As I watch the NBA playoffs this weekend, I am struck that the 2013-14 season for the Phoenix Suns has everything and nothing to do with the head coach.
The Phoenix Suns are at such a crossroads as a franchise, one year removed from separating themselves from aging stars and three days removed from the most painful of rebuilding seasons for any franchise. Not only are the Suns one of the four worst teams in the NBA, they have a roster devoid of all-star talent - present or future.
The bleak outlook could change quickly if everything lands into place this summer. Not into a contender or even a playoff participant, per se, but at least into a roster with an upside.
Adding a top-4 pick this summer and a young high-end talent in free agency or via trade isn't enough. You need another high-end talent in next summer's draft, maybe two, and voila you've got a roster with upside. Further development from the youth already on the Suns roster would help as well. The losing is much easier to swallow if you can see a better future on the horizon.
The Suns won't turn around this team in one summer. And it's not reasonable to expect that to happen.
"In the NBA, there's nothing overnight," Jared Dudley said when he came in to clean out his locker last Thursday. "These Suns draft picks in the next two years can set up you up for the next four years."
Four years is the length of a rookie contract, where the cost to pay a player can be far less than their on-court value. Of course, if you mess it up then the drought will be much longer than four years.
"We've got to nail it," President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said to arizonasports-620 last week.
Lon Babby knows the franchise direction is different today than it was a year ago. It's not about wins as much as planning heavily for the future.
"The note now is the future and [player] development," he told Doug and Wolf. "And what do we need to do to continue to develop young talent, and what assets can we get whether it's more draft choices or young players."
It's an asset-collection business now. You need the biggest collection of assets you can get, in order to someday take that next step.
"If you look at now how people are getting these other stars," Dudley said. "You've got to have young talent to go trade for those. You can get a [James] Harden type, even though they gave up [veteran Kevin] Martin, they gave up picks. So if you want to get those guys you're gonna have to give up young assets that are talented, that they see potential."
The Phoenix Suns have gathered some assets, but they just aren't enough to beat out a team like Houston yet. Houston had a highly-regarded pair of guys at shooting guard to give back to OKC - veteran Kevin Martin on an expiring deal, and rookie Jeremy Lamb - plus a guaranteed lottery pick via Toronto (slotted at #12 in 2013).
It's possible the Suns could have bettered that offer by parting with both Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat along with picks, but they weren't ready to write off the season at that point.
Clearly, if the Suns had the benefit of foresight they might have come to a different conclusion.
Maybe this year the Suns will make that plunge. Maybe they will trade any and all veterans for the promise of high-end youth, regardless of the win-loss column.
It's time to put the focus on the future, and acquiring picks and youth. Picks and youth come in exchange for veterans and their cap space.
Jared Dudley knows that's the way to go.
"We have some veterans that would be good trade bait for more of a playoff type team," he said.
But this season, he's not lobbying for the return of a key veteran that he tabbed as one shining light on a dark season.
"Listen, that's a tough question," Gortat replied, when I asked if he wanted O'Neal back next season. "I love him as a brother, as a player. He's a great great wonderful person.
"But for the organization, we need a lot of young guys. We need to go in the direction of rebuilding the team. I wish to have him but is it going to be good for our organization? I don't know. Two of the best things that happened to me this season was Jermaine O'Neal and Ralph Sampson."
With an upcoming season promising an injection of youth, and a focus on player development over wins, does it even matter who the coach is?
Yes, in a way.
The Suns don't need a veteran, battle-tested playoff coach. They need a younger guy who will hold these AAU graduates accountable, who will teach them the right way to prepare for and play every night the same as the night before. 100% effort 100% of the time.
Is that Lindsey Hunter? Maybe, maybe not.
I still think the bigger issue is the player evaluation staff. The guys who have to "nail it" this summer and next to re-set the trajectory of the franchise in an upward direction.
Maybe that's why the coaching decision is taking so long. By now they know if Hunter is their man or not. Maybe it's more about the rest of the front office than we are being led to believe.
For the past five years the Nike Hoops Summit has been in Portland Oregon thanks to the backing of Nike, USA Basketball, and the Portland Trail Blazers. It is the best opportunity for NBA decision-makers to get a peek at the top high school talent for the next draft and more importantly a look at some of the top international talents in this years draft.
With practices open to the media and NBA executives this is a premiere event. Steve Kerr referred to this event as one he would circle on his calendar when he was running the Phoenix Suns a few years ago. The talent level is typically off the charts here and this year has been no exception.
Check out the game tonight at 4 p.m. Arizona Time on ESPN2 to see a potential future Suns player and the best talent for next years loaded draft class.
Here is a full preview I did with notes from practice and observations.
The Suns are right now slotted No. 4, No. 30, and No. 57 in the 2013 NBA Draft and have a lot of reason to be out here in Portland to scout the international prospects and future college talent. Going off the Top 75 Big Board at NBA Draft Insider there are three international prospects that have the potential to be drafted this year.
Lance Blanks has not arrived here for any of the practices and scout Jon Treloar was in attendance for one of the international prospects I attended on Tuesday,
Editors Note: After speaking a Suns representative they have four total scouts in Portland observing the Nike Hoops Summit.
Russian wing Sergey Karasev (No. 13) is a dead-eye shooter that has truly blossomed over the past year and a half into a lottery type talent. He has been impressive this week matching up with Andrew Wiggins in practice being tested with his athleticism and talent.
His range at this point is between 10-20 in the upcoming draft, slightly out of the range of the Suns and they are likely going to be too high in the lottery to consider him there. Karasev would be a nice addition with the 30th pick if he slides.
Jaiteh is a French big man that lacks explosion, but is a physical presence at 6-11 249 lbs. with a 7-4 wingspan. He is not a great offensive player lacking touch around the basket, but has potential on the defensive end at the four or the five.
There is no question that Schroder has been the most impressive prospect on the international roster improving his stock to the point where he declared for the draft a few practices in. He didn't even wait for the game.
Schroder has been terrific with his length (6-7.25 wingspan), athleticism, size (6-2 168 lbs), and ability to get into the paint seemingly at will. The German point guard is lightning quick and can get around his man with ease finishing plays with flash and style. He has been throwing ally-oops and all over the court.
The flair Schroder plays with comes from being a skater kid that got noticed by a coach in Germany while playing pick-up hoops in a park. He is that good of an athlete.
Nearly every team had their General Manager at practice including Danny Ainge (Boston), R.C. Buford (San Antonio), Masai Ujiri (Denver), Darryl Morey (Houston), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), and many more. Each team had general representatives from scouts, assistant general managers, and etc.
Is there a need to wonder why those specific teams are consistently good?
Again, make sure you check out the game is tonight at 4 p.m. local time on ESPN2.