With Steve Nash playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, years of ignoring the draft caught up to the Phoenix Suns last season. They were one of the worst teams in the NBA, yet their best players were either in their prime or far past it. It was management that was poor enough to make the Charlotte Bobcats blush. A losing team that isn’t developing young players for the future isn’t doing much at all. Phoenix had hit rock bottom, with little choice but to start over.
When Ryan McDonough took over as GM of the Suns in May, there was little reason to expect immediate results. However, in his first two months on the job, he has made a series of shrewd moves, showing both an eye for talent as well as the ability to maximize assets. While it’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about McDonough, the early returns are very good. For the first time in a very long while, there’s reason for optimism in Phoenix.
McDonough is part of a new wave of GM’s hired in the past few years. Instead of ex-players, coaches and other “basketball lifers”, NBA teams have increasingly been hiring young and relatively anonymous front-office types who paid their dues as scouts and video guys. Everyone is looking for the next Sam Presti. McDonough, like Daryl Morey, is a protege of Danny Ainge in Boston. He started on the ground floor with the Celtics, working in the video room.
In his first draft with the Suns, McDonough proved willing to buck the conventional wisdom. Nerlens Noel, widely seen as the top prospect available, was unexpectedly available at No. 5, but McDonough stuck to his guns, drafting Alex Len instead. While Len had a number of fans in NBA front offices, all of the analytic models favored Noel, a younger player with the more impressive statistical profile. However, the stats don’t always tell the story about college players, especially big men.
Len’s college production was underwhelming, but there’s still a lot to like about him. In contrast to Noel, who doesn’t have the frame to bang with some of the NBA’s bigger centers, Len has ideal size for his position, at 7’1 255 with a 7’3 wingspan. He’s also far more skilled than Noel, as he can step out and hit a perimeter jumper as well as play with his back to the basket. Unfortunately, without consistent outside shooting or point guard play around him, Len could not fully showcase his game at Maryland.
Maybe the biggest red flag was his ankle, as he was unable to participate in the pre-draft process after undergoing surgery to stabilize a stress fracture. In that respect, Phoenix could be the ideal situation for Len. Their medical staff, widely considered the best in the NBA, has an almost unparalleled ability to keep players healthy. If any franchise can keep a 20-year old, 7’0 with foot problems upright, it’s the one that just got 55 productive games out of 34-year-old Jermaine O’Neal.
Len would have been the right pick for the Suns, even if they had won the lottery. You want to draft a center as early as possible in a rebuilding process, since you never know when you will have the chance to find one. Now, with Len in the fold, Phoenix will have more flexibility in the next few drafts. Almost any prospect they select in 2014 or 2015 will be able to fit with a two-way center like Len. The last thing you want to do is draft redundant players with Top 5 picks.
With the No. 30 pick in the first round, which the Suns received as part of the Nash trade, McDonough gambled on Kentucky freshman Archie Goodwin. Goodwin declared for the draft too early and may not stick in the NBA, but he has lottery-type talent. At 6’5, 190 with a 6’9 wingspan, he is an above the rim athlete with an elite first step. He will need to improve his passing and shooting ability, but there’s plenty of time for that. He’s still only 18.
McDonough made another killing on Tuesday, when he acquired Eric Bledsoe in a three-way trade with the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. Bledsoe, a hyper-athletic 23-year old PG, was one of the most coveted young players in the NBA. The Suns acquired him, as well as Caron Butler, for practically nothing: Jared Dudley and two second-round picks. Dudley is a savvy swingman who will help the Clippers, but 27-year-old role players have little value to a rebuilding organization.
Bledsoe took a dramatic step forward in his third season, although there’s still some question as to his NBA ceiling. In Phoenix, he’ll need to prove that his improvements as a jump-shooter and decision-maker will hold up when he’s playing 35+ minutes in a lead role as opposed to 20 minutes behind Chris Paul. Either way, he’s an asset that the Suns can afford to develop as they play for the 2014 draft.
There’s still some holdover talent on the Suns' depth chart, namely Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat. However, given how competitive the Western Conference is top-to-bottom, the Suns are likely headed for another sub-30 win season. As a result, they should have as good a chance as any team of winning the 2014 lottery, which many are projecting as the strongest in over a decade. There could be 2-3 legitimate franchise players available.
McDonough still has plenty of work to do. Will he flip Dragic, Butler and Gortat for more assets or keep them around as veteran mentors for Len, Bledsoe and Goodwin? By the end of next season, he should also have a much better idea of whether any of the Suns other young players -- Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Michael Beasley and Kendall Marshall -- are salvageable. However, all those decisions pale in comparison to the ones he will make in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 drafts.
Losing a bunch of games is the easy part of the Oklahoma City model. The tricky thing is turning those high draft picks into high-level NBA players. Kevin Durant was an easy call, but Russell Westbrook and James Harden were fairly controversial picks at the time. Serge Ibaka was the No. 24 overall pick. Drafting will always be an inexact science, but it’s more important now than ever, due to the financial structure of the modern NBA.
In Boston, McDonough was part of a front office with a lot of finds in the draft. In the last decade, they took Al Jefferson at No. 15, Avery Bradley at No. 19, Rajon Rondo at No. 21, Delonte West at No. 24, Tony Allen at No. 25, Glen Davis at No. 36 and Ryan Gomes at No. 50. Whatever model Ainge used to make those picks, McDonough seems to have it in Phoenix. Finding a GM who understands the draft is the quickest way to turn around a franchise.