systemic culture of losing seems to have taken over instead of just disappearing on its own. Even with young talent assembled all over this roster, the best talent top to bottom Booker has had built around him as a professional, Phoenix is on pace to have their worst season ever finishing below 20 wins anyway.
Trusting the process can work magically sometimes as we’ve seen with the Philadelphia 76ers, but most of the time it doesn’t. It’s common thinking that the best way to accumulate true star talent on a small market team is to accumulate the ping pong balls, but solely relying on that method of action isn’t the smartest one unless Lady Luck is truly shining down upon you.
More than 60 percent through Booker’s fourth season, the Suns are again right near the driver’s seat for the top odds in the lottery. They are only 1.5 games behind Cleveland, but teams like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and the newest addition Memphis will be bringing competition over the final few months.
The thing is, from Phoenix’s perspective, they’re not intentionally trying to lose games. This team is so young and inexperienced — it’s not often you see three rookies start through almost an entire season — that simple point is enough to not be competitive most nights in a historically tough Western Conference.
Unless there’s a sudden shift in thinking from owner Robert Sarver and Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones between now and the Feb. 7 trade deadline, expect the Suns to be relying on percentages again for the rights to Zion Williamson once May rolls around.
Luckily for Phoenix, the new lottery reform actually helps them as a situation that actually isn’t “tanking” their way to the finish line like others. The three worst teams have an equal chance at No. 1 overall at 14 percent, while Nos. 4 and 5 sit at 12.5 and 10.5 percent.
On the verge of no playoff basketball in the Valley for nine consecutive years, almost half of that has been spent trying to intentionally lose. Again, every year of Booker’s career except this current one involved this tactic.
That’s not good at all, and that mentality of being okay with losing seems to not have faded into the background. When the wrong mix of ingredients like disgruntled veterans and whiffed lottery picks come together, it equals the quality of basketball we’ve seen on the court for the past few years.
Unfortunately, the switch being flipped to winning seemed to get stuck in neutral for this season. If the Suns don’t have lottery luck on their side again this offseason, then there better be a great backup plan.
It’s a humiliating fact, but all Booker has known as a member of the Suns organization is never coming close to reaching the playoffs with little win-now talent surrounding him. When their 22-year-old star’s $158 million max extension kicks in on July 1, Phoenix better force that winning switch to flip soon thereafter.