Were the Suns ever tanking?

It’s been widely misrepresented that the Phoenix Suns have changed their strategy. When general manager Ryan McDonough told NBA.com he would ideally be willing to trade the Suns’ draft picks for a star, many took it as though that wasn’t the plan all along.

The thought was that the Suns’ success flipped the strategy from tanking mode to win-now mode, but hindsight shows that may be far from the truth. Even McDonough has hinted that, duh, of course the Suns would trade for a star in an attempt to win now. It’s just that they didn’t have anything to offer for said star before this season.

We’re obviously all looking for stars and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available,” McDonough told NBA.com.

That plan was never dependent upon losing games for a full season (this pretty much defines tanking, no?).

Since Day 1, McDonough has said Phoenix wanted to use its assets to turn the team into a contender. Sure, the winning has the Suns ahead of the curve, but the plan hasn’t changed.

The right way to go about a rebuild is stabilizing a foundation first, growing a culture and an identity second, then acquiring the stars. Getting to the star-searching phase earlier than expected, Phoenix isn’t going to woo any big-name free agents and likely won’t be able to draft one, but it does immediately have the ability get one in a trade.

Kevin Pelton of ESPN (Insider) has the numbers to back why the Suns’ so-called tanking plan probably wasn’t really a tanking plan, so long as we don’t get into the semantics of the word itself. Using his his SCHOENE forecasting system — this projects impact for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons — and the Suns players’ individual Wins Above Replacement statistics (WARP), Pelton discovers just how much this team is exceeding expectations.

Quickly, what is WARP?

Conceptually, the WARP system seeks to evaluate players in the context of a team made up of them and four completely average players. The performance of this team is then compared to that of a team made up of four average players and one replacement-level player.

Using wins gives a measure of value that is easy to understand and constant over time.

Pelton compares the WARP projections of the nine rotation players entering the season to their WARP statistic as of today — the jump has been astounding. Combined, the nine players’ total leapt from 33.9 to 68.6, with Eric Bledsoe (19.3 WARP) and Goran Dragic (16.1 WARP) leading the way, and Miles Plumlee (7.3 WARP increase) and Channing Frye (7.0 WARP increase) making the biggest improvements.

And with this increase, Pelton explains why tanking for a high lottery pick doesn’t even make up for what this roster has done by sheer improvement.

Together, Phoenix’s nine rotation players have more than doubled their projections for 2014-15 and 2015-16, adding an estimated 35 wins to the Suns’ bottom line the next two seasons. No draft pick could compare. Over the life of their rookie contract, the typical No. 1 pick produces 21.6 WARP. And while that’s three times more than, say, the No. 14 pick (6.8 WARP in that span), it would take most of a draft pick’s second contract for the gap between the first pick and the last of the lottery to exceed how much the Suns have improved their outlook by surpassing expectations.

Now, don’t misunderstand that there’s still a very valid argument to say the Suns would have been better off in the future projections if they’d gotten a star in this very strong draft. But that all is risky and depends on ping pong bounces. Really, that’s playing with luck, and my opinion is that there’s not an obvious star in the draft — Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle all have their question marks.

Instead, Pelton says the numbers are proof that going young was the biggest key, and the three major offseason trades (getting Bledsoe, getting Plumlee, and trading Luis Scola, Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat) make it possible for Phoenix to succeed and improve their chances for future success. Gortat could have made this year’s team a little bit better, but he never had the potential of a WARP increase like Plumlee. Furthermore, he would not have projected as well down the road.

McDonough and his team have maintained they’re not tanking, and of course we’d expect them to say that for marketing and PR purposes. You just don’t admit to it, publicly.

But if McDonough thinks anything like Pelton, the numbers make it appear that “tanking or not” is not the discussion behind the analytics-based Suns front office. The past offseason was merely about getting younger and putting a roster in position for such immense growth.

Losing a lot of games, even with an impressive draft ahead, isn’t necessarily the biggest part of rebuilding.

  • HushPuppy

    Good stuff! Now if McD could just blow all the rest of our cap space on Hedo, Childress, and two bags of chedder popcorn we will be set!

  • Dave:f32

    The Suns arent tanking if they’re making moves to get Thaddeus Young from the 76ers!!! Hell yeah!


  • BCrayZ

    Dave -

    Thank you for the link. Roster is now full.

    Suns will need to give them some of our players.

    Will they send them the Morris twins & then be able to sign Louis back? Make it so, Ryan.


    Read more: http://valleyofthesuns.com/2014/01/05/leandro-barbosa-suns-10-day-contract/#ixzz2pgVO0CbA

  • Dave:f32


    I understand its just the Suns expressing interest, and nothing is inked just yet , BUT…

    No problem! Ur welcome Hope they ship Kieff so they can still keep Marcus and Frye. Of course a draft pick and/or two will be involved, if not also Including Emeka Okafor to relieve cap space

  • Dave:f32

    Thaddeus Young recently named Player of the Week too!

