The Suns 2013-14 campaign was such an unexpected success that it was going to be hard to duplicate. Instead of building on the momentum from that season, though, it's hard to argue that the team didn't take a step back.
It's difficult to grade the actions of a front office in a one year vacuum because many of these moves take years to evaluate.
While many of the individual moves which will be examined below are still evolving, the overall picture is a pretty clear snapshot. This was not a good season and the missteps of the front office contributed directly to the disappointing results.
Rather than embarking on a one man castigation, though, I have enlisted the aid of other Brightside writers to give a more diverse view of where things went awry.
Drafted T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis and Bogdan Bogdanovic
Kellan Olson: From my view of it the Suns clear objective was to take the best
asset player available. T.J. Warren went 14 with P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris already at small forward. Tyler Ennis went at 18 with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe at the 1 and it didn't stop them from signing Isaiah Thomas. It was pretty clear coming up to the draft that the Suns were looking overseas at 27 and our future savior Bogdan Bogdanovic was the BPA in terms of international players. So how do the selections look a year later?
T.J. Warren shot 53% in a role off the bench that came later in the season and it looks like he has a chance as a defender despite what some -- including myself -- thought of him in that regard last summer. I thought he was going to be available at 18, which is why I wasn't so kind to the Suns with my own draft grade, but it looks like the Suns were right in not risking him being drafted at 15-17. In this BPA/asset collection strategy the Suns now have a logjam at the 3 unless they want to play Tucker out of position at the 2.
That asset mentality was even more clear to see when Ennis was involved in the Brandon Knight trade. I love Ennis and thought he was ready to be the backup point guard for this team, but alas he has gone to Milwaukee and is probably going to become great under the tutelage of Jason Kidd. This puts a wrap on the one major blemish on McDonough's track record as a GM; the Marcin Gortat trade.
In case you are new here the running joke is that Bogdanovic is going to be the savior of this franchise. The mistake you can make with this is not taking his game seriously. Bogdanovic has further solidified his selection over in Turkey during his season at Fenerbahce, helping them to their first Final Four in the EuroLeague. It's important to note that Bogdanovic has been a role player over there, averaging a line of 11/3/3 with 44/36/78 shooting numbers. There's still a vacancy at the two-guard position and Bogdanovic will be a great addition to the team on the wing (hopefully) in 2016.
The draft is a winner alone for the selection of Warren, who looks to be one of the ten best players from the draft based on this season's results. The Ennis selection pushed through the deal the Suns were searching for all season so there's no way to call that a loss either. At the very least Bogdanovic will provide a veteran presence on the wing and at the very most he will win nineteen straight MVP's.
The legend of Ish Smith
Jim Coughenour: Let me preface this by making it clear that Ish Smith is not a very good basketball player. Last year the pride of Brightside, our own inimitable Scott Howard, used Smith's report card article to detail Ish's historically poor three point shooting.
Despite the facetious ribbing, Scott ended up giving Smith the highest praise he could - a grade of crocodile. The majority of comments in that post agreed wholeheartedly. What were the reasons for Smith's plaudits?
He was a great locker room guy, brought nonstop energy and was desperate to improve just to have a chance to continue to play in the NBA. He was coachable. He was likable. Every team needs an Ish Smith.
While the 2014-15 Suns may not have needed "the" Ish Smith... they needed "an" Ish Smith. His absence ended up being another contributing factor to the erosion of team chemistry. I think this was another less salient example of the Suns undervaluing leadership and the hierarchy in the locker room.
Bye bye to the Frye Guy
Dave King: When I saw Frye had signed up for $32 million over 4 years with Orlando, I was glad the Suns didn't match the offer. Remember, I'm the one who wanted Frye re-signed but at a more reasonable number of $15 million or so over three years. THIRTY-TWO MILLION?!? This was the Frye who had been a non-factor the entire second half of the season and whose backup had better stats on fewer minutes.
The problem was that the Suns didn't make any moves to replace either his unique skill set - drawing the opponent's big man out of the paint, either to no-man's land on D or to the bench - or his quiet maturity and leadership-by-example. Frye isn't an outspoken leader. Last year, Hornacek often said Tucker was more of a leader than Frye. But Frye brought a professionalism and maturity to the team in a starting role that just wasn't replaced.
