Sunny Days Ahead in Phoenix, Playoffs or No Playoffs

There’s a conceit, when it comes to the NBA, that the worst place to fall in the standings is right around the 8th seed. The best-case scenario, so the thinking goes, is either a first round exit or a 5-in-1000 shot at the number one pick in the draft lottery, depending on how you look at it, and neither is terribly attractive.

However, that conceit is based largely on the premise that the teams in that position are trying to win and just don’t have a great team put together. Think the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers of the past three years or so. (Obviously, not this season.) What it overlooks is that sometimes, the teams in that position are building to something bigger. Think the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers, or the 2007-08 Atlanta Hawks.

Or the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.

If you look at their current situation — they sit a game and a half out of the eighth seed in the West at 38-29 — from the point of view outlined above, they’re in a severely disappointing position. Coming into the year ostensibly looking to tank and pick up a top pick in a loaded draft, to finish right at the edge of the lottery would seem to be the worst-case scenario. Which is true, to a point. But it’s not the whole story.

The Suns are in a unique position compared to the rest of the NBA, in that while they’re theoretically rebuilding, they know they have a solid core already in place. Compared to the aforementioned Sixers, who have only a few players on board that appear to be building blocks for the future, the Suns have an entire ten-man rotation’s worth of promising young — or young-ish, since Gerald Green, Goran Dragic, PJ Tucker and Channing Frye are all over 27 — players who are ready to contribute to a good team next year. And even with those 10 guys in place, the Suns have but $34 million — $27 million if Frye chooses to decline his player option for next year — in salary committed to their team next year, putting them almost $30 million under the projected salary cap for next year ($62.9 million). Granted, a chunk of cash is almost certainly going to Eric Bledsoe, who’s a restricted free agent this summer, but his qualifying offer is low enough that the Suns can put off dealing with him and go throw some money around, if they want. And even if he gets a max offer, they can absorb him and still have flexibility. As fellow HPer Scott Rafferty noted yesterday, guys like Gordon Hayward and Lance Stephenson could be had for the right price if Phoenix wanted to go that way.

And we haven’t even discussed all the draft picks the Suns own. They have their own picks, of course, as well as potentially two other first rounders this year and next. They could have four this year, but with the Minnesota Timberwolves looking unlikely to finish with the 14th pick or lower, they’ll probably only have three. Nonetheless, three first rounders this year — their own, Indiana’s from the Luis Scola trade and the Washington Wizards’ from the Marcin Gortat trade — and either two or three next year — their own, possibly Minnesota’s if it falls outside the top 12, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ from the Steve Nash sign-and-trade, which is top-five protected next year.

To me, this echoes the Houston Rockets, pre-James Harden. Smart cap management combined with young talent and plenty of assets, even without a real star. That makes sense, considering Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough and Houston GM Daryl Morey both worked in the Boston Celtics’ organization before landing their current gigs. The Rockets knew that acquiring a star through the draft would be difficult without a top pick, and thus put themselves in position to step in if one became available elsewhere. Harden eventually did, Morey pounced, and the rest is history.

To some extent, the Suns have already done this by acquiring Bledsoe. With the Los Angeles Clippers in win-now mode and looking to improve on the wings, the Suns agreed to take Bledsoe — and his presumed big contract after this year — and sacrificed only the cap space allotted to Caron Butler,* a future second-rounder, and Jared Dudley, who was never going to be worth keeping on a rebuilding team. Nobody would kill you for thinking Bledsoe isn’t a superstar, but the early returns have been highly promising, with Bledsoe averaging about 19/5/6 per 36 minutes despite having missed about 40 games this year.

*Butler was a Sun for all of about a month before being sent on his merry way to Milwaukee. My suspicion is that he wishes that had worked out differently.

It’s also worth noting that the Suns have been very successful this year with players that, with only a couple exceptions, were not taken very high in the draft. Dragic was a 2nd rounder, as was PJ Tucker. Bledsoe went 18th overall, as did Gerald Green. Miles Plumlee — more on him in a minute — went 27th. The Morris twins were late lottery picks. Ish Smith went undrafted. The only top-ten picks that have logged significant minutes this year in Phoenix are Frye — 8th overall in 2005 — and Alex Len, last summer’s 5th overall pick who has been rather bad this year.

