Are the Phoenix Suns building their team the same way the contenders have built theirs?
Every summer, team rosters undergo a makeover. Contracts expire. Trades occur. Another wave of college players enter the league. Every team undergoes change to what seems like at least 25% of their roster each off season.
The very best teams generally only turn over their bench units, while the worst teams try to turn over their entire roster while keeping their most talented youth in the process.
Thanks to former Assistant GM Bobby Marks' incredible use of twitter, let's compare how the Phoenix Suns have built their current team compared to the rest of the league.
First, here's the roster breakdowns Bobby shared via twitter this morning. We will use these as a starting point.
He starts with the Eastern Conference, then moves to the West.
Working alphabetically by Conference, the first six teams Marks reviewed include several of last year's Eastern Conference playoff teams.
But let's make the delineation of good roster building versus bad roster building, using "could they make the playoffs in the West?" as the line of demarcation.
To me, that would only be Atlanta, Chicago and Cleveland in this first group. The Cavaliers core was begun via the draft (Irving, Thompson) but really didn't produce anything close to winning basketball until LeBron James hopped on a plane to "go home". Everything else is just quick-building a team around LeBron. Only three players remain on that roster from before July 2014.
Atlanta and Chicago built primarily through the draft over a number of years before becoming good. Atlanta started their perennial playoff runs after drafting Al Horford. Until then, the drafting of Josh Smith and trade for Joe Johnson didn't produce anything close to winning basketball.
Chicago has drafted extremely well, getting nearly all of their current core from literally all over the first round of the draft. Mirotic, Butler and Gibson were all late firsts. McDermott, Snell and Portis might join those players in becoming late-round steals (McDermott was acquired via trade, with Chicago using a #16 pick for starters). Rose and Noah were at the core of the Bulls' surge into the playoffs from lotto hell which lasted about a decade after Jordan retired. But Chicago is on the precipice of fading into mediocrity unless Rose comes back to full health. Without him, there is no anchor star to carry the team. Chicago built through the draft, but had to suffer a LOT of losing seasons before hitting on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, who both developed into league MVP-caliber players (2011 and 2014, respectively).
In this group, the only team that could make the top 8 in the West is Miami. They hit big on Dwyane Wade more than a decade ago and rode him, along with trade acquisitions Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal into contention over the years. Then, Pat Riley built his third contender out of Wade and cap space, getting LeBron and Bosh to team up for a Big Three push that worked. Now, he's trying to do it again with Dragic and Bosh.
The others on this list - except the Knicks, of course - are building through the draft, but might never build a team good enough to make the West playoffs unless the supplement properly with trades and free agents. While young teams are exciting to imagine great things from, they rarely deliver 45+ wins annually.
Let's finish the Eastern Conference with one more team that could be a 45+ game winner in the East - the Washington Wizards. They drafted their core - John Wall and Bradley Beal - but never would have become a winner without acquiring Nene and Gortat for their front line. Wall languished in loser land for years before the right veterans were acquired to help him play winning basketball.
Toronto did a lot of good drafting, but again they are a team that didn't make the East playoffs (let alone being good enough to sniff the post season in the West) until they acquired Kyle Lowry via trade to steer the ship.
One comment on Philly - one of these days they will flip that switch and acquire vets to help them win games to supplement their kids. But that still appears to be 2-3 years away, which would make it a half-decade rebuild and still contingent on a dozen things going right over the next 3 years, including getting their kids healthy and re-signing those kids to market-level contracts at the same time they're trying to acquire the veteran winners. That's how protracted this rebuild is.
Now let's turn to the West. This pic above, again going alphabetically, includes two of last year's playoff teams and one hot mess.
Golden State was built methodically over half a decade, starting with the drafting of Stephen Curry in 2009. They've drafted incredibly well since then, as shown in the pic, but really took their big step forward with the acquisitions of Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. Getting a hit on Draymond Green was a huge plus toward their championship, but they became a 50-win team with Curry (draft), Thompson (draft), Bogut (trade) and Iggy (free agent) before that.
After drafting Dirk Nowitzki a thousand years ago, Dallas has been playing with smoke and mirrors every year since. Trades and free agency have produced 50+ wins nearly every time, and even delivered a championship (2011). Phil Jackson and Mitch Kupchak are envious.
The Nuggets have always tried the win-while-developing-youth model, getting as far as the Conference Finals with Carmelo Anthony, then making the playoffs perenially without any All-Stars, before falling on their faces the last couple of years. Their problem recently has been a void of leadership from their core players, and now they're floundering.
Now it's getting interesting.
Houston has used it's draft picks as trade fodder, keeping only a few and not really drafting a core player at any point since Yao Ming. They've followed the Dallas model to a T, even one-upping Cuban by not even needing a drafted core player to build around. Harden (trade) and Howard (free agency) are the core.
