Before you can ignite the future, some incinerating of bridges to the past is required.
For the Suns, the recent past wasn’t exactly glorious, so converting their veteran player assets into franchise-restoration assets seemed like the obvious course of action. But the effectiveness with which first-year general manager Ryan McDonough moved Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat has been greeted by solemn tributes around the league.
As co-stars in the Suns’ 57-loss season of 2012-13, their potentially diminished market value was converted into Eric Bledsoe and two first-round picks that could be delivered next June.
Sure, Bledsoe is working on the last year of his contract and plays the same position as the Suns’ best returning player. But he was in high demand … and now he’s in Phoenix. Score a big one for the new regime.
And now let’s take a look at those draft picks.
The Suns, of course, have their own first-round selection for 2014, and its value may have been goosed even higher by Friday’s trade of Gortat, Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee to the Wizards for Emeka Okafor and a conditional first-round pick.
Okafor has a neck issue (disc) and may not be able to play for a while. If he does, his expiring, $14.5 million salary could enable the Suns to flip him, too, at the trade deadline.
But without a veteran presence inside, Phoenix may be challenged to exceed (or perhaps reach) last season’s rate of triumph. That 25-win effort eventually netted the fifth overall pick; McDonough and his assessment team chose 7-foot-1 Maryland center Alex Len, who — after surgery on both ankles — will spend much of this season attempting to regain some athletic oomph while fans and critics chart the success of players selected after him.
With patience applied to Len’s development, McDonough may be in charge of four more first-round picks before the young center becomes a bouncy NBA sophomore and the wisdom in selecting him is more defined.
For the record, McDonough also landed Archie Goodwin at No. 29, and — if Archie can start knocking in a 3-pointer now and then — that choice should be golden.
Anyway, moving on to those other assets, we’ll start with that Wizards’ pick. According to reports, the pick stays with Washington if it lands in the top 12 this season. Although John Wall and Bradley Beal are maturing in the Wizards’ backcourt — with Otto Porter (once he’s completely fit) looming as another nice addition — Washington may not be able to jump far enough to escape its recent lottery predicament.
But the Eastern Conference is top-heavy and not as deep as the Western Conference. At the moment, only five Eastern teams seem obviously better than the Wiz. If Gortat can help Nene generate some success inside, the Wizards could land in the postseason, meaning McDonough would have another pick somewhere near the middle of the first round.
The pick’s protection drops to top 10 through 2019 if the Wizards creep back into the lottery next summer. There are no protections starting in 2020.
Another conditional pick is owed to the Suns by the Timberwolves, who must reach the postseason for the selection to be sent to Phoenix next June.
That may seem like a reach, although the T-wolves’ struggles last season were due in part to injuries to rising stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. With those two healthy, Nikola Pekovic re-signed and Kevin Martin added to gun from the wings, Minnesota has a reasonable shot at making the playoffs.
There are at least seven teams that look better on paper, but the T-wolves’ rotation is pretty young and getting better. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise for them to deliver a third No. 1 pick to the Suns in the 2014 draft.
The final potential 2014 first-rounder should arrive from Indiana, where the Pacers gave that up for veteran Luis Scola. The pick is lottery protected for a while, but Indy doesn’t seem anywhere near falling out of the postseason derby. That selection will be taken later in the first round, but wise talent evaluation could make it valuable.
And that’s the key. Acquiring extra picks provides opportunities to really alter a weak roster or have enough flexibility to perhaps package picks and move up for two really high selections.
It’ll be a while before the decision to draft Len can be properly judged. It’s hard to quibble with Goodwin at No. 29. Bledsoe may not have “superstar” listed among his tattoos, but McDonough and the Suns weren’t exactly the only team anxious to get him.
So, if the Wizards and T-wolves can rally for successful seasons, the Suns could have four selections in what is being considered the strongest draft in years.
But it also should be pointed out that not every hotshot eligible to enter the pool will do so. Last year’s draft list, for example, was diminished at the top when Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart decided to play at least one more season of college ball. Current Duke freshman Jabari Parker is considered a cinch to be chosen soon after the expected first overall pick — Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins — is off the board. But those who’ve followed Parker say there’s no guarantee he’ll leave Duke after one season.
Despite these caveats, the draft experts still expect quite a talent bounty for 2014. And the Suns could be waiting to take advantage.
If nothing else, having a bunch of kids on their first NBA contracts won’t cost the organization a lot of money. That gives McDonough and the Suns some crucial flexibility in the free-agency arena.
With more young talent here than we’ve seen recently, great weather and money, money, money to spend, Phoenix may look like a swell destination once again.
So let’s just say that Friday’s transaction gives the Suns a big victory … on paper.