Suns’ championship quest made tougher by lack of superstar

Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are both very good players, but coach Jeff Hornacek understands that to win a championship without a superstar, 'everything's gotta go right.'

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — The last time the Suns submitted proof that a ‘T’ certainly exists in the word ‘Team,’ a reactionary diatribe, of sorts, was unleashed by Jeff Hornacek.

Near its end, the Suns coach underscored his commitment to the franchise’s big picture by including the words, " . . . or we get new guys in here that want to win a championship."

Between the ears of many local followers, this slightly cryptic message suggested potential banishment for continued breaks from on-court conduct protocols.

But those words simply reminded some of us that when taking time to gaze at the big picture, Phoenix currently is stalking NBA greatness in a way (not by choice) that’s anathema to history.

Even if they make nice with referees for the rest of their careers, do the current Suns have sufficient, collective potential to eventually polish the O’Brien Trophy?

Studying the archives, it’s hardly a secret that championship teams have been constructed with elite-player framework. And even though the Suns have stockpiled several players qualified for the category of "very good," serious improvement would seem to be required for any of them to achieve relative greatness.

Are components for true stardom currently possessed by anyone listed on the roster? Such evidence is limited.

Or with analytics altering the way professional basketball is waged, can a committee approach to victory succeed through four grueling rounds?

"It’s a lot tougher," Hornacek said. "I think you can do it. If you look at Atlanta right now, I don’t think they have a real star on that team, maybe (Paul) Millsap. (Al) Horford was a top player before he got hurt last year, so it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s going so well.

"Everything’s gotta go right, they all got to play together, the chemistry’s got to be good. You look at Detroit’s championship in ’04  . . .  it can be done, but I think it always helps to have those stars."

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Since the league’s inception, only one team has secured a championship without at least one uniformed, Hall of Fame player. (Those distinctions are handed out after a player retires, and a measure of such a tribute may be the actual winning of an NBA title.)

For the record, the aforementioned 2004 Detroit Pistons ended their season with champagne rain despite trotting out nobody accused of being a certifiable candidate for enshrinement in Springfield, Mass.

Some hoop followers may think Chauncey Billups should be enshrined, but we’ll stay out on our limb and disagree. It also should be pointed out that between Billups, Rip Hamilton and the Wallaces, this particular Pistons starting lineup combined for a total of 16 All-Star Game selections.

So, even though those Pistons didn’t have an MJ, a Magic, a Bird, a Dream, a Big Fundamental, a Diesel or a King, they certainly eclipse the current Suns for All-Star-level talent  . . .  and, of course, experience.

(At least the Suns do have an Isaiah Thomas.)

Anyway, although a handful of the NBA’s powerhouse teams are blessed with multiple players engendering more star consideration than the Suns, they and their impressive won-loss records also must prove they have championship chops.

An example of stars making plays to hold off the deeper Suns was presented last weekend when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were sufficient for the L.A. Clippers to score a victory in Phoenix. Despite their high-profile presence, however, the Clips still wear the burden of postseason proof.

Even though a lot of us are rooting for big success from reasonably talented, team-oriented squads, let’s go ahead and buy the stars-needed approach to championship building.

And let’s presume Eric Bledsoe won’t become the equal of CP3, Markieff Morris rises to something less than Karl Malone and Alex Len fails to eclipse the pre-injury-edition of Bill Walton.

With the star search continuing, how can the Suns access a player — or players — that fits the legitimate star description?

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We aren’t going to waste time wondering about any late-lottery magic with their own pick, should the Suns again miss the postseason.

We will, however, imagine what could be done if they’re able to snag that 2015 first-round pick currently owned by the Los Angeles Lakers.

As most Suns fans are clinically aware, the pick is bestowed upon Phoenix if — after the lottery is conducted — the Lakers’ selection falls later than fifth.

At the moment, the Lakers have the fourth-lousiest record in the league and will be challenged to win games without Kobe Bryant.

This stellar losing doesn’t guarantee the Lakers will remain within the top five and save the pick, but the odds — for them — are pretty decent.

