Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns set on becoming ‘elite,’ need another star


PHOENIX — In their first full season with the Phoenix Suns, GM Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek took the team from bad to good.

As miraculous as that task seems when considering where the franchise stood 12 months ago, their next job might be even tougher: making this good team elite.

But with a young roster, plenty of future cap flexibility and as many as six first-round picks in the next two drafts, McDonough has the tools to complete the Suns’ speedy rebuilding project before training camp.

“We’ve reached a point where we’d rather put ourselves in that elite group of contenders sooner rather than later,” McDonough said. “Coming into the year I think we all weren’t sure how long that would take. Luckily we’ve made a lot of progress and hopefully gotten closer to that elite group.

“We feel like we’re not far away. If we can use our draft picks to get better, to get a veteran or package them to help us take the next step and get us from wins in the upper 40’s to 50’s or ideally 60’s, then we’ll do that.”

Going from the best story of the 2013-14 regular season (albeit without a playoff berth) to an elite team was the central focus of Friday’s season-ending press conference with McDonough, Hornacek and president of basketball operations Lon Babby, who said, “Our goal hasn’t changed, our goal is to be elite, and I’ve always defined that as legitimately competing for championships. … It’s pretty hard to argue that we’re not right on the brink of being an elite team.”

This isn’t exactly an about face, as McDonough made similar comments about the team’s plan of attack prior to the trade deadline before ultimately deciding no move was worth dipping into the team’s asset chest. However, it’s stunning when considering the long rebuilding timeline the Suns seemed destined for this time last season.

Whereas last offseason was about stockpiling draft picks, this offseason may be about turning those picks into the kind of player that can transform the Suns from good to elite, if such a move is out there to be made.

McDonough said it’s “unlikely” the Suns will add three rookies to the roster next season despite owning at least three first-round picks, especially with Alex Len and Archie Goodwin potentially taking on larger roles after playing sparingly this season. McDonough feels it’s tough to “develop rookies and also try to win a lot of games … unless it’s just a special, special rookie.”

That means the Suns could package their picks in hopes of moving up high enough in the draft to find such a “special, special rookie.” They could also draft a European player and keep him overseas or trade a first-rounder for a future first. The final option would perhaps best serve the team in moving from good to elite, and that is to package picks in return for a superstar if one hits the market.

“We feel like we’re in a very good position that gives us a number of options and a lot of flexibility going forward,” McDonough said.

Although rare, every so often a James Harden will hit the trade market, and it’s hard to think any team would be able to beat an offer Phoenix can make. Beyond the first-rounders this season (likely to be 14, 18 and 27), the Suns are owed a top-12 protected Timberwolves pick and a top-five protected Lakers pick in 2015 along with their own selection. If no teams move up in the lottery, Minnesota will pick 13th and the Lakers 6th this year, making those picks potentially very valuable if the teams place similarly next season.

In addition, if the Suns’ 1.8 percent chance at a top-three pick hits, they will still pick 14th because they would get the Wolves’ top-13 protected 2014 selection this season along with Phoenix’s own lottery pick.

McDonough did not give any hints as to what position he wants to upgrade but feels strongly about the Suns’ backcourt of Goran Dragic and restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe.

“I think the backcourt is pretty good, especially the starting backcourt,” he said. “3, 4, 5, there was improvement across our front line and I think those guys will continue to get better. If we can add to it with a trade or free agency, we will, but the good news is I don’t feel like there are any gaping holes. We can bring back the exact same team if we wanted to, but I think we’ll make some tweaks and try to get better.”

Keeping the Suns together while adding draft picks here and there is one of the options McDonough faces with a future cap sheet lacking any long-term commitments.

The Suns have about $30 million committed to eight players for next season if Channing Frye does not opt out, which gives them lots of salary cap space with Larry Coon announcing the NBA’s projections of a $63.2 million salary cap and $77.0 million luxury tax for 2014-15. With Bledsoe’s cap hold at $6.57 mil and Tucker’s at $1.15 mil, the Suns could carve out enough cap space to make a run at an elite free agent.

