Phoenix Sun’s: Stuck in No Man’s Land

We all know the Phoenix Suns are bad and have been for a while, but why? Looking back, the Phoenix Suns have missed the playoffs every year since 2010, winning over half of their games only one time in the span. Missing the playoffs means high draft picks, so shouldn’t the Suns have improved? In theory, yes. But the Suns are proving how hard it is to rebuild through the draft, especially when Phoenix isn’t a top free agent destination.

In the 2010 season, when their current playoff drought began, the Suns went 40-42, putting them in 10th in the West. The teams leading scorers that season, in order, were Jason Richardson, Steve Nash at age 36, Vince Carter, and Grant Hill. All of these players were great at some point in their careers, but all beyond their prime as each had accrued at least 9 seasons in the NBA by this time. It was clear that the team was old and ready to rebuild.

The ensuing draft saw the Suns use their sole draft pick (#13) on Markieff Morris, passing up on Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and a few other future all-star players. Despite this, Markieff Morris was actually a decent pick compared to many that the Suns will make in the future, as he averaged 12 points per game or more in 3 of his 5 seasons in Phoenix. The Suns failed to pick up any major free agents, but they still were able to finish the season with a respectable 33-33 record (fewer games due to a lockout.) Unfortunately, that placed them 10th in the Western Conference again.

The Suns only made one selection again in the 2012 draft, which was to take Kendall Marshall 13th overall. Marshall was never a great NBA player, but due to the overall lack of star power drafted beyond 13, the pick wasn’t too bad. Again, the Suns failed to add any major free agent pieces besides a couple of vets. However, the departure of Steve Nash in the offseason led to a major improvement by Goran Dragic, who became the teams’ new leader scorer and passer. The Suns finished the 2012-13 season with an overall record of 25-57, good for last place in the West.

The worst record usually leads to at least a top 3 draft pick, however, the Suns suffered from poor luck as they were awarded with the 5th pick in the 2013 draft. The Suns selected Alex Len with that pick, and also drafted Archie Goodwin and Alex Oriakhi later on. Len played 5 seasons for the Suns, averaging only 7 points a game. The Suns passed on CJ McCollum, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokoumpo, Rudy Gobert, and others in this draft. Goodwin played 3 seasons with the Suns, starting in 15 games, and never averaging more than 9 points in a season. Oriakhi never played a game for the Phoenix Suns. In the 2013 offseason, the Suns finally managed to bring in a significant contributor via trade, when they sent the Clippers Jared Dudley and received Eric Bledsoe as part of a 3-team trade. The Suns also traded Luis Scola to the Pacers for Gerald Green, who proved to be a strong scoring option alongside Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The trio led the team to a record of 48-34, which would normally be a solid record to make the playoffs, but the West was loaded this year as Phoenix was the 9th seed.

The 2014 season saw another roster shakeup as Isaiah Thomas and Brandon Knight were both added to the mix. Both players are talented, but in joining Dragic and Bledsoe, 4 of the teams top 5 scorers were point guards. In the draft, they selected TJ Warren, Tyler Ennis, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Warren has developed nicely and is still on the team, while Ennis only lasted one season in Phoenix, and Bogdanovic continued to play 3 seasons in Europe before the Suns traded his rights to Sacramento, whom he plays for now. The Suns finished at 39-43 that season, earning the 10th seed in the West again.

In the 2015 draft, the Suns possessed the 13th pick for the third time in 5 seasons. This was one of the best picks the Suns have made as of late, drafting Devin Booker. They also added Mirza Teletovic in the offseason to provide 3-point shooting. It is important to note that at the end of the 2014-15 season, the Suns traded Goran Dragic to Miami. The Suns finished the season at an awful 29-53, 14th in the Western Conference. This performance led them to the 4th overall draft pick in 2016.

In the 2016 draft, the Suns selected Dragan Bender (4), Georgios Papagiannis (13), Skal Labissiere (28), and Tyler Ulis (34). The Suns proceeded to trade their 13th and 28th selection, along with the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovich in exchange for the 8th overall pick, Marquese Chriss. In this draft, the Suns didn’t pass on many great players, but Bender only averaged 5.4 points per game over 2 seasons with the Suns, a very poor performance for a 4th overall pick. Devin Booker made the leap to being the leading scorer in his 2nd season, leading the team to an abysmal record of 24-58, 15th in the West.

The Suns landed the 4th overall pick again in 2017, and they drafted Josh Jackson. It is hard to tell early if it was a bad pick or not, but it is a little bitter that he was one selection behind Jayson Tatum, and he was picked with De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Kuzma still on the board. The Suns managed to add Elfrid Payton and Greg Monroe in the offseason, but neither players qualify as that missing star player. The Suns finished last in the West again, going 21-61.

The streak of bad seasons finally paid off, as the Suns earned the #1 pick in the 2018 draft. They selected Deandre Ayton with that pick, and they added Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo as well. Also, the Suns traded Marquese Chriss for Ryan Anderson from the Rockets, and they signed Trevor Ariza as a free agent. Ariza only lasted 26 games as a Sun though, and in exchange, Kelly Oubre joined the Suns. They currently sit last place in the West for the third straight season.

So what are the issues that have prevented the Suns from finding success? It was clear that in 2010 and 2011 that the team was just a little too old to win games. The problem in 2012 was that the Suns had 13 players averaging over 14 minutes per game; they just didn’t have any star power whatsoever. 2013 was a big bounce-back year as they shortened the rotation, giving their starters more flexibility on the court. 2014 is where the big problems began. As noted earlier, 4 of their top 5 scorers played the same position. Sometimes that can slide, as the game has become somewhat “positionless” today. But not if the 4 of them are all undersized point guards. There is only one ball and as most point guards do, theirs thrived when they had the ball. Naturally, the Suns had to trade one or two of them, but the return wasn’t enough. They sent Goran Dragic (arguably the best of the bunch) and Isaiah Thomas out in trades. Danny Granger could’ve been a decent addition for the Suns in exchange for Dragic, but injury prevented him from playing much for them. Isaiah Thomas was traded to Boston for virtually nothing in return. If the Suns could’ve managed at least one starting caliber player from either of those trades, they could have had more pieces to play alongside Bledsoe and Knight. In reality, the Suns traded away almost all of their assets for nothing.

In addition to giving up their assets, poor luck in the draft lottery, and poor draft decisions have led to a miserable decade in Phoenix. Seeing how poorly the Booker-Ayton duo are working out in Phoenix this season, how could the franchise turn around, or what moves within the past year could have put them into a better situation? It has been clear for a few seasons now that Booker is a phenomenal scorer, and he is only now beginning to prove his skills as a passer and all-around playmaker. But it is entirely possible that the lack of a starting point guard is taking major tolls on him. I could see Booker play even better offensively if he had a pass-first point guard, making decisions for him and getting him open. Not to mention that Booker is obligated to get Ayton touches, as he is another star-caliber player, but playmaking isn’t his strength.

The Suns will likely have a top 2 pick again this season due to their record, giving them their pick at who they want to select. RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson come to mind as consensus top picks due to their size and versatility, but those play styles may clash with TJ Warren who has been playing well. The Suns are very deep at the small forward position and would be best off drafting a point guard. Unfortunately for Phoenix, there are only 4-5 point guards projected to go in the first round, but luckily Ja Morant is ranked #4. I couldn’t see the Suns stretching that far with the first pick, but they could possibly draft him if they received the 2nd or 3rd pick. If they do, they could possibly improve from where they are at. Otherwise, the Suns might need to remove the untouchable status from Booker or Ayton, and start a proper rebuild over.

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