Uprising unlikely for Suns
By Randy Hill
November 21, 2010
At the risk of promoting some nasty karma, let's proceed under the premise that Robert Sarver will not be polishing the O'Brien trophy next June.
Even with cooperation from the disagreeable groin of point guard Steve Nash, Sarver's Phoenix Suns just don't smell like NBA Finals material this season. For the record, they haven't been Finals contestants or NBA Draft Lottery participants very often, which tells us the Suns have been just good enough to avoid being great.
We'll chew a bit more on that notion shortly.
Anyway, while Suns fans are hoping Coach Alvin Gentry can command an unexpected uprising similar to that which he presided over last season, a more realistic goal might be seizing one of eight Western Conference playoff tickets. Then anything can happen, but it probably won't be a parade. And repeat. But is that good enough? Is is good enough for Sarver and his new wise men? Is it good enough for the franchise's loyal fans?
With that question hanging over the Suns like a wrecking ball attached to strand of linguini, let's take a look at who -- according to prevailing NBA wisdom -- are registered as serious championship contenders. We also can examine franchises that recently have been accused of status as bona fide up-and-comers.
How did these teams arrive at their current predicaments and what can the Suns do to join them?
I've identified a few categories suitable for sorting out contemporary NBA powerhouses:
TAX AND SPEND
The taxed are suffering fans, who must gnash their teeth as witnesses to awful basketball while their cap-space-clearing home team rids itself of payroll.
With that accomplished, one (hopefully) leftover member of their team recruits two of his national-team cronies to enlist in the project. With leftover cap scraps, they hire enough able bodies to complete a roster and hope it's enough to win, oh, six championships.
But unless the Suns can find three prime-of-their-career stars willing to take their talents to Old Town Scottsdale, history tells us unloading salary and hoping for a free-agency bonanza is a tough way to go.
The Los Angeles Lakers did score a screamin' free-agent deal when Jerry West signed Shaquille O'Neal, but that transaction fits better under our next category heading.
RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS
It certainly was charitable when then-Vancouver Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson agreed to take the salaries of two marginal Lakers (Anthony Peeler and George Lynch) off West's hands so that he finally had sufficient cap space to bring in Shaq. Earlier the same off-season, West benefited from hardball by an agent representing a precocious rookie who didn't want to play for the Charlotte Hornets (or New Jersey Nets). That rookie was Kobe Bryant, who was dealt to L.A. in exchange for Vlade Divac.
With Stu challenging Phil (kidding here) for the title of most important Jackson in franchise history, Shaq and Kobe eventually claimed three championships for the Lakers.
But an even greater kindness was extended to the Lakers by another Grizzlies GM. That generous rascal was Chris Wallace, who shipped Pau Gasol to Tinseltown in exchange for Pau's younger brother (Marc), a player who later would be involved in a high-noon situation with Gil Arenas (Javaris Crittendon) and the biggie ... the expiring contract of Kwame Brown (Marc's development and resulting cap flexibility have made this trade seem far less nutty for Memphis than it was judged at the time).
With Gasol lining up next to Bryant, the Lakers went from abject mediocrity (enough so to inspire Kobe's cuckoo radio-talk-show tour) to three Finals trips (including two titles) in a row.
Going way back to the late '70s, the Lakers returned to greatness by using a draft pick bestowed upon them when the New Orleans Jazz signed aging free-agent Lakers star Gail Goodrich. When Goodrich failed to make the Jazz good enough to avoid earning the first overall pick in the 1979 draft for L.A., the Lakers were obliged to claim Magic Johnson.
Three years later, James Worthy was selected with a draft pick that arrived from Cleveland (along with Butch Lee) when the great Don Ford was traded to the Cavaliers.
The Boston Celtics certainly are among current teams believed to be solid threats to win another ring. They've reached two Finals in the last three years (winning once), largely because Kevin Garnett was brought in to help establish some chops on defense.
KG became a Celtic (summer 2007) when former Boston great Kevin McHale (working as personnel sharpie for the Minnesota Timberwolves), sent him to Boston buddy Danny Ainge in exchange for a basket of players that included Al Jefferson.
Ainge was able to secure a pretty nice point guard in 2006 using a pick acquired from some hospitable team out West to secure Rajon Rondo.
SOMETIMES IT'S GOOD TO BE BAD
A fine example of this category can be found in San Antonio, where it's difficult to remember the Spurs ever being bad. But it happened back in 1997, when superstar David Robinson was injured and missed most of the season.