Their books are largely clear long term, with only rookie contracts and Dragic’s $7.5 million player option for 2015-16 that he’s overplayed and thus likely will decline, which means McDonough has the freedom to finish shaping the Suns however he sees fit.

He can keep the gang largely together and add draft depth or he can find that star veteran either by trade or free agency to team with Dragic and Bledsoe at the top of the team’s payroll hierarchy, potentially at the expense of role players like the Morris twins when they hit restricted free agency after the 2014-15 season.

McDonough made a point to say the Suns were 23-11 when health allowed them to start Dragic-Bledsoe-Tucker-Frye-Plumlee, an elite .676 winning percentage bettered by only the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Pacers over the course of the season. According to NBA.com/Stats, among the 29 lineups that shared the court for at least 300 minutes this season, this group ranked third in net rating (12.2) and first in defensive rating (93.1), so there’s certainly reason to keep the lineup together.

“We’d like to retain as much of our core as possible, but we also have some big decisions coming up,” McDonough said.

The first two dominos will be Bledsoe and Tucker, restricted free agents that management wants to keep. Although the Suns have given every indication they will match any offer Bledsoe receives, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a team throw a mini-max offer starting at 25 percent of the salary cap at him to see if the Suns blink.

This summer will chart the path the organization takes for the next few seasons with largely a blank canvas beyond 2014-15, with only rookie contracts and the $7.5 million player option Dragic will likely opt out of in 2015-16 on the books beyond this season.

That’s an opportunity most GM’s would salivate over as McDonough can essentially build out his team’s salary structure brick by brick without any bad contracts getting in the way. If he can find that star this summer, he can lock in his future “Big Three” with that player along with Bledsoe and Dragic and then fill in the rest of the roster with affordable role players and rookie contracts.

Of course, it’s been four years since owner Robert Sarver spoke about finding the team’s next franchise player through trade, yet unlike in 2010 when it was unclear how the Suns could build such an enticing package, now the Suns have the assets to make that happen along with a coach everybody wants to play for, according to Babby, and a roster that’s trending up.

“If you look around the league there are probably only a handful of teams that are as well-positioned as we are for the future,” Babby said.

Indeed Babby’s right, but for the Suns to go from the kind of team that competes for one of the final playoff spots in the loaded West to the kind of team that can win the loaded West, acquiring another star is necessary.

After a flawless first summer on the job, McDonough has built up a supply of assets that’s the envy of any rebuilding squad, yet success this summer will be judged based on whether he can turn them into another franchise cornerstone.

Tags: Eric Bledsoe Lon Babby Ryan Mcdonough

  • TD

    “If you look around the league there are probably only a handful of teams that are as well-positioned as we are for the future,” Babby said.

    Ace that. 12 months ago weren’t we rated as one of the worst positioned teams for the future?

    Love it.

  • Luka

    Ideally you’d want Bledsoe to sign 4 years 44 million. I’m thinking 52 million is the magic number.

    Tucker has earned 4 years 16 million.

  • Luka

    Trade the Morris twins to Denver for Mozgov. Trade Frye and a first rounder to Philadelphia for Thaddeus Young. Sign Jordan Hill or Dante Cunningham as your back-up PF.

  • sunsremus

    Im thinking we need to take a shot at a sign and trade for Kevin Love. Heck with all the LA talk. He will be close to home in Phoenix and have a chance to shine in a Suns uniform! Why not?

  • Luka

    Definitely agree, but what incentive does Minnesota really have to deal Love to the Suns? Minnesota will try again to retool their roster and see where they’re at by the deadline.

  • Rob

    Can anyone provide an educated guess as to the market for Tucker? I see 4 years/16 mil above — who are some comparable players? I’d really hate to lose him, although I posit that his RFA status will temper his market value.

    With respect to Kevin Love, he would be THE perfect fit (IMHO), throwing pinpoint outlet passes to Dragic, Bledsoe, and Green. Just imagine Love replacing Frye in the offense zzzzzooooommmmggggg.

  • EBJM

    Love would have to opt out in ’15-’16 to become a free-agent before a sign and trade could be done.

    Why wouldn’t the Wolves deal with Phoenix before Love walks away to L.A. with nothing in return? Potentially six 1st rd draft picks in the next two years and solid young players like the Morris twins and Gerald Green.

