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Reflections on the season and where the Phoenix Suns go from here

Editor’s Note: The following is a lengthy free-flowing conversation between Michael Schwartz and Mike Schmitz on the state of the Suns.

Michael Schwartz: Right now all the Phoenix Suns can bother focusing on is the next game.

With three games remaining, they are two victories (if one comes in Utah) away from securing a playoff berth that even some people in their own locker room must have had trouble forecasting back when this team stumbled into the All-Star break at 14-20.

Now that the Suns are two wins away from becoming the first Western Conference team since the 1996-97 Suns to earn a playoff berth after entering the break at least six games under .500, I must ask you Mike Schmitz if it’s even worth it for this team to sneak into the playoffs as a likely first-round sacrifical opponent when this franchise so desperately needs a franchise star out of this year’s loaded draft?

Mike Schmitz: It’s easy to argue why the Suns sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed and getting bounced in the first round is counterproductive for the franchise. It’s no secret that Phoenix is in dire need of young talent. Steve Nash and Grant Hill are clearly in the final stages of their careers and the talent outside of those two simply isn’t going to cut it.

But with all of that said, it’s still more than worth it for Nash and the Suns to make a push at that final playoff spot. Yes, it would be nice to have a lottery pick, but really what’s the difference between the 13th or 14th pick and the 15th or 16th? Is there really that big of a difference between an Austin Rivers and a Tony Wroten Jr. or a Terrence Jones and John Henson?

The Suns aren’t going to be exponentially better off in the future with a low lottery pick as opposed to a pick in the late teens. If the Suns really wanted to land top-tier young talent they would have had to commit to tanking at the All-Star break. It makes no sense to throw away a chance at the playoffs if you’re not going to be able to target guys like Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Bradley Beal in the draft.

People wonder what good it does to go one-and-done in the playoffs. But there’s still merit in making the playoffs, especially for a team with such limited talent like this one. The Steve Nash era could be coming to a screeching halt after this season, so why not give him one more chance at making an improbable playoff run?

Playoff basketball brings excitement to the city of Phoenix. Regardless of how short-lived it may be, a Suns playoff appearance has a sizable economic impact on the city and the franchise. Not to get too financial, but season tickets are more likely to be renewed and fans are more likely to go back to games next season.

Not every team is going to have a shot at a championship. You can’t just rebuild and expect to walk to a ring in five years. It doesn’t work like that. Some teams get stuck in the rebuilding process and never come out.

With all that said, it’s extremely worth it for the Suns to sneak into the playoffs, no matter when they get eliminated. This season marks the end of the Nash era and that combined with the minimal difference in talent between the end of the lottery and just outside the lottery is more than enough to motivate the Suns to make a playoff push that some have so adamantly argued against.

Schwartz: First off you caught me in my tracks when you said this is the end of the Nash era. It very well may be, but it would not surprise me if we have three more years of this.

I certainly agree with your argument, though. The tanking train left the station once the Suns got hot on that long homestand after the All-Star break. I understand tanking for a talent like Anthony Davis that can completely change the direction of your franchise, but after that the draft is just such a crapshoot.

I don’t know if there is another surefire star after Davis (although a lot of guys there at the top very well may become one), but I really do like the depth of this draft. At the start of the season I thought the Suns needed to do everything possible to acquire a franchise-altering player or two in this draft, but like you said at this point the Suns will be resigned to roll the dice and hope whatever mid-first round talent they pick turns into another important piece of their future and not Earl Clark.

At last year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard broached the concept of the treadmill of mediocrity, which basically says the worst place for an NBA team is to be not good enough to make a serious playoff run but not bad enough to acquire a franchise-changing star in the draft.

Fast as they may be pacing, the Phoenix Suns franchise is squarely on that treadmill.

However, the treadmill of mediocrity is only a hazard if your only goal is to win a championship. But only one team wins a title each year, and NBA history doesn’t possess much parity as to who wins them.

The Suns’ season has been infinitely more exciting than say the Wizards or the Kings, but those teams on paper roster the kind of impact young talent you get by following the Thunder model and building through the draft — and although they will be adding even more in June there is still no end in sight to their losing ways.

Should we only measure success in championships, as some around the league certainly feel is the case, or can we celebrate this Suns season (if it finishes with a postseason berth) as a laudable achievement even though it doesn’t seem to put them any closer to a parade?

Schmitz: I do agree that Nash could be back in Phoenix, especially if the Suns add two major pieces in the offseason to give them a legitimate shot at a Western Conference Finals run. There’s also no question that Nash can be a productive point guard for two or three more seasons.

