Many fans and national pundits have accurately characterized the Phoenix Suns as sliding backward in recent years.
After reaching the Western Conference Finals in consecutive seasons (2005 and 2006) with a young team on the rise led by league MVP Steve Nash each season, the Phoenix Suns didn't know it at the time but they'd already reached their precipice. The next three seasons were spent clinging to that echelon with varying degrees of success.
Injury and circumstance contributed to their lack of progress from that point forward but in hindsight it was clear that, once they failed to climb any higher in 2007, it was "like sands in the hourglass" watching the on-court product regress. Sure, the Suns front office contributed heavily to the decline by not acquiring new talent, but most moves made in isolation were defensible. It's the totality of the moves, factoring in the subsequent decline of the on-court product, that was staggering to fans.
The Suns dropped even further from their precipice after 2010, missing the playoffs entirely in the last two seasons. They struggled mightily with the notion of staying competitive with their most loyal remaining stars while also figuring out a way to make a real difference without relying on luck.
In the summer of 2010, the Suns spent their cap room to try to replace the departed Amare Stoudemire with multiple mid-level players to add depth to the team. That tactic failed miserably. What they got was a mismatched roster, years without cap flexibility and uninspiring draft slots.
In the hurry-up offseason of 2011, the Suns decided to apply band-aids and wait patiently for 2012. It's important to remember that "year 2" of the current front office's regime was 99% lockout vs. 1% free agency. Whether the band-aid tactic failed or not is still up for debate.
Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby will tell you it was successful, despite resulting in a .500 record, a 10th-place finish in a 14-team conference, and another middling draft pick (3rd-string PG Kendall Marshall) in 2012. Suns fans will tell you it was quite painful, and still others would use the word dreadful.
"It took us two years to get the flexibility we had this summer," Babby said at the 2012 Media Day. "We did it in a way where we'll maintain flexibility this season if something comes our way, and we'll have flexibility next summer. All you want to do is be in a position to seize opportunities."
Many Suns fans wonder why that opportunity and keeping Steve Nash were mutually exclusive. Why not add another star to pair with Nash and go for the ring? The organization believes strongly that, to contend or to go "all in", the Suns at the very least needed to acquire a second starting-quality point guard to the roster, even before adding to other positions.
"It was a question of math," Babby says. Investing $10-12 million per year in Nash plus half that on a starting-quality backup would have made other moves near impossible.
The Suns with Steve Nash were heavily point guard centric, as opposed to other teams who can make the Finals with journeymen at the helm (Derek Fisher and Mario Chalmers, for example). A Suns offense with Nash was never going to vary its offensive sets, such as making the point guard a corner spot-up shooter. Maybe in LA, that can happen. But not here. But not in Phoenix.
Lon Babby did what he was primarily hired to do (in my opinion). He let Steve Nash go. He did it with professionalism and class. No back-biting. No character-assassination. No parting shots as he gently showed Nash the door. Many Suns fans hated the move, but most would agree that it had to be done at some point soon.
And now, what's done is done. Where do the Suns go from here to find their next superstar?
"You have to keep looking," Babby says. "You don't know where it's going to come from, whether it be a trade, a draft choice, you just don't know. You have to keep looking. That's a challenge because the thing is set up that the easiest path, and I think the laziest path, is to stink."
Ah yes, the stink route. For one thing, that route was not happening with Steve Nash on board. With Nash, the Suns were mildly competitive at worst. He was too good to lose many games, yet not good enough on his own to carry a team all the way to the playoffs.
Should the Suns have traded Nash years ago, when Stoudemire left? That's easy to suggest, but the reality of today's NBA is that no team is going to surrender big assets for a 38-year old point guard with a back history. That the Suns got even two low first-round picks for him this summer was a pleasant surprise.
Letting Steve Nash go, along with Stoudemire in 2010 would have been a decision to lose on purpose.
"What do you want us to do?" Babby asked, on the prospect of tanking. "Do you want us to be bad so we can get good? Are you willing to live through two, three, four seasons? Everybody's conflicted. It's conflicted if you end up with Durant. You're not conflicted if you end up with Oden. And the torture of going through it. We just have to figure out a better way."
He didn't stop there. Let's just say that tanking is an ugly word to Lon Babby.
