Can Old Lessons End the Drought in Phoenix?

Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports /

The Phoenix Suns are about to enter their seventh consecutive year without making the playoffs, which officially makes this the longest playoff drought in Suns history.

As the 4th winningest team in NBA history, these types of droughts are uncommon, even in the desert. The longest previous stretch of the Suns missing the playoffs was 40 years ago, from 1970-1975.

Knowing this, I wanted to figure out if there was something that could be learned from how the Suns management turned the 1975 Suns team from mediocre to Western Conference Champions the following season. The profile of the team going into the 1976 season had a lot of similarities to the current team.

The 1975 Phoenix Suns were coming off of a miserable 32-50 season under second year coach John Macleod. The 2016 Suns sport a young coach, Earl Watson, who is going into his second season. The best player on the team was 5 time All-Star Charlie Scott who averaged 24.3 points per game in the 1974-75 season.

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Today, scoring guards dominate the Suns roster. At the time, it was controversial to trade a 5-time all-star for an unproven shooting guard, but that’s exactly what the Suns did in acquiring Paul Westphal.

Owner, Jerry Colangelo, justified the trade saying, “It takes a team concept of play to win in this league. Although Charlie Scott is a talent, our decision was made on the basis that Scott’s talents were of an individual nature and did not fit into a team style of play.”

Speaking of the trade, Colanagelo also told, “In Paul Westphal, we are acquiring a player from a winning situation. He is a stable, quality individual who will add leadership and experience to our club. We are confident that this decision will prove to be a major step in developing a winner and that the Phoenix Suns are more important than any one individual.”

This logic rings true in the NBA today just as much as it did then. Time and time again we see general managers focus on signing individual players with hopes that they can turn the franchise around with a single signing. For me, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden immediately come to mind. Both players are universally regarded as two of the best individual scorers in the NBA. However, both also have reputations for being selfish ball hogs who care more about their individual stats that the success of their teams.

Whether or not it is true, and I personally believe both players care very much about winning as a team, the perception is that their teams will never be championship contenders unless they bend to a system that rewards team basketball. The Warriors, Spurs and Hawks are examples of how to construct a team based on the idea that it is as important to have depth as it is to have front-line stardom.

Without question, these teams all have star power. However, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap all have reputations for being versatile players who put the team first and their individual accolades second. How can the Suns acquire the “right” star players?

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The players they need should have both the talent and mental make-up to help build a championship caliber team. The draft, free agency, and trades are the typical ways to acquire transformational players. Acquiring elite players through free-agency has proven difficult for the Suns in the past.

While Lebron and Lamarcus Aldridge both gave the Suns front-office the chance to at least pitch them, both were considered long shots to actually come, and both ended up choosing to play elsewhere. That’s about as close as the Suns have come to finding elite talent in free-agency.

This brings me back to Charlie Scott. The Suns were able to reach the finals and have a decade of success by making smart trades and drafting well. It all started with trading Charlie Scott. Who is this upcoming season’s Charlie? Who adds value to the Suns because of their obvious talent but just isn’t the right fit for this team? I’m going to argue that it could be Brandon Knight.

As the Suns front office plans for how to use four draft picks in the top 35 and a bevy of young talent, an unavoidable question presents itself. What is the plan? Who, or what, can the Suns trade in order to take the rebuilding process to the next level?

“The Phoenix Suns are more important than any one individual.” – Jerry Colangelo

The problem is that by most expert’s accounts, this is a weak draft, and there are not a lot of transformational players even as high as pick #4. To trade a three-time all-star for a bench player like in the Scott/Westphal swap would cause a twitter meltdown. Player-for-player trades in the NBA are uncommon and when they do happen, it’s usually teams swapping two bench players and other assets i.e. Jeff Green for Lance Stephenson.

A “Charlie Scott” type trade is a high risk move and that is exactly the type of move the Suns could make leading up to Draft Day. In order for the Suns to acquire a star, it’s going to likely cost them draft picks. Here are three Charlie Scott inspired trades that center around trading an established 20 ppg scorer and draft picks with the hope of returning to the NBA Finals.

I ran these through the ESPN Trade Machine, and it worked but it’s possible additional maneuvering would be required to get these done.


  1. Suns trade the 4th pick, T.J. Warren, Alex Len and Brandon Knight to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George – The Pacers only star is Paul George, making this trade a long shot. However, the Pacers are very short on talent and the Suns have plenty to offer. Warren helps fill the immediate void left by PG-13 and by getting Len, they have someone who compliments Myles Turner in the front court, a 24-year-old 20 ppg scorer in Knight and the #4 pick to address a need. The Suns get a Top-10 player. Only Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard are better two way players. Remember, that’s the whole point of this process, All-NBA talent. George was 3rd Team All-NBA in 2014 and I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the 2016 team when it’s announced. The Suns would still have plenty of remaining cap space because George’s contract is so favorable (18M per year), which means they could still be active in free agency.
  2. Suns trade Knight, Warren, #4 and 2017 1st round pick to the Clippers for Blake Griffin. Knight can learn, grow and help reduce Chris Paul’s minutes as he continues to age. Knight is also insurance in case Jamal Crawford leaves in free agency. Warren addresses a position of obvious need. The picks give them assets to find a replacement for Griffin who many have argued has fallen out of favor in L.A. amid constant rumors that he doesn’t get along with Chris Paul. You could almost offer the same trade for CP3 for the same reasoning. If the Clippers think it’s time to blow it up, the Suns could be there to clean up the mess and end up with a starting five of Bledsoe/Booker/Tucker/Griffin/Len.
  3. Suns trade Knight, Archie Goodwin, #4 and #13 to Atlanta for Paul Millsap. Really, I just think the Suns need to target Millsap because of how well he fits with the other pieces in the Suns system. Essentially the entire Atlanta roster are free agents over the next two seasons. Rumor has it that they are ready to move on from Jeff Teague and Knight and Goodwin gives them versatility at guard. The picks give the Hawks front office assets and young players that will actually be under contract in two years. If the Suns are able to get Al Horford in free agency, (more on that in my next post) they can include Len in the package if that’s what it takes to get it done.

If the Suns are able to use the assets they have been stockpiling for years, it could result in bringing in a player who helps end the longest playoff drought in Suns history. The Suns took a chance to end the drought of the 70’s, It’s time they do it again.

Next: Suns' Lottery Pick History

If the Suns make the risky play by trading Knight, Warren, Len and the right combination of picks, maybe they can end the drought the same way they ended the last one, with a surprising trip to the NBA Finals.