If there’s an unexpected L.A. resurrection and the pick slides to sixth or lower, what does recent history suggest the Suns can land with this draft-acquisition windfall?

Well, in the last 10 seasons, the draft hasn’t exactly produced superstars at a high rate after the top five selections. (We’re limiting our review to 10 seasons, because early-entry rules — and talent levels — have created a different prospect pool than what existed if we went back much farther.)

For something close to elite players in this category, let’s go back to 2006 and Rajon Rondo (pick No. 21 — and sorry for reminding all that this pick was originally held by the Suns). The Boston Celtics did win a title with Rondo running the show, but he also was blessed to be conducting three probable Hall-of-Fame teammates.

Moving forward, we have Steph Curry (seventh in 2009), Paul George (10th in 2010), Jimmy Butler (30th in 2011), Kawhi Leonard (15th in 2011), Klay Thompson (11th in 2011) and Andre Drummond (ninth in 2012).

Please note we’re not anointing any of these players as Hall-of-Famers-in-waiting. We do know Leonard was a Finals MVP, Butler has made a significant statistical leap (offensively) toward stardom since last season and George had provoked considerable star chatter before injuring his knee during Team USA duty.

Curry and Thompson are on a major-star trajectory, but despite this season’s amazing start for their Golden State team, even they can’t avoid doubters.

As an example, Charles Barkley made this declaration on a radio show earlier this week: "I don’t think you can win a championship shooting jump shots."

So there’s that, Phoenix fans.

(By the way, in the unlikely event that the Lakers stay on their current downward path, they could hang onto their prime drafting spot for quite awhile. The draft pick is protected through the first three picks in 2016 and ’17 before becoming unprotected three years down the road.) 

OK, star-caliber players — especially those in or near their primes — rarely are moved on purpose. But a look at last year’s Western Conference All-Star team reveals three players (James Harden, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul) employed by a team that did not draft them or trade for them on draft night. All three have been traded.

So we know it can happen.

Kevin Love since has been moved to Cleveland, reminding us that pending free-agency escape — such as was the case with Harden and Eastern Conference All-Star Carmelo Anthony — is one method of landing a major talent via trade.

The Suns are credited with compiling considerable assets with which to swing such a deal. But even if they added the Lakers’ pick, do they have enough to bring back a star without diminishing the lineup around him?

Based on his looming free agency, Goran Dragic’s name often is proffered in national trade/free agency chatter. But there’s no great shortage of top-flight point guards in the NBA to goose that trade market. Even if the Suns pull an upset and move their most-popular player, how many teams would give up a legitimate star to have Goran?

In such a scenario, the key would be identifying a breakout star before this breakout is identified by the team he currently is playing for.

Due to their status as surplus assets at already-strong positions, Thomas and Gerald Green are frequently mentioned as trade assets. But their merged value (even with a pick thrown in) suggests that general manger Ryan McDonough would have to accomplish another talent-identification grand slam for this to be an avenue of star addition.

If, as expected, the Suns ante up to keep Dragic in Phoenix, there will be spending limits this summer.

Once the new TV deal lifts the salary cap to the seemingly crazy levels expected around 2017, a team with most of its assets under contract at what would become reasonable money could be back in free-agent business.

Rather than crunching numbers years into the future, let’s review the Suns’ status as a potential destination franchise.

Even with Bledsoe under restricted-free-agency control, Phoenix was no match for Cleveland’s hometown appeal when LeBron James opted out of his contract in Miami.

Other presumed difference-makers were not linked to the Suns last summer, either.

But the appeal of the Suns’ style and the popularity of Hornacek could change the destination perception.

It should be noted that over the last 22 seasons, 21 championship teams have lined up with someone named Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal or Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron James.

Only Bryant (13th in 1996) and Nowitzki (ninth in 1998) were not selected in the top five of their draft classes.

So, in regard to someday witnessing a Phoenix championship fueled by the next great Suns player, we’re saying there is a chance.

But, thinking of the Pistons in 2004, we also might recommend taking a big step forward defensively.

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