“If our goal is to try and make the eighth spot this year or the seventh spot in the playoffs, then you could maybe argue we would have been better off with Channing Frye. But if our goal is really to develop a championship team and get to a point where we can compete for a championship two, three, four years from now, we’ve got to let these younger guys play and we’re better off having them play than Channing from an age standpoint.” - Robert Sarver
The first thing to understand about what the Phoenix Suns have been doing lately is that they were never supposed to be this good this fast. When Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek were given the reigns of the franchise, the idea was the be Suns would be the 76ers' East, a young team starting over and building from the ground up. Phoenix had finished in last place the year before and the expectation was they would stay in the basement for the foreseeable future, especially since they were playing in such a brutally unforgiving conference.
Instead, the team got a massive infusion of talent from the Eric Bledsoe trade, as well as Channing Frye’s return from a life-threatening heart condition while the remaining players thrived in Hornacek’s wide-open spread offense. Rather than sinking to the bottom of the conference, the Suns became the most unlikely of playoff contenders, winning 48 games in 2014 and finishing only one game out of the playoffs, despite losing Bledsoe for almost half the season to a knee injury.
All that winning, though, left management with a dilemma. They had brought in a bunch of young players but guys like Archie Goodwin (20) couldn’t get much playing time behind established vets like Goran Dragic (28). If Phoenix committed to guys like Dragic, Frye (31) and Miles Plumlee (26) over the long-term, they would have to move on from highly-touted draft picks like Goodwin, TJ Warren (21) and Alex Len (21). They tried to manage that balance this season but the center wouldn’t hold. It broke entirely when Dragic and Plumlee were shipped out of town at the trade deadline.
There was a lot of head-scratching around the NBA about their moves and whether or not they got maximum value for Dragic, who had become disgruntled after seeing his minutes and shots go down following the signing of Isaiah Thomas. The reasoning, though, is fairly simple and it isn’t all that different from why the 76ers dealt Michael Carter-Williams - they wanted to get younger. The difference is that Philadelphia traded away guys in order to open up spots for future draft picks. Phoenix already has the young guys waiting on hand.
For the moment, Hornacek seems likely to go with the remaining core of experienced players as well as new acquisition Brandon Knight, but the trades last week were all about opening up opportunities over the medium-term. If the Suns recent flurry of moves is ultimately seen as a success, it will be because of the growth of guys like Len, Warren, Goodwin and Reggie Bullock. If they can fill out a core surrounding Bledsoe, Knight and the Morris Twins, Phoenix should be a power in the Western Conference for a long time to come.
Len, by virtue of his size, is the most promising of the bunch. At 7’1 255 with a 7’3 wingspan, he has prototypical size for the C position and he’s a surprisingly good athlete who can cover ground on defense, run the floor and finish above the rim. Still only 21 years old, he seized the starting spot from Plumlee early in the season and has all the makings of a young guy on the rise, with per-36 minute averages of 11 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 54.5% shooting. As a two-way center with the size to battle the Goliaths of the Western Conference in the low post and the athleticism to get out and run with Bledsoe and Knight, Len looks like a cornerstone.
T.J. Warren, whom they took at No. 14 this season, is the guy no one is talking about and I’m not entirely sure why. His college statistics speak for themselves - 25 points and 7 rebounds a game on 52.5% shooting as a sophomore at NC State. If he had played at Duke or UNC, he would probably have been a Top 5 pick. His scoring touch hasn’t abandoned him in the D-League, where he averaged 27 points a game on 52% shooting. At 6’8 215, Warren is a gifted scorer with a nose for the basketball who can get buckets like a guard. While P.J. Tucker is entrenched at the SF position as a 3-and-D guy for the moment, it’s only a matter of time before Warren overtakes him.
Warren and Len are the perfect long-term complements to the core already in place, slotting in at C and SF around Markieff Morris and the two-headed backcourt of Bledsoe and Knight. All five have a good mix of length, athleticism, shooting ability and two-way play and Morris, at 25, is the oldest of the bunch. Under McDonough, the Suns have been able to pull off the rare double of rebuilding while staying competitive and they should be in position over the next few seasons to take a playoff spot when one of the teams above them slips.
They can just play the age game. Over the next few years, as their core moves into their mid to late 20s, they will get older, more experienced and more skilled. Most of the teams ahead of them, meanwhile, will see their core move into their early to mid 30’s, where they will get older, slower and more injury-prone. That’s the circle of life in the NBA. If the Suns hung on to Dragic and Frye, they would be a win-now team with a much lower ceiling than their competitors. Instead, they spun the whole thing forward, confident in their ability to project talent into the future.
The most impressive part of what they have done over the last 1.5 seasons has been their ability to manage assets and turn nothing into something. There should be a rule in Los Angeles that Doc Rivers is not allowed to make trades with McDonough, who used to work with him in Boston. Thanks to the Clippers' coach/GM, the Suns were able to turn Caron Butler into Eric Bledsoe and Shavlik Randolph into Reggie Bullock. Acquiring Bullock wasn’t necessary when they already had Goodwin and Bogdan Bogdanovic (the No. 27 pick in the 2014 draft who is still in Europe) in the pipeline, but who can turn down free money lying on the ground?
It’s hard to get minutes in Phoenix because there is so much talent already in place, which is one reason they walked away from potentially valuable future assets in the form of Tyler Ennis (the No. 18 pick in 2014) and the Lakers first-round pick, which only has a Top 5 protection in 2015. A first-round pick can only be as good as the opportunity available to them and the Suns just won’t have much room on their roster going forward.
Take a look at the guys they already have under contract for the 2017-2018 season and how young they will be:
PG - Eric Bledsoe (28)
SG - Brandon Knight (26), Archie Goodwin (23), Reggie Bullock (26)
SF - TJ Warren (24)
PF - Markieff Morris (28), Marcus Morris (28)
C - Alex Len (24)
The Suns will have the luxury of growing a young core of two-way players at every position over the next few seasons, the vast majority of whom will be playing at a discount due to the ever-growing cap. Even if some don’t pan out, they will have plenty of flexibility to add salaries in trades and Phoenix, thanks to its warm climate and uptempo style, should have no trouble attracting players in free agency.
Would they be a better team with Dragic, Frye and Plumlee playing as big a roles as they had last season? Possibly. The point is they probably still wouldn’t have been better than the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the two teams in front of them in the playoff race. Over the last week and a half, the Suns took one step back in order to take three steps forward.