Offseason Grades: Phoenix Suns
The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.
Additions: Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Alex Len (No. 5 pick in 2013 NBA draft), Archie Goodwin (No. 29 pick), Miles Plumlee, Malcolm Lee, Ish Smith, Viacheslav Kravtsov, coach Jeff Hornacek, GM Ryan McDonough
Losses: Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, interim coach Lindsey Hunter, GM Lance Blanks
Other Moves: Drafted Alex Oriakhi (No. 57; expected to play overseas), dealt Caron Butler (acquired in trade from Clippers and later traded to Bucks)
What Went Right: Welcome to Phoenix’s moment of clarity.
In the aftermath of a 54-win season and Western Conference finals appearance in 2010, the Suns simply could not wrap their collective minds around the fact that it was time to pull together a post-Steve Nash action plan. That was OK in 2010-2011: Hey, worth a shot at recapturing the magic. It wasn’t defensible by 2011-2012: The ship had sailed. By 2012-2013? The Suns had traded Nash; made a series of questionable roster moves and draft picks; dealt with turmoil off the court and on the bench; won just 25 games and plummeted to the conference cellar; and assembled a cast of players so utterly lacking in both talent and upside that there was no longer any way to deny that they had officially hit rock bottom.
There’s an established blueprint for dealing with the aftermath of this type of multiseason free fall, and the Suns deserve credit for following it to the letter. One by one, they checked the boxes:
• They hired a well-regarded, up-and-coming general manager from an organization with a winning track record capable of making reasoned decisions on talent acquisition and contract allocation. McDonough, a former Celtics assistant GM, did well this summer despite dealing with the mess left by his predecessor, Blanks.
• They hired an energetic young coach with a passion for the game and teaching, plus ties to the organization. Hornacek, a popular former player, was so eager to get going and set the right tone that he coached his charges during Las Vegas Summer League.
• They moved veteran players who serve no purpose on a rebuilding roster while cutting costs. The Suns traded or simply parted ways with Dudley, Scola, O’Neal and Butler. All four found better fits on playoff contenders, while Phoenix’s payroll dropped near the league’s salary floor.
• They dumped the unpopular, distracting off-court baggage and made a stand while doing so. The Suns bought out the remaining two years of Beasley’s contract after a series of run-ins with the law, and they took care to point out that the organization was planning to hold its players to a higher standard going forward.
• They started the youth movement. The Suns added two first-round picks, Len and Goodwin, while snagging Plumlee, a 2012 first-round pick, and a 2014 first-round pick from the Pacers for Scola.
• They didn’t add any dead-weight future money that could hinder flexibility next summer. The Suns completed avoided meaningful expenditures, unless you want to count taking on Green and his $3.5 million contract for 2014-15 as “meaningful.”
• They upgraded the available talent. The Suns, in fact, didn’t make all that much headway in this area. But they did trade for Bledsoe, an explosive guard with untapped potential and major upside who was desperately in need of a larger role after serving as the Clippers’ super-sub.
If that laundry list wasn’t enough, the Suns kicked up the fan-friendly marketing efforts, unveiling a new logo and uniforms and purchasing the “beat.la” domain to stoke their rivalry with the Lakers. Whether you are excited or horrified by the bright orange sleeved jerseys, you can appreciate that olive branches are being extended. This is a simple calculation: Sometimes it’s nice to have something for people to talk about besides whatever illegal, foolish misbehavior Beasley is engaged in while operating a motor vehicle.
What Went Wrong: Kudos to McDonough for already resolving the biggest gripe about his early work. A little more than one month after taking on Butler (who is owed $8 million this season) in the trade for Bledsoe, McDonough flipped him to the Bucks in a cost-cutting deal. Not only did that trade cut Phoenix’s payroll by more than $5 million, but it also marked a proactive step to avoid the inevitable awkwardness and frustration that results when a 33-year-old forward who is used to making the playoffs finds himself stuck in a rebuilding project.
A second major point of contention: selecting Len at No. 5 instead of Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore, two players who slipped in the draft and were seen by many talent evaluators as offering bigger upside. Given that the 2013-14 season inevitably promised to be tough sledding, Phoenix was well positioned to wait on Noel through his rehab, like Philadelphia chose to, or to carefully develop McLemore as a potential future franchise player. In Len, Phoenix gets a big-bodied traditional center who averaged 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks during his sophomore season at Maryland. His feel for the game and physical skills should insulate him fairly well against the possibility of winding up as a bust, provided he stays healthy (Len has had surgeries on both ankles since May). But this pick is guaranteed to be one of the more scrutinized decisions over the next three to five years, considering the names that went off the board behind him.
Nothing else truly “went wrong,” although it almost goes without saying that McDonough will likely be a very busy man over the next year or two as he looks to reshape the roster. Hanging on to starting center Marcin Gortat, who publicly vented about his role last season, was a debatable decision, but his presence makes some sense as a bridge while the 20-year-old Len recovers from surgery and gets up to speed at the NBA level. That transfer of power in the middle is coming sooner or later, and the only question is whether McDonough can find something worthwhile for Gortat (and his $7.7 million expiring contract) before the trade deadline or if he would simply prefer the cap relief next summer.
Another question mark is 2012 lottery pick Kendall Marshall, who played only 48 games as a rookie and even found himself fighting for minutes in summer league. With incumbent starter Goran Dragic still in place, along with the additions of Bledsoe and Goodwin, where does Marshall really fit? Shooting guard Shannon Brown, entering the final year of his deal, also looks pretty extraneous.
There is time for those moves now. The most urgent ones — sending Beasley packing, cashing in on both Dudley and Scola — have been successfully completed.
Grade: B+. This was a textbook overhaul: replacing bad vibes, desperate management and nonessential veterans while injecting a clearer vision, eager front-office personnel and young talent. If they had a time machine, the Suns would likely rewind to 2010 and do things differently, but that doesn’t change the fact that this summer goes down as a badly needed “better way late than never” course correction.