    With JaVale McGee’s injury history and relative struggles as a starter I seriously doubt they are going to give Timofrey Mozgov away for peanuts.

    He started the last 30 games in place of McGee that culminated with a dominating performance over Andrew Bogut and his Warriors with 23/29/3.

    Bledsoe is going to get five years for $80 million.

  • Rob

    @Luka. I think you’re analysis of Minnie’s position is correct. But, keep in my mind the diminishing trade value of a disgruntled star. It will likely dishearten the fan base to go through another attempt at a rebuild, but I just don’t see them ever making the playoffs without the help of major injuries on a handful of WC teams.

    I think all 9 teams ahead of them should stay ahead next season (again barring major injury, and you know they cannot attract a top FA). Then you have New Orleans, LAL, and Utah who I think might be able to leapfrog them. Sacramento(if their young players can mesh and keep improving) and Denver (if they can get and stay healthy) even have a chance at passing them.

    MN appears to have the LEAST optimistic outlook of all WC teams (did they suffer a lot of injuries this year? Pekovic?).

    If someone can forward this post to MN, maybe they will be convinced to trade Love and guarantee their pick is never conveyed to PHX.

  • EBJM

    Tucker is a free-agent. He is 29 years old and this most likely will be his only chance for a significant contract.

    He would be an excellent player off the bench for a contender. So I agree he could probably get around four years and $16 million.

    But for a contending team that might be too steep. Look at the Rockets who have a high payroll. Their SFs don’t get paid. Parsons has a team option of about $1 million. Casspi just completed a one-year deal for about the same. Garcia gets a bit more at around $1.2 million.

    The Thunder’s Sefolosha has similar value in his role and he just expired at about $4 million. I doubt he can get another contract in that range.

    The Heat’s Shane Battier just expired at about $3 million.

    On the high end the Grizzlies gave Tony Allen four years and $20 million.

    The Wizards re-signed Martell Webster to four years and $22 million and he comes off the bench.

  • Dave:f32

    Its difficult to fathom an “elite” team that includes Channing Frye in the starting lineup.

    I believe the theory has already been proven that Frye is a gaping hole defensively that teams in the league are well aware of.

    When Frye sits down the home stretch of a game, the Suns win. But when Frye plays to close out a game…

  • DZ

    Frye will only start next season if :

    1. McD fails to bring in a better PF during the off-season AND Markieff Morris fails to improve before the beginning of next season.

    2. The Suns draft a PF that isn’t NBA ready AND Markieff Morris fails to improve before the beginning of next season.

    I doubt Tucker will even wait for offers from other teams if the Suns will make him a fair contract offer. And they MUST make him a fair offer. He’s not only a great defender but his offense has improved this year and he’s an iron man. The only game he missed this year was because of a suspension!

  • EBJM

    Channing Frye was an integral part of the Suns success this season and should be rewarded accordingly.

    He has earned an extension similar to the contract Ryan Anderson received in the Magic-Pelican’s sign and trade, four years and about $35 million.

    Frye is immensely popular and a huge gate draw. After he finishes his career in Phoenix he will more than likely be named to the Suns Ring of Honor. Taking his rightful place alongside Tom Chambers and Alvan Adams.

  • foreveris2long

    If the Suns bring back Tucker and Green, how does Goodwin get more minutes next season? This is going to be a very delicate situation because Goodwin deserves more quality time.

  • Lloyd I. Cadle

    Gambo said yesterday that the Suns should take a long look again at signing Gasol for a two year 20 million deal – he is an unrestricted free agent in July.

    Plumlee has a tremendous upside as a backup, and you can develop Len for the future.

    Gasol would really help out against those teams that play a slow half court game. He is still only 33 years old with some gas left in the tank.

  • EBJM

    Pau Gasol has too many miles on his 33 year old body. Fourteen years in the NBA while simultaneously playing fourteen in FIBA plus three more in the under 18 and 19 competition.

    Rather see a young player like Greg Monroe.

  • EBJM

    Let Tucker walk and play Green at SF. Move Goodwin to first guard off the bench behind Dragic and Bledsoe.

