The Phoenix Suns are dead. Long live the Phoenix Suns.
Official time of death: 12:30 AM Eastern, April 15th, 2014. Official cause of death: grizzly bears. So the record will stand, as the Memphis Grizzlies snuffed the flame on a season that burned as bright as any other in the Arizona desert.
In reality, the end came in a thousand little cuts. Turnovers and fatigue and injury and all of the bad things that happen to a team over the course of 82 games kept happening, and Phoenix succumbed on successive nights against playoff caliber opponents. Hell, to even be in this position, the Suns had to build leads against the Thunder and Clippers, watch those games get way too close, and win one and lose the other. There were chances for Phoenix to falter and opportunities for them to rise to the occasion. They dabbled in both and missed the playoffs as a result.
But mourning is a sucker’s bet when time starts all over next year. And realism should not be mistaken for eulogy. This is no time to funerate the Suns, a team with a bright future and youth galore, not to mention a boatload of draft picks over the next two years. If one must stop to recognize the end of this season, make it a wake. Celebrate the fantastic ride Phoenix offered to diehard supporter and general NBA observer alike.
And that’s the problem, should one exist, for this team going forward. There’s nothing like the exquisite surprise this season provided, but there’s also nothing like a legitimate shot at the number one pick. I’m not sure I’d trade the former for the latter; cost-benefit analyses become fuzzy with various definitions of happiness and when emotion and reason intertwine. Tanking’s allure, however, is a always-greener grass that makes for prime counterfactual wish fulfillment if all of this — whatever the Suns have put together this season, and however long it lasts — doesn’t work out. For all of the fun and entertainment of this year, it’s undeniable that Phoenix lost out on its best opportunity to improve through the top of the draft.
The Suns must take another path toward championship contention. They’ll need to emulate the Rockets instead of the Thunder, with an emphasis on asset accumulation and player development. Make inroads toward a one-to-one D-League affiliate. Use cap space to facilitate other teams’ trade machinations and acquire a piece here and a draft pick there along the way. Leverage the bright, young coaching staff and front office, as well as the legendary trainers, to make plays for max free agents.
It’s all easier said than done, but it’s what probability and the best-laid plans hath wrought in Arizona. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Mid-April was meant for ping pong balls in Phoenix, not oversized performances and the commensurate expectation of growth and playoff appearances. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, unless it was. But it is.
Spare your words in memoriam, then, friends and fans of the 2014 Phoenix Suns. Only the beginning is buried here today. And now, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this rapid pace.