But the question is, do you really trust this management group to bring in the right pieces? The same group that gave Goran Dragic away and tried to replace Amare Stoudemire with Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick? Sure the Markieff Morris pick is looking like a good one, Shannon Brown and Sebastian Telfair are working out and Michael Redd has more or less resurrected his career, but Phoenix’s front office has been far from perfect. It’s hard for me to think Nash believes in this front office to put the right pieces in place to make a deep playoff run. There’s no question, however, he believes in Alvin Gentry, his teammates and the fan base.

All of that is somewhat beside the point, though. In terms of the treadmill of mediocrity argument, I really don’t think you can just put together three bad seasons and then poof, you’re the Oklahoma City Thunder. So many things went right for that team.

They very easily could have drafted Hasheem Thabeet or Jonny Flynn instead of James Harden in 2009. Think if they ended up with O.J. Mayo or even Michael Beasley instead of Russell Westbrook in 2008. Imagine if the Trail Blazers chose Kevin Durant with the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, leaving the Thunder with Greg Oden.

Oklahoma City hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in three consecutive drafts, which is basically impossible to do. The Thunder are the exception, not the rule. Few other teams have been able to use their model with even close to the success of the Sam Presti-led franchise.

Sure, everyone wants to believe that landing that Durant, Westbrook or Harden is right around the corner. Ideally, everyone thinks tanking beats a few playoff appearances because it will ultimately end in a ring. But the reality is, that’s not the case at all.

How many different teams have won NBA championships over the last 13 years? Six. Only six different teams have won the last 13 championships, with the Lakers and Spurs winning nine of them. Winning a championship isn’t easy, and implementing a championship-or-bust mentality will only lead to disappointment.

Being a fringe playoff team and every few years over-performing and making a Western Conference Finals appearance is something most NBA teams would be more than happy with. Would you have traded the 2009-10 WCF run for the shot at a top-five pick in the next year’s draft? Probably not.

As the saying goes, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The Suns could very well have tanked and in a few years those same fans who called for a rebuilding process would be complaining over botched draft picks and lost seasons.

Enjoy what you have. Take in an over-performing team and a masterpiece of a coaching job by Alvin Gentry. Marvel at Steve Nash’s production at age 38, Morris’ growth as a rookie, Telfair’s emergence as a legitimate backup point guard, Redd’s return to the NBA and the other story lines attached to this season.

These guys deserve to play in the playoffs, and the Suns’ franchise won’t take a hit because of it. The way I see it, if the Suns sneak into the playoffs they’ll most likely get bounced in the first round but will still have space for two max free agents (pending a Nash re-signing). They’ll still draft in the 15-18 range and have a shot at legitimate lottery talent in this deep draft. Missing the playoffs this season would do nothing for them but move them most likely three or four spots up in the draft.

Rebuilding has far too positive of a connotation. Some teams never make it out. Like Kentucky winning a national championship with mostly all freshmen, the Thunder are the exception, not the standard. Success shouldn’t be measured in championships because it’s not realistic, and rebuilding shouldn’t be seen as some short road back to the NBA Finals.

Schwartz: Lon Babby would want me to remind you that he and Lance Blanks weren’t around until after the damage had been done in the Summer of 2010, but I suppose that’s besides the point. An even bigger issue than a lack of faith in the front office is the reality that there just aren’t a ton of home run moves out there right now.

I am staunchly on the Eric Gordon bandwagon, but short of him there’s nobody I would throw a max contract at, and even Gordon’s a stretch for that with his injury history, but you have to overpay to steal a restricted free agent.

After him I would love to see Nicolas Batum in purple and orange, but I don’t see any way Portland lets him out of their grasp, and if they did Phoenix would have to vastly overpay. There could be some nice bargains, but the biggest thing the Suns must do is avoid doling out bad mid-level contracts, or in other words don’t repeat 2010.

My fear is they will try to appease Nash in any way possible and thus panic sign somebody at a price that’s laughable before the ink dries.

Back to the main topic at hand, you make a great point about the Thunder and their luck. They sure did hit three home runs, but they started it off with a walkoff grand slam when the alternative (Greg Oden) was a game-ending triple play. If OKC has Oden instead of Durant they may still be a nice young up-and-coming team, but in no way would they be the league’s model franchise. That might be Portland (or at least it would be if Roy’s knees had held up).

Just look at Sacramento. They’ve been picking in the lottery for several years now and still possess a disjointed core. Or even Minnesota, who has been atrocious since 2004-05 and only now FINALLY can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then there’s Memphis, who traded Love for Mayo and then drafted Thabeet over Harden, Evans, Rubio and Curry yet are still a sleeper title contender.

