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.