  • DZ

    While I like Green, Goodwin obviously has more potential than Green. But Green also has the ability to play the 3, especially if the Suns decide to play a small-ball lineup. Green and Goodwin will battle for minutes next season but the best player will get the most of them. And if Archie wins that battle, Marcus Morris will have a battle with Green and Tucker for minutes at SF.

    My point is that Goodwin WILL get more minutes next season if he proves that he deserves them.

    But at this point we have no idea whether Green, Tucker, Goodwin or Marcus Morris will be back next year. I want all of them back but if the opportunity came up to trade any of them for Love, Melo, Aldridge or any other all-star player do you think that the FO would hesitate in trading any of them?

    I doubt that a trade for any of those 3 is really possible but I also can’t read McD’s mind so I have no idea what he has planned and which Suns players might be available as part of some trade during the off-season.

    Finding more time for Goodwin next season might not be a problem at all depending on the moves the Suns make before then.

  • EBJM

    If you saw the Raptors/Nets game then you got a glimpse of what Alex Len could become. Jonas Valanciunas posted 17/18/2/2.

    Forget about these limited role players who play with great heart and energy.

    Play Len and Goodwin.

  • DZ

    If you “let Tucker walk”, this team will fall to a .500 team at best unless they can bring in an all-star player next season. Tucker may not be a stat sheet leader but he inspires on the court by example. He takes the toughest defensive assignment almost every game. The only thing I haven’t seen the Suns ask him to do so far is to try an guard opposing centers. Every team needs a guy like PJ even if he’s coming off the bench.

  • EBJM

    Tucker is a great guy but he is very limited. He plays defense with great energy and effort. BUT according to 82games.com he has a defensive efficiency rate against SFs of 15.8 which is just a tad bit above average.

    Within the Suns style of ball, Green makes more sense at SF until the Suns develop the rookie they are sure to draft, allowing Goodwin to play.

    The Suns will struggle to replicate their success next season with the majority of the current roster. How are guys like the Morris twins, Frye and even Tucker going to react to not getting the extensions they feel they deserve? Or how will Plumlee react getting benched in favor of Len?

    There aren’t any difference maker stars out there to acquire and the Suns need to develop their own.

    If Forever truly believes Goodwin is Kobe 2.0 well than they need to throw the kid into the fire just like the Lakers did. It took Kobe two solid seasons of playing before he caught fire. I still remember a very young Kobe shooting air-balls against the Jazz in the WCFs.

    You can’t grow as a player sitting on the bench.

    If Alex Len has a chance to be as productive as the 22 year old Jonas Valanciunas has in two seasons well than they need to play him.

    The fact that some fans are throwing Pau Gasol’s name out there is worrisome. I don’t want to see Pau here in Phoenix taking minutes from the young guys. He isn’t enough to get the Suns anywhere.

    If the Suns draft well and land three great players I’d rather seem them take a step backwards to get two steps ahead in the long run.

  • foreveris2long

    EBJM I definitely agree with ya regarding Tucker possibly being expendable. While I would hate to see him go, Green can play the 3.The defensive intensity we lose at the 3 hopefully can be made up with a good defender and rebounder at the 4 spot. It is true I have never seen a player who reminds me of Kobe like Goodwin. A lot of it has to do with his willingness to learn, being fearless, work ethic and extreme athleticism. He is going to be really good and has to play next season.

    Gasol? I too would rather Monroe. IF Monroe is not viable I think I would try to secure Ed Davis. However I could understand getting Gasol at $10m/yr (2 years) because he is a walking double double, can hit the 15 footer and is a good passer. However since he is not a good defender, Tucker might have to stay on board if the Suns went that route. He is definitely not my first choice and EBJM makes really good arguments for not bringing him to Planet Orange.

  • BCrayZ

    Suns have a secret weapon.

    Ryan knows it. Talking about our “Blur.” Ryan has signed him as a free agent twice.

