The draft, free agency and trades. The triumvirate of roster building. The perfunctory answer of GMs across the league when posed the question, "How are you looking to improve the roster?"
But is it really that simple? Isn't a team's ability to develop their young players of tantamount importance? Top 10 picks still bust with regularity while some teams are resourceful enough to find key components from less heralded prospects. Do these picks bust because they are landing with bad teams... which may suggest that organizational issues may be landsliding right from the top? This may explain why every player selected by the Charlotte Bobcats cringes when his name is called on draft day.
Do teams that overachieve just scout better? That is certainly part of the equation, but I think player development is vital to maximizing roster potential through less obvious routes. For teams not in the sexier markets, who can just plunder teams for already developed players, a nurturing soil that is conducive to help young players realize their potential is a key cog to success.
"How are you looking to improve the roster?" How about coaching up the talent that is already there.
San Antonio Spurs:
The perdurable core: Tim Duncan #1, Tony Parker #28, Manu Ginobili #57
Gary Neal signed as undrafted free agent
Tiago Splitter #28
Danny Green (drafted #46 by the Cleveland Cavaliers where he played 115 minutes before being waived and joining the Spurs where he was waived again before sticking)
Kawhi Leonard (drafted #15 by Indiana Pacers and acquired in draft day trade)
Paul George #10
Lance Stephenson #40
Tyler Hansbrough #13
Danny Granger #11
Roy Hibbert (drafted #17 by Toronto Raptors and traded to Pacers, which is the only team he has ever played for)
Ersan Ilyasova #36
Brandon Jennings #10
Larry Sanders #15
John Henson #14
Judging by the pesky chirping crickets it appears that the Suns have fallen short of creating an environment that fosters positive growth. There has been a change in the culture, but it has been for the worse, which bottomed out as the team sunk to new depths last season. Not only has a somber pall shrouded the team, causing many pundits to predict multiple top five picks for the team in its bleak future, but to be blunt... the young talent on the team pretty much sucks.
P.J. Tucker, basically a 27 year old rookie that the team pulled off the scrap pile, was better than any player on the roster under the age of 26. That was more of a scouting win, though, because it's difficult to make the argument that the Suns "developed" a 27 year old player who came right out of the gate swinging.
Here are the Suns last 12 draft picks (newest to oldest):
- Kendall Marshall
- Markieff Morris
- Gani Lawal
- Dwayne Collins
- Earl Clark
- Taylor Griffin
- Emir Preldzic
- Robin Lopez
- Malik Hairston
- Rudy Fernandez
- Alondo Tucker
- D.J. Strawberry
Robin Lopez is easily the best player on this list that the Suns developed. I would also concede that he's the best player on this list still in the league. The second best player? Rudy Fernandez, who was shipped out to the Portland Trail Blazers, when the Suns were still in the practice of selling draft picks for cash, before returning to Spain three years ago. That's a full roster of "talent" that could very well comprise the worst team fielded in the history of the NBA. Good job Suns.
Now let's shift gears back to the lists of other teams I sampled.
San Antonio Spurs:
I know that a large contingent of Suns' fans despise this team, but the truth of the matter is that they are just flat out better than Phoenix. Sure, having a bona fide franchise player in Tim Duncan gift wrapped to the team helps, but from front office to coaching to scouting to drafting to player development to trades the Spurs have been consistently better than the Suns for the entirety of this century. It's a bitter pill, but it's also the truth.
San Antonio is case study #1. A team that has been able to maintain excellence by adding youth from mid to late first round picks, second round picks and undrafted players. One of the best players on the Spurs in the NBA Finals this season is Danny Green, a player selected 46th overall who was waived twice. Did he just blossom solely on his own sheer determination or did the Spurs coaching nudge him in the right direction?
The Spurs haven't drafted higher than #20 since they picked Tim Duncan #1 overall in 1997. In the 16 years since taking Duncan the Spurs worst single season winning percentage is .610 when they went 50-32. If the Suns want to learn about conbuilding (contending while building) they should ask San Antonio for some pointers.
Case study #2. After enjoying a successful stretch of basketball from 1989/90 to 2005/06 where they made the playoffs 16 times in 17 years, the Pacers entered full on rebuild mode. Interestingly, during that 17 year stretch the Pacers lost five Conference Finals and one NBA Finals... which is exactly the same as the Suns from 1988/89 to 2009/10. The Pacers never bottomed out quite as fabulously as the Suns, but they did win between 32-37 games over a five year period. NBA purgatory.
The Pacers managed to rebuild without going completely subterranean using mostly mid first round picks. While the Suns were busy drafting the likes of Earl Clark, Taylor Griffin and Gani Lawal, the Pacers were building a core by selecting Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Tyler Hansbrough. What's the difference? The Suns weren't unfathomably reaching on their mid firsts, they were picking players in their range on the big boards. Did the Pacers just get really lucky by building a contender by drafting in a nearly identical range to the Suns over the last five seasons?
Did they scout well? I'd say yes. Did they get a little lucky? I'd say luck usually favors the prepared. Did they develop nearly all of a competitive roster because they are strong in that area? Ding, ding, ding.
Case Study #3. The Bucks are another intriguing example to insert in this analysis. The Bucks bottomed out in the mid 2000's and drafted between #1 and #8 four times. The best of the four picks was the oft-injured #1 overall Andrew Bogut, who ended up falling short of his ceiling based on those issues. The other three, T.J. Ford, Yi Jianlian and Joe Alexander, were basically garbage.
Then the Bucks upticked just enough so they could start getting better results from lower draft picks. Milwaukee is still hovering around the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference (meaning they are only marginally better than the Suns), but I'd take their young nucleus over the Suns' counterparts while laughing hysterically.
It is interesting to note that the Bucks swung and missed on high lotto picks before Scott Skiles became the head coach and developed middies during his tenure. Draw your own conclusions.
I think that what I've delineated above is symptomatic of a laundry list of self-defeating behaviors that have permeated the franchise in recent years. Now the Suns have basically blank slated the organization, with a similar roster shake up that will hopefully ensue, in an effort to write a new book instead of just flipping the next page of the horror story that has haunted the fans' dreams.
Surely there is at least some optimism that things will improve with the infusion of fresh faces led by architect Ryan McDonough. The culture needs to change again, but this time the change needs to be improvement. And creating a structure that emphasizes player development is one of the most vital parts of escaping from the dungeon.
So not only do the Suns need to start tilling the land by putting the right coaches in place and creating a positive culture for players to flourish in, but it might not hurt to scatter around some Ryan McMiracle-Gro.