    He went for 30pts on Jan 4, 2014.

  • Dave:f32

    As close as a team gets to getting a modern-day Amare type player who is still very Young!!!

  • BCrayZ

    Dave -

    Twins seem like a package deal.

    Sending Okafor is not wise. Save it for a big fish.

    Need to open up a roster spot to sign Louis, who will compliment Thad by getting Thad more touches & doing his dirty work & reunite “that killer bench unit.”

  • BCrayZ

    Keep in mind that the twins are from Philly.

  • Dave:f32

    True about Okafor but his contract is up at the en of this year so would the Suns be making 2 deals before trade deadline in Feb?

  • Dave:f32

    I wouldnt mind getting rid of the clones , umm i mean , twins if it gets the Suns TY! Thaddeus is a stud. Ur right about Lou getting us rebounds , blocking shots and doin all the hustle work so Young just has to worry bout interior lowpost scoring in the paint, hitting occasional outside shots, getting rebounds and slashing and pick n roll play with Dragic Barbosa and the reat of the squad! This would be an awesome acquisition if McDo can make it happen.)

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    Forever…..from previous post….agree with you on Vonleh….after seeing him play a few times it is apparent that he would be best served by returning to Indiana for his sophomore season.

    Would rather have Deng than Young but who knows what McD has simmering in that big pot on the back burner.

  • BCrayZ

    Dave -

    Thad could be 6th man of the year.

    Our starting unit is working very well.

    Look at how well they responded, when down to the Griz at half time. Our bench needs help. Just imagine a small, high energy bench of Ish, LB, GG 14, Thad & Louis. Jeff would go nuts.

  • Bill Danforth

    Don’t mind me. I think I will regret every thing I said today after a lonf day of drinking. I need to sober up before I go to work. I just want to apologize to anyone I mihgt have offended.

    I just believe its a mistake to bring back Barbosa. I’ve been a fan od the suns since the 68 and there all I have.

  • Dave:f32

    Thad’s definitely a starter. I envision a lineup of:

    PG Dragic
    SG Green
    SF PJ Tucker
    PF Thaddeus Young
    C Miles Plumlee

    2nd Unit

    PG Ismael Smith
    SG Leandro Barbosa
    SF Marcus Morris
    PF Frye
    C Len? Kravtsov? Okafor?

  • BCrayZ

    Hawki – I also like Luol.

    This is that big fish that I hope to land.

    Give the Bulls Okefor now (lost year for them) & a draft pick & hope to keep Luol next year or in July send them the Ukranians plus GG14 in a sign & trade in addition to the trade for Chad.. Then, we can move PJ into GG 14′s slot.

    Will also give us enough left over for Eric’s cap hold, when we post our “official” offer to him in June.

  • BCrayZ

    Dave -

    Frye could be the center (in name) for the 2nd unit.

    Sign Louis & pair him with Chinga (Frye.) as the #4. Marc & Mark are a package deal.

    AG14 or preferably PJ would take Marc’s spot, leaving the starting line up open for Eric & Luol.

  • Animan

    So Luol’s gone. Very enticed by Thad Young

  • Dave:f32

    Luol is a Cav. Bynum is a Bull. Lol

  • Solarion

    I love that the SUNS have interest(?) in Thaddeus Young, thanks for the link Dave! I’ve been watching YouTube videos on him and I must say I’m intrigued. I’ve been on this site pining for a PF.

  • Foreveris2long

    If your schedule permits, watch Uof A against UCLA Thursday night, it should be really good.

  • Foreveris2long

    Thanks Dave for the insight on Thad Young. While I like Thad and he would make the Suns better especially if he plays small forward for the Suns, I am not sure he is the power forward the Suns need as he is not a strong rebounder. However I think he is only 26 and talented so he would be a good acquisition and better than anyone we have playing small forward.

  • Solarion

    I wasn’t a fan of picking up Deng, this team is pretty stacked with jump shooters, to the point of it being a weakness, give me an athletic banger down low.

  • BCrayZ

    Hawki – too bad about Luol.

    Cavs stole our lunch & they are getting more than a jump shot – think more like Iggy.

    Forrever – seems to me that #3 is Thad’s spot also. Like him there, as he would be a good rebounder for a small forward & could also play #4 as a 6th man in small ball. Louis would be a good compliment to him at the #5 in small ball. Make it so Ryan.

    MUST reunite “that killer bench unit.” Let’s go SUNS!!!!

  • Dave:f32

    Glad to contribute Solarion and Foreveris2long! Never stop learning insight from you all! Thx