The story of the Phoenix Suns is seen by many as a charming success. A team that was expected to go nowhere has rallied around its leader and is making an improbable run at the playoffs. Yet, however exciting a first-round exit in the playoffs may be to the Suns’ adoring fans, this season has been, from an objective standpoint, an absolute failure.
Let me be clear: the Suns have overachieved all year long. But with one of the least talented and most ill-prepared rosters in the league, Phoenix has set itself up to remain mediocre for years to come.
In the modern NBA, one of the best ways to get good is to be really bad. Look at a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder who built from the ground up. They acquired high picks and stockpiled talent by making good selections in the draft year after year. Another option for building teams is to establish a solid core of players, while preserving cap flexibility, and attract a big time free agent. I can think of a team in South Florida that has had a little success with this former route.
The Suns, on the other hand, have failed to choose either path. Instead, they have lost key players to free agency for several years and signed below-average players to above-average contracts, all while continuing to be competitive in the West, eliminating any chance at a high draft pick.
Rather than setting themselves up for the future, the Suns have found themselves stuck in a cycle of mediocrity. They have little resources to improve and have a roster with low potential and a high average age (the Suns are the fifth oldest team in the league with an average age of 28.82).
The offseason before the 2010-2011 season was the beginning of the end for the Suns. During that summer, Amare Stoudemire left for the New York Knicks. The Suns then responded by giving unreasonable contracts to Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress, and Channing Frye, not to mention the trade for Hedo Turkoglu and his fat contract.
That summer set them up for little financial flexibility in the future. For example, hypothetically, if the Suns were to re-sign Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shannon Brown, and Sebastian Telfair, keeping alive the fantasy that they can have success with this group, they will be right around the salary cap. They will have little to no room to sign free agents and a mediocre draft pick.
If they had given up this fantasy already, they could be building for the future instead of treading water in the present.
In fact, by committing to Steve Nash, one of the best point guards in the league, during that offseason and beyond, the team has committed to being average. Surely, by holding onto Nash this season they have kept up ticket sales in the short term. But over the long term, the team has sacrificed its future. If the Suns had been able to deal the 38-year-old, not only would they inherit potential young talent, draft picks, and financial flexibility, but their own draft stock would have soared.
The fact of the matter is that a team whose best players are Nash, Marcin Gortat, and Grant Hill is going nowhere fast unless they can add some talent to that mix. However, without high draft picks or room under the salary cap, the Suns have no means through which to improve.
The Suns’ fans better enjoy the fight for the 8th seed out West; that’s all they’ll be getting from their team if management stays the course.