The Clippers drafted well, then acquired their difference maker via trade. They made an easy pick of Blake Griffin, even waiting a year while he recovered from injury, to supplement the exciting young Eric Gordon and then hit on DeAndre Jordan in the second round. But Griffin/Gordon/Jordan group really wouldn't have won anything important if they hadn't acquired Chris Paul in that blockbuster trade. None of Griffin/Gordon/Jordan is a spiritual leader that would carry a team. Paul was that guy.
Memphis got a good one in Mike Conley, but that team was built entirely through trades. And they were LUCKY trades at that. They swapped Gasols and somehow ended up with the better one of the two, then made everyone laugh when they acquired Zach Randolph from the Clippers. Neither Marc Gasol nor Zach Randolph were considered core players, but they became just that in Memphis.
The Pelicans are simply a franchise who was in the right place at the right time. They were awful in 2011-12 and got lucky ping pong balls and drafted a guy who might become the best of his entire generation. Everything else on their team is a crapshoot of trades and free agents that might somehow be bad enough to keep Anthony Davis out of the playoffs more often than not. Already, he's entering his fourth season and only squeaked in once when OKC imploded.
Minnesota is on their 5,000th straight season of building through the draft. They've done well on paper (Love, Pekovic, Rubio, etc.) but might have finally gotten their guy Karl-Anthony Towns. Still, imagining them winning 45+ games this season or next is just that - imagining.
And now we get to the payoff.
The Spurs are the Spurs. They tanked a season and got to pair Tim Duncan with David Robinson to form the first core group to win championships. Then they drafted well with later picks to build a new core with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker around Duncan. All the while, they found gems all over the place to keep their un-repeatable model going and going.
OKC is another model that can't really be repeated. They built through the draft just like a dozen other losers have done, as shown on these pics, but only OKC was able to turn that model into a 60-win team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are generational players. Serge Ibaka was a great find in the late first round. But even OKC got it wrong a few times. Jeff Green (#5 pick) has been a journeyman and James Harden (#3 pick) was traded for peanuts. Yet Durant and Westbrook have been able to erase those mistakes as long as they can stay on the floor.
The Trail Blazers built through the draft in fits and starts and largely had good success with it. First, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, then with Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard. Really good draft record, but it didn't produce anything more than second-round exits and now Portland gets to start over again. Building primarily through the draft can work as long as you hit on the right guys, but Portland shows that unless you acquire the right pieces through trades and free agency to supplement those picks, you can't go deep in the playoffs.
The Jazz and Kings have been building differently, but neither has that star player to carry them into the playoffs on a perennial basis. The Kings hope that's DeMarcus Cousins, but he hasn't shown any ability to make his team better. The Jazz are, maybe, hoping that's Rudy Gobert. Let's see more than a half-season of play before calling that one.
What this tells us
What have we learned today, boys and girls?
It tells us if you want a good team, you can't JUST build it through the draft. But it sure helps to find that generational player in the draft first, then build the team through free agency and trades around that guy. The Spurs, Pelicans, Thunder, Clippers, Warriors, Mavericks, Wizards, Hawks and Heat all started with an awesome draft pick that still anchors their team.
You just can't build an entire deep playoffs contender through the draft alone. By definition, the draft only gives you about 2 new players a year. Even if you hit perfectly, it takes a half-decade just to build a rotation. Miss on a few picks and you're stuck in loser land for a decade or more.
Look at those charts above. The teams dedicated to building ONLY through the draft are perennial losers, no matter how high their picks have been.
But the draft can get you that cornerstone player. Most of today's winningest teams have started with that big-time pick.
The Suns don't have that generationally great draft pick. So they're stuck with the Houston and Memphis (and kinda Dallas) models of finding that great talent via the trade and free agency route.
Out of the dozen teams in today's NBA that could make the West playoffs, only two of them (Memphis and Houston) were built without that generationally great draft pick at their core.
What the Suns ARE doing right is supplementing a young core that's proven an ability to win games with a potentially difference-making veteran who have proven he can help a team make the playoffs. Tyson Chandler may never be an All-Star again, but he brings the mentality that all young teams need to get over that hump.
I hope these charts, thanks to Bobby Marks, show you there's no sure model to build a contender. But it does show you the Suns are following the path less traveled. Trying to jump past that "draft a generational talent" step is not a commonly successful plan.
But building "through the draft" is just as, if not more, likely to fail as it is to succeed. It's a game of luck, much much bigger than a few ping pong balls. Some teams get lucky. Most don't.
The Suns are trying the unusual route, like Houston and Memphis have done.
Let's hope they succeed.