Phoenix Suns fans entered the 2013-14 season with their heads held low. They knew another year of basketball would be difficult to watch given how historically bad the team was expected to be. But there was hope on the horizon in the form of a new, competent general manager, a promising rookie coach, a young potential superstar in Eric Bledsoe and plenty of draft picks for the loaded 2014 NBA Draft. The Suns were expected to compete with the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in the league and therefore, one of the top picks in the most talented draft in over a decade. A superstar was on the way.
But then a funny, potentially history-altering thing happened in Phoenix: The Suns were actually good.
This Suns team isn’t great. At 13-9, they currently sit in the sixth spot in the West. Nobody’s pegging them as title contenders. Until today, most thought the Suns would eventually revert back to tanking as the season progressed. But according to Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com, general manager Ryan McDonough has made it known that the Suns are open to trading one or multiple 2014 draft picks in order to bring in a current star who can help Phoenix win now.
It’s hard to judge this decision either way without knowing what kind of star McDonough has in mind. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why Suns supporters might panic at the news that a team with up to four picks in one of the most loaded drafts in NBA history would give them up just to make the playoffs this season. On the other, no one can deny that Phoenix is playing much better than expected, or that the Eastern Conference is so terrible the Suns will have a hard time out-tanking them for a top five pick. Until these trade talks pick up, it’s tough to say whether or not this is a mistake.
Here’s the thing though. If the last 30 years have taught us anything about the NBA, it’s that the absolute best way to build a title contender is through the NBA draft. Hands down, bar none. Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers, who won five championships in the 1980s by scoring Magic Johnson in the 1979 NBA Draft (not to mention Michael Cooper and Norm Nixon before that, or James Worthy and Byron Scott afterward). What about the Boston Celtics, who won three championships because they took Larry Bird in ’79 and also drafted Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell? Or how about Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman for the back-to-back champion Detroit Pistons?
It doesn’t end there. The Chicago Bulls, who won six rings in the ’90s, drafted Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Toni Kukoc. The Houston Rockets, who won two titles in the ’90s during Jordan’s baseball sabbatical, drafted Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. The San Antonio Spurs, who have won four titles and made five Finals appearances since the late ’90s, drafted David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker AND Manu Ginobili. The Los Angeles Lakers’ best player for their threepeat in the early 2000s was Shaquille O’Neal, a player the Lakers didn’t draft, but does LA win five titles since 2000 without Kobe Bryant?
I can keep going. The 2005 Miami Heat were led by Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce was the leader of the 2008 Boston Celtics and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks would never have won without drafting Dirk Nowitzki. Can you win a title with only drafted players? Of course not. But since 1980, the only exceptions to the trend are the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2012-13 Miami Heat. One was a brilliantly assimilated team that benefitted from ridiculous defensive rules and the other involved the infamous acquisition one of the best 10 NBA players of all time, so you do the math. For EVERY SINGLE OTHER championship team since 1980, that team’s best player, or quintessential second-best player, came from a draft pick.
Look at the teams on the rise as well. The Oklahoma City Thunder could’ve been title contenders for a decade had they not committed one of the dumbest trades of all time after hitting the jackpot by drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The Golden State Warriors drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. The Indiana Pacers drafted Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger. And is there any doubt that if not for horrendous injury luck, the Chicago Bulls would be a contender from drafting Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler?
The point of this elongated spiel about draft pick greatness: You don’t win championships in the modern NBA, or even come close to doing so, without nailing your draft picks. It just doesn’t happen, except for once in a blue moon. And since the 2014 NBA Draft is anticipated to at least be the best draft class since 2003, a team in need of a franchise-altering player shouldn’t be trading those picks. The Phoenix Suns could easily package Goran Dragic, Emeka Okafor and a couple of first-rounders to the pick-deprived New York Knicks for Carmelo Anthony and Iman Shumpert/Raymond Felton/Tim Hardaway Jr. But to what end? A first- or second-round playoff loss and missing out on the ultimate chance to truly rebuild?
There are obstacles, obviously. The Eastern Conference is so terrible that the Suns would really have to pull out all the stops to worm their way back into a top five pick. Not impossible, but it would require a ton of “soreness” on injury reports. And there’s no denying that with how well Dragic, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green have played this season that the Suns are sitting on a ton of assets (and that’s before we talk about the draft picks or Okafor’s expiring contract). But how happy would you be to see the Dragon leave? How happy would you be to see the chance, even the slightest chance at a franchise-changing player, evaporate for one the few NBA stars available?
It’s not like there are a ton to choose from. The Suns have zero chance of luring the NBA’s top-tier talent with draft picks when those teams are competing for a title this year. That includes the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden Dwight Howard, Stephen Curry, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Guys like Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Anthony Davis will be the cornerstone of their franchises for years. Guys like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are nearing the end of their careers and would never be traded away like that. Derrick Rose is out and the Bulls would never trade him. As bad as the Brooklyn Nets have been, it’s too early to pull the plug on that experiment with all the money invested in that team. So who’s left?
There are a few ways McDonough could go. The New York Knicks don’t have a first round draft pick until 2568 (or at least it seems like it) and have a superstar in Carmelo Anthony they would think about trading since their season’s been so bad. The Denver Nuggets could flip the tank switch at any time by shipping off Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari, but bringing in Lawson would make no sense for a team that already has Eric Bledsoe. As for Gallo, he’s still hurt and isn’t really a star even when he’s healthy. Whoever the Suns bring in has to be a star talented enough to make up for the possible loss of Dragic.
The Boston Celtics are another possibility with Rajon Rondo, but much like Danny Granger with the Pacers, he’s a slight risk since he hasn’t even come back yet. The Atlanta Hawks’ roster is built to trade, but Paul Millsap or Al Horford is the best Phoenix could do there. Likewise, Evan Turner or Thaddeus Young is the best the Suns could do in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Warriors could conceivably consider moving David Lee, but it’d have to be for a piece that strengthens their bench and keeps their title hopes alive (Dragic or Morris). It seems like the best option, should the Suns pursue this course of bringing in a star, is to hope the Minnesota Timberwolves continue their steady decline and that they decide to blow it up by trading Kevin Love.
To be fair, nobody knows what McDonough has in mind. McDonough has also done a tremendous job in his limited time. Trading for players like Melo or Pau Gasol doesn’t fit in with the consistent theme of youth and “igniting the future” that’s going on right now in Phoenix, so those deals are unlikely. And who knows? Since the Suns could have as many as four 2014 first round picks, trading one of the later ones for a star could be a steal. But if the Suns are focused on not just making the playoffs and actually contending for a title in the future, the long-term approach is the way to go. LeBron James and Kevin Durant will own the league for the next few years, but the next big thing could be waiting in the 2014 NBA Draft. So far, the Suns look like they’re going to miss out on it again.