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.

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