    Once on a Celtics team, just last year, that had Jet Terry playing the 6th man role. When Avery Bradley went down, Jet moved into a starter role & Doc Rivers hand was forced to giving more playing time to “The Blur.” What was the result? He turned a poor Celtics team around, leading them to a 8-1 record when in the regular rotation, until he was hurt. With LB out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL, Boston fell apart at the end of the year. This year, it was the Suns falling apart without Eric. This year, Ryan calls the shots for the Suns. Having rehabbed the ACL tear, he was beginning to play in Brazil, when Ryan brought him back. Again, he has proved his worth & willingness to play practically for free. Gogi, Frye & now a whole new bunch of other guys on this new team love playing with him & he seems to elevate the level of play for those around him just as much in the NBA as he does in the international games for Brazil’s national team. This should be an easy layup for Ryan & a win/win for Barbosa & the Suns. Will it happen? Only Ryan knows. Make it so Ryan.

    MUST re-sign LB. Let’s go SUNS!!!!

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    I’ve loved Goodwin ever since I saw him play at Kentucky.
    Next year, his game should be at a level that the Suns will HAVE to give him court time…..but
    comparing him to kobe is a bit of a stretch…
    While Archie has all the requisite athletic skills….his jump shot is still a “work in progress”….kobe was/is as good a jump shooter as the League has ever seen….one of the few players who can squeeze off a shot as the clock ticks down & the defense KNOWS you’re going to shoot & still can’t stop it (the definition of a superstar)….the form on his jumper is flawless.

    Having said all that….I can’t wait to see the Improvement Archie shows when he hits the court next year….his “potential” is the wild card in the Suns’ future plans.

    I still see Plumlee starting at C next year….obviously Len will improve but so will Plum who is also young(1st year starter) & was seeing 20+ minutes a game while Len was trying on new suitcoat & tie ensembles.
    I see Len getting 15-18 mins a game as back-up…at least at the beginning of the season.

  • ellensburgbballfan

    Yeah, Len is hopefully Jonas valancuinas without the DUI arrest

    Len had pretty good numbers per 36

    Considering the time he got, and the ankle problem, barely anything basketball related last summer, and no summer league he did well

  • Chacho

    Shout out to BCrayZ for the LB name drop!

    I think where the Suns stand now is entertaining, but I am afraid that the front office can only keep this together for so long. From an emotional standpoint, I would love to see the same roster on the court next season. But from a success standpoint, I think the Suns need to improve at one place: the PF position.

    I’m not saying that Frye is a bad option, but I AM saying that Kevin Love is only a much, much better option. Love what Frye does to the team and fan base, but until we get not only a 3-point shooting 4 to stretch the court, but one that is CONSISTENT and can grab some defensive rebounds a bit more consistently, then schemes could just throw weird defensive looks on Bledsoe and Gogi enough to keep them out of rhythm and then just let Green go off. Having a big sharpshooter who we could rely on for 20-25 points AND 10-15 rebounds a night would only serve to keep the offense open, keep the defense from having to defend against 2nd and even 3rd chance shots, and would finally get this team over the hump.

    We can’t lose Tucker. While I wholeheartedly believe any of the Suns won’t back down from a confrontation with anyone in the league, Tucker is the one that channels that. Opposing teams’ thugs haven’t thrown cheap shots all season, no matter how frustrating it must have been to give up 20+ leads to the Suns.

    In the end, I think the team can find some middle ground with the veterans who want those extensions, and Horny can make sure that anyone feeling upset about not adding that extra $2mil to their account will still feel happy and thrive in the chemistry. Just need to convince MIN that they really don’t need that Love guy.

  • frenchysunsfan

    Suns offseason will essentially depend on the draft.
    Whoever the Suns draft, I think Bledsoe will get a max contract, even if it would be better he gets something like 10 M per year to let flexibility to sign an AllStar caliber PF like Love or sign the Mo twins to an extension.
    I’m OK with Tucker signing a 16 M over 4 years.
    On the other hand, I would not give Frye a long-term contract, the Suns do need a better defender at PF.
    Re-signing Okafor could be a good operation if he recovers from his injury, he could be a good mentor to Plumlee and Len.
    Concerning the draft, I would like the Suns to draft Gordon or McDermott. I think the Suns do not need to draft a guard, Bledsoe, Dragic, Green and Goodwin can do the job.