The 20-62 Spurs promptly went out and won the draft lottery, even though Rick Pitino and the Celtics earned a ping-pong-ball advantage they were hoping would bring them the mighty Tim Duncan.
While the Spurs' personnel minds have been able to mine their late-round picks to surround Duncan with contending-caliber talent, having a 7-foot Hall-of-Famer can keep you relevant for a long time.
The Celtics also make this category, thanks to checking in at a lousy 24-58 for 2006-2007. With the fifth pick in the draft at his disposal, Ainge flipped it in a trade that brought Ray Allen to Beantown. There you have it.
Knee issues may disqualify (at least temporarily) the Portland Trail Blazers from rising-team status, but it's interesting to see just how they managed to inspire observers to like 'em a few months after they were spanked by Phoenix in the playoffs.
OK, the Blazers were 21-61 in 2005-2006 and also had Boston's first-round pick; the double-lottery-selection yield was Tyrus Thomas and Randy Foye. But the Chicago Bulls preferred Thomas and Viktor Khryapa over LaMarcus Aldridge. McHale wanted Randy Foye more than Brandon Roy.
If GM Kevin Pritchard had not done what every one of his peers probably would have done, too, one year later, Blazer stock might be through the roof.
The previous reference, of course, is Portland's decision to select Greg Oden over Kevin Durant with the top pick in 2007. Durant has become the ringleader of an Oklahoma City Thunder team that seemed to accelerate its bandwagon curve by making the Lakers sweat in the 2010 playoffs.
As the Seattle SuperSonics, the franchise was 31-51 in its last season with Ray Allen. The losing led to the No. 2 pick (Durant), who -- along with Jeff Green, the product of that Allen-to-Boston trade -- was unable to prevent the Thunder from finishing with 62 losses in his rookie season. That ride through hell put OKC in position to select Kevin Love or Eric Gordon or even Brook Lopez in the following draft.
But GM Sam Presti grabbed Russell Westbrook, who played a little point guard at UCLA when Darren Collison sat, but now is playing the position at an All-Star level.
Speaking of All-Star point guards, the New Orleans Hornets were bad enough to have the fourth pick in 2005 (Chris Paul), the Utah Jazz lost enough to go one pick earlier that year (Deron Williams), and the Chicago Bulls' commitment to defeat led them to the top pick in 2008 (Derrick Rose).
Teams built around points guards haven't exactly generated multiple-Finals runs lately, but these three teams are in decent shape right now.
It also should be noted that while the Bulls may not go higher than four in the Eastern Conference pecking order this season, losing helped them fetch center Joaquim Noah with a 2007 lottery pick. Without two stellar draft picks, adding FA Carlos Boozer would have been a waste of cash.
Dwight Howard, generally regarded as the top center in the league, was drafted No. 1 overall in 2004 by the Orlando Magic, who lost 61 games (Tracy McGrady missed 15) the previous season. Orlando definitely writes checks like it has several stars around Howard, but without him, Coach Stan Van Gundy may not be so relaxed.
By the way, in case you consider free agent Joe Johnson the key addition in what looks like a really nice situation in Atlanta, please understand the Hawks wouldn't be much without going 30-52 (good enough to draft Al Horford No. 3 overall) in 2006-2007.
BLOW UP THE SUNS?
Hey, I'm not here to trade Nash and his groin or Jason Richardson and his expiring contract. We've seen how hideous the Suns can look when Nash sits.
We also have been reminded by various franchise watchdogs that Sarver wants to hang a real banner. But his non-hoops financial interests are banking and real estate, not Apple. Ditching salary for cap space would (in the short term, at least) create a nightmare at the turnstiles. The math wouldn't look good.
It all seems like a lose-lose proposition. On-court losing, however, has been demonstrated to be an almost necessary road to securing title-challenging talent. So, unless some knucklehead GM is willing to give the Suns a future star, any roster explosions should include high draft picks coming back.
Having oodles of cap room can lead to panic signings (or acquisition of bad contracts in trade) that can put a franchise in the hole for years. A high draft pick or two and smart decisions with those picks seem like the best route to the NBA promised land.
Right, gutting a roster and losing on purpose can be painful to everyone involved (including the motley crowd assigned to cover the team). Despite recent crimes against defense and ball movement, I believe the Suns will rally and take a big swing at another postseason entry. Nailing a franchise-spiking talent outside the lottery is a long shot, but Lance Blanks had plenty of range as a Texas Longhorn.
The moving crap shoot that is the draft -- regardless of where you're picking -- really makes all of this even more fun.