The bottom line is that unless you are located in South Beach and a Big Three coalesces on your shores, you are largely at the mercy of luck, something the Suns have received little of throughout the years.

How different would these past few years have been with Al Horford or Joakim Noah instead of Robin Lopez if the Suns had received a high lottery pick from Atlanta in 2007?

And then of course once you build your championship contender you need even more luck to make it through the cauldron of the NBA playoffs that have been dominated by the Lakers and Spurs the past several years as you point out.

The argument for blowing things up is that you might get lucky and draft a franchise player, but you might not and be the next Sacramento or Minnesota — teams that thrived at the beginning of the past decade — rather than the next OKC.

That’s why the Suns want to hang on to Steve Nash as long as possible and it’s why they have rejected rebuilding this season as much as they need a young star.

So let me end this with one final series of questions since we seem to be in agreement that this playoff run was for the better: How should the Suns reload? Is rebuilding inevitable or can they continue to try to put a worthy team around Nash? Should every move be centered around building toward a championship or can we enjoy a fun, overachieving Nash team with a dubious future?

I say that because I don’t see a real championship move in the Suns this offseason although we know they will make a hard run at Nash, so this could be the status quo for a few more years since you can’t exactly rebuild and start over around a soon-to-be 39-year-old.

Schmitz: I couldn’t agree more with your points about the weak free agent class. Eric Gordon would certainly be a great fit, and like you said, he and Batum are two of the only, young and attainable guys who the Suns could somewhat build around. There are some other potential nice pieces out there like Gerald Wallace or even a Roy Hibbert (if Gortat were to move to the four) but there’s no doubt the field is slim.

So how would I deal with this situation if I were the Phoenix Suns’ GM? I think you try to re-sign Nash, add a few pieces around him in the offseason and stay competitive until Nash retires. If you could roll out a lineup of Nash, Gordon, Batum, Frye and Gortat with Markieff vying for that starting four spot you have to like your chances to at least be a four or five seed type of team in the West. Landing both Gordon and Batum is a bit of a stretch, but improving at both those spots with players of that caliber isn’t out of the question with their cap space.

While the Suns compete with that team and enter the final two or three years of the Nash era they should draft a point guard of the future type of guy. I know the Suns need a traditional four man, but there isn’t much of a market for that outside of the top 10, where the Suns won’t be. So that brings us to their next position of need, which in my opinion is the heir to Nash’s throne. Sure, Sebastian Telfair is proving his worth more and more by the game, but I don’t think he’s a franchise point guard by any stretch of the imagination.

It would be ideal if the Suns could move up a few spots and draft a guy like Kendall Marshall, who I feel would be the perfect guy to take over the torch from Nash. But even if that’s not possible the Suns could still land Tony Wroten Jr., who may not be a true point guard but has a world of potential with his size — 6-foot-5, 205 pounds — and ability to attack the rim.

Austin Rivers, who ESPN draft expert Chad Ford has going to the Suns at No. 14 in his current mock draft, would also be a great pick given his go-to-scorer mentality and ability to shoot the three ball. He is a combo-guard as well, but there’s no question he would hone his point guard skills behind Nash.

The moral of the story is, the Suns should try their best to keep Nash around and put their cap space to good use. They can still be a decently competitive, and fun to watch, team until Nash retires all while that point guard of the future develops, Morris grows as a player and those pieces they add in the offseason continue to get comfortable in purple and orange. As we’ve said, tanking and landing a top three pick has its intrigue.

But given the Suns’ situation with Nash and Grant Hill, along with their current record, the depth of this year’s draft and their cap space this offseason, the aforementioned strategy should be their initial plan of attack.

Schwartz: I don’t think they will have the money to sign all three of Nash-Gordon-Batum (assuming any of them would even want to play here) and that would leave Phoenix with minimum contracts to replace the rest of their free agents, but I would consider that the best-case scenario.

Ultimately the direction of the offseason will be decided by general manager Steve Nash. I feel the Suns will make an honest effort to keep him and reload around him. If he signs on, moves will be made to acquire players that fit the Nash system.

If he leaves, the Suns would not have much choice but to rebuild since they would be left with no impact players depending on how you feel about Gortat and tons of money that no elite player would want to take.

At that point, like the Bobcats this season, I think you would have no choice but to depart the treadmill and be really bad next season. I would advocate the young talent and picks strategy and roll over the cap space to next summer if they can’t use it to obtain said young talent and picks.

It’s kind of crazy how the entire direction of the franchise will likely be determined by Nash’s decision, but as Cleveland learned on a much greater scale, such is life in a system geared around a star.

But for now, let’s sit back, relax and enjoy what could be the final improbable chapter of Steve Nash’s career in Phoenix.

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