"How do you go to work every day and how do you lead a group of people both in an organization and players playing to make their living when either the conscious message or the subliminal message is ‘We want to lose'? I don't know how to do that. So does that condemn us to purgatory for longer? I hope not. Could you come to work every day if you thought your boss was trying to be bad? How long does that take and how many front offices use it as an excuse?"
On the question of how many front offices use it as an excuse, just in the decade of the 2000s we can look to the LA Clippers, Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City/Seattle, Brooklyn Nets and now the Orlando Magic as examples of teams who decided that losing a lot of games for higher draft picks would be a good thing.
Of those teams listed, only a third of them have pulled themselves out of the muck and mire (Miami, OKC, Memphis, LAC) to contend again. And yet those "winners" sucked for more than 30 years combined before doing it. And those are the "winners" of this tactic! It's possible that the Brooklyn Nets will join those four as "winners", but if you include them the number of years of suck rises into the 40s.
So instead of stinking, the Suns suffered through two seasons of contending for, but falling short of, the playoffs. Each year, Suns fans were able to scoreboard watch all the way until the end of the regular season. Each year, Suns fans could root for a team that played better in the second half than the first, showing us they deserved to make the playoffs as much as any other bubble team.
Then we finally entered the summer of 2012. The Suns were set up with one middling draft pick (#13 overall) and nearly $20 million in cap space that ballooned to more than $25 million after using then amnesty clause on SF Josh Childress. All but six rotation players were free agents.
As discussed above, the Suns decided to use that money to replace nearly every free agent with someone new (the lone exception being Shannon Brown).
"There's no one on this team now that we didn't choose to have on this team," Babby said, in a telling statement.
True enough. Every single player on the current roster was signed or acquired via trade by Babby, including lone holdover Jared Dudley who was given a 5-year extension in the fall of 2010.
But are they any better than the team that finished 10th in the West the past two seasons? The Suns shooed 2012 all-star, and former 2-time MVP, Steve Nash out the door along with their best perimeter defender Grant Hill. Those two combined to give the Suns leadership the past two seasons that helped the team improve throughout the season.
Yet those two were both in their late 30s and both showed wear and tear at the end of each season, just when the Suns needed them at the top of their game to make the playoffs. As Babby repeats in a sage analogy, "It was like watching the sands in the hourglass." There was a lot more sand at the bottom than at the top, he said.
"Now, we've turned it over," he continued. "We don't know what that means yet in terms of wins, but no question we are more talented now than we were a year ago."
More talented? In terms current career trajectory and future potential, I have to agree.
Goran Dragic showed us on Friday night against the Trailblazers that the spring of 2012 was no abberation. He has elevated his game to clear starting-quality status, and maybe even all-star consideration. He can see the floor, push the pace, score in a variety of ways, draw (bait) the defense and find the open man. He can play defense, and even rebound a little too.
Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson have more current talent and future potential than Hill and Childress. That does not mean either player will produce at a higher rate in 2012-13 than the other two would have. We don't know that yet. But we do know they can produce, as they've shown in the first two preseason games.
And while they don't have future potential, Scola and O'Neal should be collectively more productive this season than Warrick and Lopez would have been for the Suns.
But best of all, no matter what happens this season the Suns have options. Next summer, they once again have a boatload of cap space available (up to $15 million), while only sacrificing the services of Johnson to get there. In addition, they have potentially three first-round draft picks in 2013 and a total of six first-rounders in the next three seasons to add to the young core.
If we Suns fans are lucky, this new team will catch fire and contend for a playoff seed this season. Certainly, if Friday night's offense shows up and the defense improves under the tutelage of Elston Turner, the Suns can surprise some people.
If we Suns fans are lucky, the front office won't have to do a complete "reboot" on the roster next summer. Instead, they can spend their cap space and draft picks to supplement an exciting young core.
But even if the bottom drops out, Suns fans might consider themselves lucky as well. With the entire front office and coaching staff on the final year of their contracts, owner Robert Sarver really can hit the "reboot" button next summer. He can bring a whole new cadre of front office people and coaches if he wants, and the next group doesn't even have to swallow the poison pill of ousting TwoTime.
Either way, the Sun is Brighter now than it was a year ago.