2012-2013 W-L: 25-57
New Places: Jared Dudley (Clippers), Hamed Haddadi (waived), Wes Johnson (Lakers), Jermaine O’Neal (Golden State), Luis Scola (Indiana)
New Faces: Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Gerald Green, Malcolm Lee, Miles Plumlee, Jeff Hornacek (Head Coach, Utah assistant)
Draft: Alex Len (5), Archie Goodwin (29), Alex Oriakhi (57)
The Suns are finally making progress. While the rate of this team’s momentum might be slower than that of any “rebuilding” franchise in the league, that there’s forward movement in Phoenix at all is reason for measured celebration. The Suns were lost last season; at the very least they’ve a roadmap now, even if the destination is still seasons away.
Fortunately, the new front office regime in Phoenix understands that humbling reality, and acted accordingly this offseason with regard to the league’s annual summer spending spree. General manager Ryan McDonough didn’t sign a single free agent – not a player on the open market nor with the team last season. Financial flexibility is pertinent for teams looking to climb from the lottery cellar, and McDonough ensured Phoenix will have it going forward by standing on the free agency sidelines.
The Suns’ plan, after all, is to bottom out this season, earn a high pick in the 2014 draft and add a superstar talent to the mix next summer. Signing a player or two is counterproductive to that process in most every conceivable case, and McDonough deserves credit for his patience. There’s a longterm goal in mind now, and it can’t be accomplished by a quick fix.
Of course, Phoenix’s rare inactivity was made easier by the trade that sapped the Suns of their meaningful 2013 cap space. The extra $8 million of Butler that accompanied Bledsoe to the desert is a small quibble in a deal that might drastically altar the course of this franchise. Additional salary and good role players are of no concern for the Suns this season, so that they acquired a player/prospect of Bledsoe’s caliber/upside by merely taking on cash (Butler’s deal is expiring, too) and surrendering Dudley is a major, major win.
Of course, Bledsoe doesn’t come without question marks and creates some new ones, too. He’s an uber-athlete and complete monster on defense, but his offensive ceiling remains unknown, and the pressures he’ll face as a top option – he’ll play the majority of his minutes against starters now, remember – will be a far cry from those he enjoyed with the Clippers. Bledsoe can’t shoot a lick from mid-range and still needs to hone his floor-game, but “mini-LeBron” made major strides at the free throw line and from beyond the arc last season while quietly posting a 17.6 PER. Combine that with his innate feel in the pick-and-roll, and it’s clear Bledsoe has the makings of a top-10 point guard and borderline star; the thing now is whether nor not he will fully realize that potential.
New head coach Jeff Hornacek will surely give him every opportunity to do so. The former Utah assistant talks of bringing a breakneck pace back to Phoenix, a strategy that will aid his decision to start Bledsoe alongside incumbent point guard Goran Dragic in the backcourt. Hornacek says all the right things in this illuminating sit-down with Grantland’s Zach Lowe, most interesting of which is a preference that neither Bledsoe nor Dragic emerge as the Suns’ primary ballhandler. Utilizing two players capable of leading the break or running an effective pick-and-roll is every coach’s dream, but few teams boast the personnel or collective mindset necessary to make it work on both ends of the floor. While the former aspect is still unknown, Hornacek’s clear intention is for the latter to be anything but. That’s a start.
The same broad takeaways from the Bledsoe-Dudley swap apply to Phoenix’s deal with Indiana for Scola. Even optimistic projections for Plumlee paint him as just a serviceable third big man, but a veteran like Scola offers a team in the Suns’ position nothing of immediate value. Taking on the remaining two years and seven million dollars of Green’s contract isn’t ideal, but the Pacers basically paid Phoenix a lottery-protected first round pick to do so. The high-flying Green is at least an exciting fast break threat, and the same actually goes for Plumlee. Only the latter is in the team’s long-term plans, and netting him as well as another draft asset is a nice haul for the aging Scola.
Phoenix had the opportunity to give Bledsoe and Dragic an athletic, space-creating big man in the draft, but surprisingly went another direction. Nerlens Noel isn’t just a superior fit with the Suns, but simply a better player than Alex Len, too. Why McDonough preferred the injured Len to the injured Noel is anyone’s guess, but that’s in the past; the former Maryland center is a key part of the future in Phoenix now. Goodwin had an up-and-down freshman season at Kentucky, but is extremely young and – not unlike Bledsoe, actually – was forced to play out of position in his lone year of college ball. Whether he ultimately sticks in the league or not, his potential is obvious and easily worth a relative gamble. How Phoenix manages Goodwin this season will be crucial to his development going forward.
The Suns won’t win many games in 2013-2014, but that’s mostly irrelevant. This season is about individual player growth for Phoenix above anything else, and Bledsoe’s play easily looms largest. He’s this team’s best player, the justification behind Hornacek’s intended identity and the Suns’ lone influential 2014 free agent. Should Bledsoe make good on his talent and earn a huge summer payday, Phoenix has its first major building block; if he stagnates it’s time for more questions.
But not even Bledsoe’s trajectory will change the direction of the Suns. Next summer ultimately will no matter what – they’ll have a young star in the fold, and even enough cap room to make meaningful moves in free agency should they so choose. Until then, Phoenix should just be glad McDonough and company are behind the wheel, finally shifting this organization back into drive.