Another problem was that Frye and Dragic are better together than apart. They complete each other. Both had their best seasons when they played together (2009-10 and 2013-14). Sure, each was effective without the other, but neither was quite as "wow!" without the other either. Together, they were the team's best tandem.
And that bond helped in the locker room. There's a cultural difference between Dragic, a soft-spoken Slovenian, and the brash Americans on the rest of the roster. They liked each other, a lot, but didn't have a natural connection off the court. Frye helped bridge that gap in 2013-14, so he was missed in 2014-15. By 2014-15, Dragic had his brother, Zoran, a wife and child. He didn't need the off-court friendship of a team that wouldn't come easily anyway, and I think that helped Dragic make the emotional separation from the situation and franchise. That's just my opinion though, and I could be totally wrong on that.
"Traded" for Isaiah Thomas
Dave King: On the surface, many predicted this move would blow up in the Suns' faces. I remember sitting in traffic on the I-10, listening to Gambo drone on and on about the awful decision to sign another point guard. He knew the Suns wanted to keep Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic and just didn't like the extra layer, predicting an untenable rotation.
For my part, the Dragon's year-long bout with ankle issues and decade of non-stop basketball coupled with Bledsoe's chronic injuries made the signing of Thomas a quality move, as long as other moves were made as well to shore up the roster. In a vacuum, having a starting quality point guard coming off the bench behind an injury-prone lineup was a smart addition. Plus, Bledsoe's contract was still up in the air and Dragic's was a year away, so why not have a ready replacement in the wings in case one bolts or gets injured?
Of course, Gambo was right. The situation was untenable. Dragic was offended. Bledsoe held out longer than anyone thought. And even Thomas had begun questioning his own decision by Media Day. Making matters worse, the Suns made no other personnel improvements so the PG3 group was the key to the season.
I give McDonough credit for being fearless, for bringing in Plan B at the same time he kept Plan A on the burners. The problem was that Plan A didn't like the presence of Plan B, and a rookie GM like McDonough didn't see it coming.
The Bled-Soap Opera
Ray Hrovat: Trading a mere Jared Dudley and a second round pick to the Clippers in exchange for above average starter, and quality all-around player Eric Bledsoe was viewed as a stroke of genius by the Suns' bright, new GM Ryan McDonough in the summer of 2013. From a basketball perspective, it was. But one of the reasons the Clippers were willing to deal their talented, young PG was that he was entering restricted free agency in the summer of 2014. He wasn't worth enough to the Clippers for them to pay him what he'd demand, so trading him was the only logical choice.
To make matters worse for the team acquiring him, Bledsoe's agent is
thirsty bloodsucker LeBron James' agent Rich Paul, aggressive and empowered due to his association with basketball's best player. These negotiations figured to be difficult, and the Suns quickly found out just how difficult they'd be when a 4 year/$48M offer was promptly rejected by Camp Bledsoe. That offer seemed fair for a player who had only started the equivalent of about one season's worth of NBA games; it matched the contract signed by comparable player Kyle Lowry at the start of free agency in July. But, no dice, said Paul and Bled. Then the war of attrition started
Nearly three months passed, and ill-advised words were spoken by each side in the media before the Suns finally upped their offer to 5 years/$70M. The total was $22M more than the Suns original offer, but only $2M/year more due to the extra year. Bledsoe agreed, and the contract was finalized in late September, in time for training camp and preseason. Whether it's a good contract is something we'll argue here for the next four years, and maybe beyond.
While the protracted negotiations were ongoing, they seemed like a big deal. Does Bledsoe want to play in Phoenix? Are the Suns going to trade him? Will they be forced to overpay him? In the end, it was mostly inconsequential. Maybe the Suns could have budged sooner, maybe Bled and his team could have been more cooperative, but mostly it reminded me of the old quote: "It's just business, nothing personal."
Not a glowing moment for either the Suns organization or Bledsoe, but no real harm done. The contract might be a little high, or may prove to be a great value, but it's not out of line either way.
Doubling up on the twins
Ray: In a unique move demonstrating how much all parties wanted to keep the Morris twins together, the Suns offered them $52M over four years, and told them to divvy it up as they saw fit. Markieff ended up with $8M/year and Marcus $5M/year. The duo enjoyed a productive season, with Markieff proving he's a capable, if unspectacular, starting PF, and Marcus delivering scoring pop off the bench.
