The NBA season is long and gruelling. Over an 82-game stretch, every team goes through highs-and-lows. However, what separates the goods from the greats, the bad from the worst, the contenders from the pretenders, is how they weather that storm. Veteran teams like the San Antonio Spurs never seem to slide. Instead, they pick and choose their moments, knowing when to peak and when rest is more important than meaningless mid-season wins. For teams likely destined for the lottery, there always seems to be at least one eye-opening moment – an almost “maybe they aren’t as bad as we thought” one – followed by a mind-numbing number of losses.
The Phoenix Suns were meant to be one of those latter teams this season; one whose numbers in the loss column dwarfed the lowly digits next to it. But somehow, they defied the laws of tanking by becoming the NBA’s Cinderella story. Goran Dragic jetted his way into the MVP conversation in a resurgent season, Channing Frye bounced back from a heart procedure that nearly put his NBA career to bed, and P.J. Tucker has solidified himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. However, sadly, this might not have a Disney ending. With 16 games remaining on their schedule, their 38-28 record places them one game behind the surging Memphis Grizzlies in the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Ten of those games will take place on the road and over half of them are against teams with a .500 record or better. Their playoff hopes are slowly slipping through their fingers even though they’ve managed to keep their heads above water for the whole season. And the fact that their record would be good enough for the third seed in the Eastern Conference carries no weight – the Western Conference is where playoff hopes go to die and that’s the fortune the Suns have been dealt.
If they do miss the playoffs, it’s not all doom and gloom. In most cases, basketball purgatory is as close to hell as you’re going to get in the NBA, but for the Suns, it could be a lot worse. Before the trade deadline, they decided to forgo a strong post-season push by keeping their precious draft picks instead of going after a veteran who could take the team to the next level. Whether or not that was the right decision depends on how you evaluate their situation.
With the possibility of Eric Bledsoe signing elsewhere this off-season looming above their heads, the Suns’ seemingly radiant future looks a little more bleak if he decides to pack his bags. While he has missed a total of 39 games this season, he proved to be a perfect running mate for the Slovenian blur that is Goran Dragic. Before undergoing knee surgery at the start of the New Year, they were fresh off of a 19-point victory against the Pacific-leading L.A. Clippers, which pushed their season record to 19-11. Nevertheless, if Dragic can sustain his all-star calibre play and Ryan McDonough can keep their core intact, the Suns’ potential four first-round picks in the upcoming draft carry a lot of value – with or without Bledsoe on the roster. Load up on young talent and one of the NBA’s deepest teams could be in the works. Package them up to acquire someone who has been through the trenches, and the team gears itself up with a win-now mentality.
As of today, the Suns have seven players locked up for next season – Dragic, Green, Len, the Morris twins, Plumlee and Goodwin. The only noteworthy expiring contract is P.J. Tucker’s. Bledsoe is up for a qualifying offer and Frye has a player option worth $6.8 million, which he will almost certainly take. With that, they have less the $45 million tied up in their roster, which opens up a whole new realm of possibilities as far as the free agent market goes. Carmelo Anthony could opt out of his contract with the Knicks, and while the likelihood of him considering of making Phoenix his permanent home is slim, it would be a perfect fit. Looking beyond that, Pistons big man Greg Monroe is in the same boat as Eric Bledsoe – open for a qualifying offer. Beyond that, players like Gordon Hayward, Lance Stephenson and Rudy Gay will be looking for some big bucks, which is what the Suns can offer. Combat that with those picks and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be looking to make a splash in the off-season.
The playoffs are where the magic happens and every team in the Association wants to get a taste of the fun, and sometimes, a state of mediocrity can be a shot in the foot. Being average for so many years gets you nowhere – high draft picks can’t be taken advantage of and in most cases, the team won’t be a desirable destination for highly coveted free agents. But the Phoenix Suns are different in many ways. Nobody expected them to be this good this season and because of it, they are able to reap the benefits a team in the lottery would. With draft picks coming out of their ears, they have a ton of flexibility this off-season, one which will either make or break them as an up-and-coming team in the Western Conference.
A playoff berth would be a nice way to cap off their surprising season, but the fun is only just getting started in the Valley of the Sun.