For Suns fans, the current playoff drought has endured since the 2009-10 season which saw the team win 54 games, make the playoffs, and have their championship aspirations squandered four games into the Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Since that time, the team has accumulated three seasons in which they did not win more than 30 games, finishing dead last in the Western Conference seeding last year at 15th with an overall record of 24 wins and 58 losses.
Sadly, this year will not be much easier for the Suns organization. The Western Conference has only gotten better, and the Suns have not made a real splash this offseason in bolstering its squad. The era of the “super team” is in full effect, as clubs around the league scramble to secure assets capable of aptly competing against the Golden State Warriors’ reign of dominance these last few years.
This most recent offseason has seen an enormous amount of change across the league. Paul George (who has one year left on his contract), joined the Western Conference in a move from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder, joining point guard Russell Westbrook to make a playoff push. Chris Paul left the Los Angeles Clippers and “Lob City” behind in favor of a pairing with shooting guard, and 2016-17 MVP finalist, James Harden. This, ostensibly, to break the stigma that he cannot move beyond the first round in the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference saw the addition of all-star small forward Gordon Hayward from the West, who joined the Boston Celtics in a move away from the Utah Jazz. The Celtics also added a potential superstar point guard in former 2011 number one pick Kyrie Irving in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This trade deal also saw an exchange of all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas, small forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and two draft picks.
All of these league-wide changes will pose interesting matchups throughout the regular season. However, Golden State retained its championship core and will look to win its third championship in four years. Teams are pairing up individual superstars in hopes of creating a dynamic style of play suited to compete with the caliber of the defending champions.
Now, where does that leave Phoenix? The Suns are a young team that has the potential to be a number five, six, or seven seed … in a few years. With so much talent in the Western Conference right now, the Suns are far from being able to compete with teams such as Golden State, Houston, and even the “under construction” Lakers might give them some trouble. However, that being said, head coach Earl Watson has established an architype in Phoenix that just may work out in the long run.
For one, Watson has a future franchise cornerstone in Devin Booker under his belt. Booker has already developed into one of the premier shooting guards in the league at just 20 years old. The kid scored 70 points in one game last year; he is the real deal. As for the other players on the Suns roster, Watson needs to develop these assets into becoming more consistent rotational players who can consistently benefit the team in each and every game. Tyler Ulis, Marquese Chriss, Alan Williams, and Derrick Jones Jr. are all valuable young pieces that will garner additional minutes this year in hopes of spurring forth the development process—their own and the team’s overall.
Watson surely knows that his squad is not likely capable of competing quite yet, but the 2018 draft class is supposedly loaded with talent. The draft is always an avenue that teams seek to bolster both their mental morale and physical lineups. It was smart for Watson to refrain from making any big splashes in free agency this offseason. Even given the opportunity to secure Kyrie Irving, he elected to keep his young asset in recent number four pick Josh Jackson, and not go all-in on a player who has never been truly tested in leading a team by himself. Irving would have made the Suns immediately better, but at what cost? That potential was certainly not worth trading away the team’s future for a mid-to-low seed in the playoffs, just to get bounced in the first or second rounds.
While the Suns are still quite clearly in rebuilding and recalibrating mode, if they play their cards right they can certainly become more competitive in the coming seasons. In a Western Conference that has only gotten consistently better, teams like the Suns are veritably forced to make strategic strides within their own organizations thus benefitting the NBA at large. While I do not believe a championship is in the near future for Phoenix, we may just see an era of success at Talking Stick Arena modeled after the Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire period. Time and near-term tactics will tell.
Mason Kern, Host of “The Sports Watchdog” Radio Show on NBC Sports Radio AM 1060 Phoenix, spotlights newsworthy current events and happenings in the world of pro, college and youth sports as well as gadgets and gear suited for sports and fitness enthusiasts. Mason frequently appears as a sportscasting guest on various TV and other radio programs, including Good Morning Arizona, KUSI-TV San Diego, “The Sports Hangover” Show on NBC Sports Radio Phoenix and more. View his TV segment clips online at www.tinyurl.com/TTWVideos. Reach Mason on Twitter @ASportsWatchdog, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SportsWatchdog and on LinkedIn at www.tinyurl.com/TT