However, all of that was overshadowed by a series of unsavory acts by the twins, including excessive technical fouls, Marcus going ballistic on Jeff Hornacek on the sideline during a game, Markieff foolishly criticizing Suns fans for their perceived indifference and then, for the coup de grace, twin felony aggravated assault charges. It was bad enough that the warm glow of last season crashed and burned in a 39 win ball of flames this year. Did we really have to see players behave like jackasses to boot? Unfortunately, yes, we dd.
If there is a problem with the Suns' culture (and I say that there is), the Morris twins are at the core of it. They're pretty good players. Not great, but solid contributors. As such, are they really worth all the foolishness? Probably not, so what does that say of the move to put rings on their twin fingers and commit to them? The outlook isn't good right now, but the best option is probably to ride it out, keep them, and hope they've learned some lessons from this season. Also, we should probably hope they aren't convicted of felonies because that would be bad.
The brevity of Anthony Tolliver
Rollin J. Mason: To say that Tolliver was a shrewd attempt to replicate or at least emulate the effect of Channing Frye, as is often said, isn't accurate. What made Frye's impact so palpable was his high screen action that sprung the guards loose in the center driving lanes, the most deadly place for a ball-handler to operate from.
For whatever reason, they didn't even attempt to put Tolliver in this role, opting instead to spot him up innocuously on the wing. He shot the three well at 38.7%, but never got into a groove with his teammates and didn't help his case much on the boards or on defense. The Suns quickly severed ties in a presumed effort to thin out the rotation, which was necessary at the time, but Tolliver was a key reserve for a resurgent Pistons team after the trade and one can't help but wonder why he was deemed unnecessary so quickly, given the fact that he (in theory) could have mended three weaknesses that plagued the Suns all season -- perimeter shooting, productive minutes at the backup PF spot, and affability with the media and public.
11.2 minutes per game over 24 games is hardly enough time to gauge a player's fit, and I always found it puzzling that the minutes he did get on the floor were usually sans Goran Dragic, who throughout his career has played extremely well with a spaced floor at his disposal.
Tolliver's time with the Suns will probably be an obscure enough tenure to end up in a Scott Howard article someday, but it seems like he could have been particularly useful to the shooting-starved Suns as the season slowly deteriorated.
The Wright move?
JC: On the surface, the trade for Brandan Wright appeared to be a big win. When the Suns made the move on January 9th the team was 22-17, 2.5 games up on the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Wright was ostensibly brought in to bulwark the team's front line for a run at the playoffs.
Wright did his part, but the team's playoff aspirations fizzled. Now Brandan is an unrestricted free agent in control of his own destiny. Wright is an excellent backup big, but what will his price tag be with the cap explosion looming on the horizon?
The worst case scenario that can play out is Wright leaving in free agency and the Minnesota Timberwolves somehow improving enough to convey the top 12 protected pick the Suns traded to the Boston Celtics. After next season that pick turns into a pair of second round pumpkins.
Still, it's hard to find too much fault with the Suns making a low risk move in an effort to propel the team into the playoffs.
Bullish on Bullock
Ray: I didn't understand this move then, and still don't now. It wasn't much of a negative because all the Suns gave up to get a look-see at Reggie Bullock was Shavlik Randolph, but Bullock predictably spent most of his time shining the pine with his glutes due to the Suns glut of wing players.
Oh, and also, Bullock isn't very good at basketball, at least at the NBA level. He projects as a 3 and D player, but so far hasn't shown anything special in either area: a career 31% 3-point shooter with a 107 D-Rating. He just completed his second season, and is 24 years old, so there's still potential upside. The Suns have him under contract for this coming season at a small $1.3M salary but, given what he's shown and the roster composition, I have a hard time believing he'll make any real contribution.
Turn over every rock looking for talent, I suppose. There's a reason the Clippers gave up on this player, though.
A Dragon debacle
DK: Just a couple comments on this. When Dragic surprised the team with a stance that he wouldn't be re-signing with the Suns in the summer so they might as well trade him, many of us villified the kid, including me. I didn't like the timing or the delivery, and the Suns were put in an awful position.
