Jumping The Gun: Looking For The Next Phoenix Suns

Whether or not it was by accident or through carefully calculated, number-crunching moves, Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder have changed the way teams approach the often dreaded rebuilding phase. For small market teams that don’t have the luxury of shoveling tens of millions of dollars into the mouths of the hottest free agents, losing games and stockpiling draft picks has ushered in a new era; one that has teams constructing questionable rosters for a chance of bringing in the next superstar. Four years ago, the Thunder were cellar dwellers, winning just 23 games over an entire 82-game season. Since then, they’ve had what-would-have-been-had-it-not-been-for-the-damn-lockout five straight 50-win seasons. With a lot of losing, timely draft picks and a little bit of fairy-sprinkled luck in the form of The Slim Reaper, they have been able to flip the script and nudge their way into the NBA’s upper echelon.

Most teams aren’t as lucky as the Thunder, nor are they able to change their narrative in such a timely manner. For the most part, the approach is a shot in the dark – it looks good on paper, but there are so many unknowns that are predicated on, well, that fairy-sprinkled luck. It’s taken the Charlotte Bobcats nine gut-wrenching years to put together a roster that doesn’t resemble a flaming bag of manure, and even then, they’re still a sub-.500 team. Unlike the Thunder’s good fortune, the Bobcats drew the wrong end of the stick when it came to the draft, selecting bust after bust like Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright and D.J. Augustin. And to kick them while they were down, they didn’t even get the first pick – Anthony Davis – after they won just seven games in the 2011-2012 season. It comes to something when the ping pong balls don’t even bounce in favor of the worst team in NBA history. All in all, they paid the cost of their bad decision making and poor luck, and are only just now recovering. (But at least they’re finally on the right track).

There have also been teams that got a head start on their tanking competitors, like this season’s Phoenix Suns. After winning 25 games last year with a roster that consisted of Michael Beasley, Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Wesley Johnson, the Suns entered the 2013-2014 campaign without much to look forward to. They added some more cast-offs in the summer, traded away their starting center for a draft pick and Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract, shipped Jared Dudley off to L.A. for Eric Bledsoe and brought in a man who had never coached an NBA game before. For good reason, they were projected by pretty well every person who follows basketball to replicate last year’s dumpster fire. Hell, even their own coach doubted the roster. But somehow, they’ve not only managed to exceed everyone’s expectations, but also work their way into the crowded Western Conference playoff race with a few high draft picks stashed away in their pockets. It’s not that the Suns weren’t tanking, because they were, but the way they did it is what separated themselves from others. They sold off assets for draft picks, brought in young, talented players and put themselves in a position where they could jump the gun on the rebuilding process sometime in the near future. Nobody expected their future to look this rosy this soon, though.

The question is then, which current team is most likely to replicate that unlikely success? There have been far too many god-awful teams this season – the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, L.A. Lakers and Sacramento Kings to name a few (seriously, that’s just a few) – many of which have decided to embark on the long, bumpy road back to the top. But there are a few that could, with a little bit of tender loving care, turn the corner with a hefty boost of nitro.

Enter the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz are a proud and successful franchise. Unfortunately for them, Michael Jordan ripped away their best chances of bringing home a title in the mid-to-late 90’s when Karl Malone and John Stockton still roamed the streets. Since then, they’ve failed to make it back to the Finals and while they have had some good teams over the years, parting ways with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson in the off-season secured their fate: it was time to lose a lot of games.

For the most part, it hasn’t been pretty. The Jazz currently rank second-to-last in points per game and are losing by an average of 6.9 points every night – one of the worst differentials in the NBA. But there are a few reasons why the Jazz should be optimistic about their future. Since their young stud Trey Burke returned to the squad after breaking his finger before the regular season kicked off, they are 22-39. While that is by no means good, they were 1-12 before that, so he’s made a big difference right off the bat, which has helped propel him into the Rookie of the Year conversation. He has excelled in transition, proven to be an unselfish teammate and is gritty – all great qualities for a young point guard to have. While nobody has emerged as a consistent go-to scorer for them, the season has been a much needed learning curve for the corner stones of the franchise: Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. Both showed signs of promise last year and while they have a lot more room to grow, allowing them to play through their struggles in meaningless games has helped solidify their roles moving forward. Favors has finally been getting the minutes he’s been yearning for and Hayward has been asked to shovel a far bigger load than he initially bargained for, which should help them develop in the long-run.

Re-signing Hayward will be the first key step the Jazz have to take this off-season, but seeing as they have all the cap room to work with (they’ve committed just $16,280,435 to their roster next season), odds are he’ll be sporting their navy uniforms for a long while. But that may not be the most important transaction they’ll make this summer. As we’ve seen with the Suns and Bobcats this year, bringing in a coach that can implement a philosophy that best suits the skill set of the roster goes a long way. With this being the final year on Tyrone Corbin’s contract, with no extension in sight, he could very well have his foot out of the door, and there are plenty of good options out there to replace him, such as George Karl and Lionel Hollins.

While Utah may not be as big of a market as, say, New York or Los Angeles, the pieces the Jazz have in place may be enough to woo a highly touted coach. Burke has thrived in transition this season and Hayward has proven to be a good running mate. While Favors’ back-to-the-basket game is a work in progress, he’s developed into one of best pick-and-roll bigs in the Association. The Jazz also have some good options off the bench with Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Marvin Williams leading the way. In fact, their fourth most used lineup this season – Burke, Burks, Favors, Hayward, Williams – has put together a positive net rating, so maybe this idea isn’t so farfetched after all, just as long as someone can find a way to put together a cohesive unit that can start winning ball games. Another promising sign is that in the games they’ve won this season, they’ve actually put up some pretty good numbers. Only thing is, it hasn’t happened that often and their losses have been bloodbaths.

Scenario FG% 3PT% Assists Turnovers Points
Wins (23) 37.9-80.0 (47.4%) 8.5-20.2 (41.9%) 21.7 13.7 102.7
Losses (51) 34.7-81.1 (42.8%) 6.0-19.0 (31.7%) 19.3 15.1 90.8

The Jazz have an interesting off-season ahead of them. With a 23-51 record, they’ve stamped their one-way ticket to the lottery, yet unlike the Bucks, 76ers, Lakers and Kings, they may just have a chance to get a step ahead of this rebuilding process. They’ve already got some nice pieces in place and when you throw a lottery pick and a ton of cap room into the mix, things are starting to look pretty good in the Beehive State. With that, they could, potentially, make a splash next season by going on their own unlikely run. Or they could trip, fall, bang their heads, forget where they are heading and find themselves right back here, where the grass grows at a snail-like pace and pissing contests are the only form of competition.

When asked about whether or not he planned to tank the season on purpose, the Suns’ vice president for basketball operations, Lon Babby, had something interesting to say:

I understand it in theory, but in practice, it’s really, really hard to do, and it’s risky. We have a number of good young players who are playing very well. I certainly prefer to keep adding to that and get better that way rather than having the season be a disaster and create a negative culture of losing and hoping that you draft one guy who’s good enough to elevate your whole franchise.

via NBA.com | Hornacek’s scrappy Suns a big NBA surprise

The Jazz certainly tick all the boxes – a winning culture, a good group of young players, and the room to build on that through the draft or free agency. Whether or not they can put all that together sooner rather than later and start racking up the wins remains to be seen. A lot could go wrong between now and next season; likewise, a lot could go their way.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats.

Scott Rafferty