This is where I express my disappointment that Phoenix passed on Nerlens Noel to take Len. Noel’s been hurt all year, sure, but I love the idea of him as a poor man’s Tyson Chandler on this team. The Suns space the floor beautifully, and I can’t shake the thought of Noel thundering down the lane looking for a lob from either Dragic or Bledsoe out of the pick and roll. Alas.

This brings me back to Miles Plumlee. He’s been something of a revelation this year after a season sitting on the bench in Indiana and looking rather lost on the rare occasions when he made it on the floor. He was, along with Green, something of an afterthought in the Scola trade. Sure, he was a young player with some upside, but the assumption was that he wouldn’t make much of an impact. Instead, he’s started 64 of the 65 games he’s appeared in, averaging nearly 12 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes on just over 50 percent shooting. In November, after he and the Suns shocked the NBA by coming out firing to start the season, I described his rather stunning improvement as “some kind of avant garde practical joke in which the joke is on everyone and no one at the same time.” While that’s still one of my favorite sentences I’ve ever written, it’s probably something of a disservice to Mr. Plumlee.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Plumlee is the team’s best rim protector more or less by default. The Suns are 16th in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 104.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, and that number doesn’t change particularly whether Plumlee’s on the floor or not. To be fair, the Suns’ typical starting five (Dragic/Bledsoe/Tucker/Frye/Plumlee) allows only 95.9 points per 100, a number that would challenge the Pacers for the top defense in the NBA, but you could argue that has as much to do with the team’s two best perimeter defenders — Bledsoe and Tucker — as it does with Plumlee. Furthermore, Plumlee’s offense evokes Omer Asik, albeit with much better hands, and he’s not nearly the rebounder or defender Asik is. The SportVU optical tracking database on NBA.com says Plumlee allows opponents to shoot 50 percent on field goal attempts at the rim this year, which isn’t horrific or anything, but it ain’t good.

To that end, I think that if the Suns want to get serious about contending, they need to find a defensive anchor. They could also use a wing scorer — PJ Tucker and Gerald Green are fine players, but neither is going to do a whole lot more than spot up and fill the lane in transition — which is why I mentioned Hayward and Stephenson earlier, but their biggest need is inside. Put 2010-11 Tyson Chandler on this team, and he might average 18 points per game on 75 percent shooting, along with significantly improving their defense.

I mentioned Asik earlier both because, as a Bulls fan, he was honestly the first player that came to mind as a comparison for Plumlee’s offense and because I think he’d be a great fit on this team. The Suns have, as I mentioned earlier, barely any salary committed to next year’s team, so neither Asik’s $8 million cap number nor his $15 million actual salary would seem to be major stumbling blocks. Throw a pick in Morey’s direction and/or dangle a young big man under his nose, and I bet he bites. And as we learned with last year’s Rockets team, Asik is more than capable of thriving in precisely this kind of system offensively, and Jeff Hornacek — jeez, can you believe it took us this long to mention Hornacek? — has installed a defensive system that mirrors the one Asik learned under Tom Thibodeau during his first two years in the league.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the idea that Carmelo Anthony might fit in Phoenix. It won’t happen, but as I just said, they could use a wing scorer and they have plenty of cap space. Melo should at least take the meeting.

Anyway, I will continue to hope that the Suns sneak into the playoffs, if only because they’ll make for a hell of a series no matter who they face. But if they don’t, they’re going to be just fine.

Caleb Nordgren

Caleb is a proud Chicagoan still adjusting to life away from the big city. He's a journalism student at Michigan State, the Editor of Pippen Ain't Easy and can be found at any given time on Twitter, talking about basketball and generally being sarcastic.

  • jeff gubernick

    I totally disagree with your assessment about Plumlee. This is really his first year playing and his minutes have been no where near enough to improve and make a proper judgement. You cannot compare Asik athletic ability or mobility to Plumlee’s. With more playing time and experience he will far exceed Asik ability who plays like a stiff.

  • Brad Forrest

    Butler actually ended up getting picked up by Oklahoma City off waivers, and is playing some decent minutes with Sefalosha hurt and Jeremy Lamb inexplicably in the doghouse, so things could definitely be worse for him.

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