But let's give a bit of credit to Dragic for giving the Suns a heads up. You might not like 2018 and 2021 draft picks for him, but that's better than nothing at all. And when Dragic left in July, that's exactly what would have happened. So getting two future #1s with minimal protection for an expiring contract is pretty good in today's league.
RJM: 48 hours does not a "heads up" make. [delete if necessary]
JC: This has already been discussed ad nauseam, so I won't dwell on it much further, but this carnival of the absurd was probably the defining moment of the season. The two point guard system, at least with this set of point guards, just didn't work because the human element was incompatible with the basketball philosophy. Since the system was the crux of the strategy for the season, and it failed... I think the front office should bear the responsibility for the failure.
Here are a few links to Brightside article's on the theatrics...
Point. Click. Laugh. Cry.
A Barron cupboard and McNeal before Zod
JC: If I told you last October that Earl Barron would play in 16 games for the Suns after the 2015 All-Star break you probably wouldn't have believed me. If you accepted it as truth, you would have known something was going to go terribly wrong.
If I told you last October that Jerel McNeal would be on the Suns active roster in the final game of the season you would have said... who the hell is Jerel McNeal?
Nothing against these guys, they didn't sign themselves, but why is a rebuilding team giving minutes to a 27 year old rookie point guard and a 33 year old journeyman center? The Suns struggled to find time for their younger players this season, then, when the season was lost, didn't have young players to give minutes to. Yes, Alex Len's injury played a role in this, but so did dealing rookie Tyler Ennis after the briefest of stints as a Sun.
Reviewing the perspectives above...
1. Warren flashed enough potential to seem like a solid draft pick.
2. Not re-signing Frye was probably a good idea, but not replacing his locker room role was a mistake. Losing Ish's presence there probably further contributed to the deterioration of chemistry.
3. The IT move was a calculated gamble that failed spectacularly.
4. The Bledsoe contract situation was bad press for both sides, but ultimately resulted in a contract that will end up being relatively fair.
5. The contract structure for the Morris twins showed ingenuity on behalf of the front office, but looks questionable at this point... not because of basketball reasons, but because the twins are knuckleheads.
6. The Suns ushered players in and out of the roster (e.g. Tolliver, Randolph, Ennis) and ended up playing Earl Barron, who has signed more 10-day contracts than any other player in NBA history, late in the season.
7. The Suns and Dragic had an ugly divorce. While opinions on the drama and trade will vary greatly, it seems fair to assume the future success of Brandon Knight will be closely scrutinized.
8. The Suns assembled a roster that was immiscible, and intangible elements doomed the season. Moreover, the front office assembled a cast of characters that lacked leadership, discipline and accountability, ultimately exuding the impression that the inmates were running the asylum.
The Grade: D+
This may seem a bit harsh to some people, but if a C is average... I think the front office had a below average season. There were some bright spots, and the Suns aren't in a hopeless situation moving forward, but in the 12 months from April 2014 to April 2015 the team took a step back. It just did.
The front office report card doesn't just include Ryan McDonough, either.
Lon Babby is closing in on the completion of his fifth full season with the team, his arrival in July of 2010 came just after the Suns last postseason appearance. The entire Babby era has been bereft of a single playoff game. Lon doesn't claim to be a talent evaluator, actually he has explicitly stated he isn't, but as the President of Basketball Operations he was most certainly involved in the very public nature of the Bledsoe contract negotiations. Was he ultimately the architect of a fair contract? Maybe. Was it an unseemly process? Certainly.
Babby is also the resident capologist for a team that will be capped out just to bring back the band of misfits that stumbled to a 39-43 record last season. It would probably be better for a team in a protracted rebuild to have a little bit more cap flexibility.
Then there's the owner, Robert Sarver. The rhetoric of him being cheap is trite and misplaced, but ultimately accountability goes to the top and the Suns are mired in the longest playoff drought in franchise history. Circumstances and excuses aside, Robert needs to do better in terms of supplying a more competitive and watchable product to the team's fans. Period.
In the end, the A+ from last season combined with this year's D+ puts the current regime at about a B or B- over the last two report cards. I'll take the B-, I think that sounds about right.