The Phoenix Suns have been written off, relegated, essentially eliminated from NBA relevance. Their incompetence has been so monstrous, obvious, and downright boring since the end of the Steve Nash era, that they have been removed from consideration by the NBA intelligencia.
Times have indeed been tough in Arizona. Their post Nash struggles are encapsulated perfectly by their one winning season since his departure — a shocking 2013-14 campaign which saw them improve by 23 wins and just barely miss the playoffs with a 48-34 record. They were led by a unique backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, and coach Jeff Hornacek.
After the season, they shocked the world by adding a third point guard, Isaiah Thomas, looking to bolster their playoff chances. By February 2015, Dragic and Thomas were gone. The Suns’ unexpected success vanished as quickly as it appeared. Bledsoe and Hornacek are gone now too. The way those departures were handled was a mixed bag. The Thomas trade was an outright disaster — they gave up what eventually became the tenth pick in this year’s draft for the right to give Brandon Knight one of the worst contracts in the league. Then Thomas became an MVP candidate.
Dragic and Bledsoe both publicly demanded trades, but the Suns netted three first round picks from those trades. Hornacek was fired, and has now been fired from his next job as well. But now all of that is done, and the ugliness of it all can be put in the past. Now, if you’re willing, is the time to check in with the future of the Suns, and realize that somehow, someway, they have a chance to become interesting once more.
The young core
Everyone knows about Devin Booker. But many still know him as the guy who scored 70 points in a loss. Not that that is a bad thing. Scoring 70 points is always good, and that isn’t a controversial take. But many people know him as that in a much bigger way. As an empty stats guy. A scorer who doesn’t help his team win.
Obviously, he was the best player on the worst team in the league last year, so he didn’t help his team win on a frequent basis. But he made real strides forward in his all-around game last year, and there is some reason to believe he is going to be a legitimate All-Star soon. He could be someone worth building around.
The Suns used last year’s number four pick in the absolutely loaded 2017 draft on Josh Jackson, a wing from Kansas. Although the first half of Jackson’s season was a disaster, he emerged as a real asset in the second. His defensive prowess on the wing is going to be a crucial building block next to Booker. His outside shooting is yet to come around, but he has the feel for the game, and offensive skill set, to be a factor without it.
The Suns also locked up T.J. Warren long-term. He’s another quality scoring wing whose versatile and reasonably efficient. Even if you have given up on Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss — I wouldn’t blame you —- the Suns have enough young talent to get excited about, especially when you consider this next point.
Enter Luka Doncic
The Suns did it — they did what the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks were unable to do. They cashed in on their horrible season by holding their lottery position, and now hold the number one pick. It’s obviously exciting. Even if the Suns make what I would consider the wrong choice and take Deandre Ayton, pairing him with Booker and Jackson could still yield amazing results. But there is an extremely high ceiling on this Suns’ draft.
Phoenix doesn’t just have the number one pick. They also have the 16th pick and the 31st pick in a deep, impressive draft. With this in mind, there are a number of exciting scenarios for Phoenix entering draft night. They could package 16 and 31 and move up to get a falling big like Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba. They could also imitate the Boston Celtics and trade down from number one, getting a future asset while still taking their guy.
But they could also stand pat, and end up with an amazing haul. Pick one could be European phenom Luka Doncic, of course. Pick 16 could be thrilling Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith (who has the chance to be a top three player in the draft) or a project big like Robert Williams or Mitchell Robinson. Pick 31 could be Missouri big Jontay Porter — who should be a lottery pick, but is consistently being projected at the end of the first round.
A haul of Doncic, Smith, and Porter could be franchise-altering — a draft night that is talked about for years to come. Even if the most optimistic of scenarios doesn’t pan out, it would be hard for the Suns to completely whiff this draft.
Cap room and draft picks
Despite their numerous other blunders, the Phoenix front office has done two things reasonably well: maintain future cap space, and hold onto future draft picks. The Suns own all of their picks going forward and after next year, they unload the admittedly brutal Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler contracts.
In 2019 free agency, the Suns will have roughly 30 percent of their cap taken up by Booker and Warren, while the only other contract on the books should be the ugly Knight deal, which will be expiring. This will be a real chance for Phoenix to strike and add the final piece to a core of Booker, Jackson, and (hopefully) Doncic, and turn this team into something real.
On top of their own draft picks, Phoenix also owns a Milwaukee Bucks draft pick either next year — if it falls between picks four and 16 — or in 2020, and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first rounder.
It basically comes down to this: as long as Phoenix doesn’t massively screw up this summer, by drafting three busts or signing contracts that screw up their cap sheet long-term, they have a great chance to build something real after a difficult rebuild.