Making the case for youth development

Editor’s Note: The following column is the first in a two-part series in which the VotS staff will debate the ideal course of action for the Suns’ upcoming season. Today, Ryan Weisert argues that the Suns must make the development of their young players their top priority right from the outset. Tomorrow, Dave Dulberg will make the case that Phoenix should focus on building up the trade value of its veterans. We hope you enjoy and weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below.

For the next 1000 words or so, let’s pretend the Phoenix Suns are a publicly traded company instead of a professional basketball team. This shouldn’t be that hard. Professional basketball teams are in the business of winning games. No one in the Valley of the Sun wants or expects the Suns to do much of that this season. A public company, on the other hand, exists to increase shareholder wealth by steadily gaining value. That’s what the Suns will aim to do over the course of the 2013-14 season, gradually increase in value.

Even if we aren’t thinking about the Suns as a basketball team, they’re still in the basketball business. And like every business, they can only increase in value by acquiring assets and building up the value of the assets they already have. Right now, the Suns have three classes of assets: veterans, young players, and draft picks. The best way for Phoenix to increase their value, in the hopes of one day becoming a winning team, is to increase the value of their young players by giving them all the playing time they can handle.

Young Guys

Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, and Eric Bledsoe are the future of the Suns’ franchise. No one knows how good they will be and how high they can push Phoenix’s ceiling. Len has yet to get on the court after offseason surgery. Goodwin showed incredible flashes at the Las Vegas Summer League, but then again, so did Markieff Morris two summers ago. Bledsoe leads the NBA by a wide margin in potential, but there’s no guarantee he’ll ever reach it. The point is that although the Suns have drafted and acquired a great young core, the uncertainty of youth and potential still looms over these players and the franchise. The faster Len, Goodwin, and Bledsoe are brought along, the sooner the Suns will know exactly what they have in these guys and how good the team can be with them.

Now to be rational, I’m not advocating that the team rush Len back from rehab or overload Goodwin or Bledsoe with playing time right away. Health is the key to good player development. There will be an adjustment period for both young guards. Bledsoe has been a fill-in starter before, but he’s never been a starter for a full season. I expect him to have some of the same struggles Goran Dragic had last year. Goodwin is only a year removed from playing high school basketball. There’s no doubt he’ll hit the rookie wall at some point. There’s no way to avoid these pitfalls, so both guards might as well go through them sooner rather than later. The benefit to this approach is that the confidence Goodwin and Bledsoe, in addition to Alex Len, will gain from playing a lot and earning the trust of the team will help them reach their potential and appreciate as assets.

Speaking of Alex Len, the history of big men with foot problems in the NBA is long and tragic. He will have to be handled with kid gloves, but there’s no more trustworthy training staff in the world than Phoenix’s. What I’m advocating for Len is that when he’s ready, he should play over Gortat. The Suns have nothing to gain from Gortat taking minutes away from the development of the #5 pick in the draft.

Bear Market for Veterans

Some of the underrated values on the Suns’ roster are the veterans they have on reasonable and/or expiring contracts. While the Michael Beasley contract may be a sunk cost at this point, the contracts of Marcin Gortat and Caron Butler could be valuable to potential trade partners from both a financial and basketball perspective. Let’s address the basketball perspective first.

After last season, Marcin Gortat’s trade value is the lowest its ever been. He was unhappy all year and far less productive than expected. He complained about playing time and coaching, and he got injured. In order to entice a team to acquire Gortat for basketball reasons, the Suns would have to play him a ton and make him one of the go-to options on offense. This focus would come at the expense of developing the younger big men like Len and Plumlee. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile investment. Even if Gortat exceeded his 2011-12 per game averages by 10% – which seems like the ceiling of his production – I doubt any team with a draft pick or young asset would be willing to trade for him, especially with the quality of the upcoming draft class. Plus he would only be a rental for the acquiring team since his contract expires at the end of the year. Butler is in the same boat. His trade value is low considering his age and the fact that the Clippers were willing to part with him. Though the Suns have expressed some sentiment that Butler could be a valuable part of their future, around the league he is viewed as the tax Phoenix paid to obtain Bledsoe. Unless the Suns are serious about keeping Butler, I don’t think he or Gortat should play over the younger players who need time to develop and realize their potential. The potential market for these two veterans is simply not robust enough to warrant impeding the youth development.

The story is different on the financial side, but it still comes to the same conclusion. Expiring contracts are great acquisitions for teams trying to free up cap room. Butler and Gortat are Phoenix’s highest paid players at $8 million and $7+ million respectively. Both of their contracts could create valuable cap space for teams looking to make a splash next offseason. But in order to make a deal, a team with those aspirations would have to send Phoenix a draft pick or a player whose contract has at least a year or two left on it after this season. 2014 draft picks, even those outside the lottery, are going at a premium because of the incredible depth of this class. Phoenix already pulled off a deal for a pick when they sent Luis Scola to the Pacers. It would be a miracle if another team was willing to part with a pick for Butler or Gortat, considering how low their respective trade values are right now. The only scenario I can think of that would make such a trade feasible is if a contender had a key injury to wing or center midway through the year, and was convinced that Butler or Gortat rental was all that stood between them and a title. But that scenario seems really unlikely. Many contenders have already given up their 2014 picks. And the Heat still have the Big 3, so all championship aspirations are tempered in light of the possibility of a Miami 3-peat.

The other option is that the team acquiring one of the Suns’ expiring contracts would send a player back to Phoenix, but what team is going to part with a player whom Ryan McDonough would want to have on a multi-year deal? I can’t think of one. McDonough has been very active yet very shrewd in his short tenure in the desert. I suspect he will keep his ear to the ground for any potential deal to be had, but I don’t think dealing a veteran player for a piece or pick is his priority or the team’s at this time. Subsequently, I expect the front office and the new coaching staff not to showcase the veterans at the expense of the young guys.

Draft Picks

The Suns own two 2014 first round picks: their own and Indiana’s. The Pacers’ pick is going to fall somewhere in the 24-30 range most likely. But the Suns’ pick should be high in the lottery. Phoenix will increase the likelihood of their pick being very high by playing the young players a great deal and losing plenty of games. I’m not advocating for outright tanking. I’m just saying that Bledsoe, Len, Goodwin, and the rest of the Suns on rookie deals have to work their kinks out at some point, so why shouldn’t they do that this season when the team’s reward could be a Top 3 pick? If the team decided to develop their veterans instead of their youth, the Suns would still be bad, but would likely win more games and have a worse draft pick. If the Suns’ goal is for their assets to increase in value and their “stock price” to rise, then lots of playing time for the young guys is by far the best way to do it.

You can now return to thinking about the Suns as a basketball team.

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Tags: Alex Len Archie Goodwin Caron Butler Eric Bledsoe Marcin Gortat Phoenix Suns Youth

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