No game this season has left me with an emptier feeling about this team, and I love the Phoenix Suns with a passion.
Over the course of this season, my first with media access to the team, has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I love this team, and now I get to talk to them and write about what I've seen first-hand without just taking someone else's word for it.
But I've never really followed a Suns team just going through the motions to finish the season.
Now, I can say I am watching that happen right now.
It baffles me, though. These are NBA players who, purportedly, have poured their entire lives into this sport. How can you just mail it in so often? And so dramatically?
How can you feel so entitled to your salary?
How can you conclude that the millions of dollars in your pocket deserve anything less than 100% of your effort for SIX OR EIGHT HOURS A WEEK!!
The other guys who play hard every game -- Jermaine O'Neal and Jared Dudley -- were out tonight, making it even more obvious just who isn't cutting it.
Not to say some of the other guys didn't try - Haddadi put out effort, as did Shannon Brown and Wesley Johnson - but they seemed to have no idea where to put that effort into good use.
As much as we want to blame the coach, and the front office, we also need to blame the PLAYERS. They are the ones not giving their 100% effort every single minute on the court.
The Suns lost by 30 tonight. And it wasn't even close at any point in the game.
For the third time this season, the Phoenix Suns take on the Wolves in a matchup that has more to do with lottery balls and late-season pride than anything else.
The Wolves entered the season with dreams of the playoffs in their heads, but ended up right back where they've been
for eons since they traded Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007.
This time, a major injury to Kevin Love played the biggest part in the Wolves inability to sniff the playoff picture. The team began the season with a bang (and even without Love) at 16-15, only to fall completely apart to the tune of a worse-than-the-Suns 7-28 since then.
Love is still not back, though Ricky Rubio is getting stronger and stronger by the month even though he still can't hit his jumper consistently. Head coach Rick Adelman has missed a lot of time this season with an ill wife, and the Wolves have endured a handful of other major injuries to mess with their rotation.
The last matchup, in Phoenix, was one of the worst overtime basketball games I've ever witnessed. The Suns eventually won 84-83 after 53 minutes of play, outscoring the Wolves 7-6 in the overtime period.
It was a breakout game for former Timberwolf Wesley Johnson: 14 points (on 7-14 shooting), 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Since this game on February 26, Johnson has been a rotation regular and one of the few bright spots on the season.
Conversely, another former Wolf - Michael Beasley - had a terrible game with 4 points, 4 assists and 2 rebounds in only 13 uninspired minutes.
Minnesota has lost 17 of their last 18 on the road, so don't be surprised if the Suns pull out another win.
Each game, it seems the Suns' Goran Dragic must face another elite point guard. So far, Dragic has faired well in just about every PF matchup this season including last time against Rubio.
In the last game, Rubio finished with only 5 points, 10 assists and 4 steals (but 6 turnovers to boot). Dragic had 10 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds (with 3 turnovers). It was a wash.
You thought I was going to say the Suns right? Wrong.
It's the Wolves who are worst in the NBA, though they have recently returned Chase Budinger to their lineup after missing all but 6 games this season. On the season, the Wolves have hit only 29.4% of their three-pointers and have been even worse on the road.
Budinger can hit the outside shot, but he needs to share his minutes with Andre Kirilenko and is still getting into game shape.
Certainly, starting center Marcin Gortat is out. Possibly, Jermaine O'Neal (calf strain) is out as well.
That leaves Hamed Haddadi to man the pivot with PFs Markieff Morris and Luis Scola backing him up. Scola has done well against bigger centers this season by annoying them on defense and pulling them out of the paint on offense. Maybe he will do that to Pekovic tonight.
As the season progressed, the Suns went from hoping for the Wolves' first-round pick (if they made the playoffs) to hoping to fend off the Wolves for a higher pick overall.
Both teams have 23 wins on the season, though the Wolves have done it in 3 fewer games.
Just like Wednesday's game, the Suns are fighting for lotto position while also fighting for inspired play that can portend well for next season.
Let me start by saying this as clearly as I possibly can: The NBA Draft is hard. No team gets it right all the time. There's no such thing as "perfection" when it comes to selecting young prospects. At the same time, Lon Babby believes that good scouting makes a difference. Outcomes from the draft aren't completely random, even if there is some degree of luck involved when it comes to which 20-year-olds turn into good NBA players and which don't.
The purpose of this story isn't to embarrass the current front office who is responsible for the last two year's picks or their predecessors who own the prior three. By looking at the last five year's of Suns' draft history, we are simply laying out the facts of what happened so maybe we'll find some trends, common mistakes, or just to better understand how these things work.
We begin in 2008.
Goran Dragic Home Run
By any possible standard of draft evaluation, Kerr was spot-on with Dragic. At the time, he said that Goran was the second-best point guard in the draft behind only Derrick Rose. In retrospect, he would have been 100 percent correct if not for Russell Westbrook, who was considered at the time to be a raw "tweener" lacking pure point instincts...which has proven to be pretty accurate.
Regardless, going hard after a fairly unknown kid from Slovenia in the second round and having him turn out to be the best point guard behind an MVP and an All-Star is a win.
Kerr used the 15th-overall pick on Robin Lopez. Anyone who's followed my ramblings for the last five years will understand my oversized love for Robin Lopez. I STILL think he's got the potential to be a late-bloomer (like a Tyson Chandler) and prove Kerr right when he said Robin was the better twin. (Stop laughing now please.) I also think we can't discount the devastating impact of the back injury in March 2010 that set him back two years and perhaps more.
But let's not argue about Robin's history or future. Let's look at who Kerr skipped to take Lopez.
The obvious answer is Roy Hibbert.
Kerr was looking for a mobile big who could protect the rim. Hibbert, at the time, was considered more of an offensive player with suspect ability to defend the perimeter and hence, the pick and roll. Robin (pre-injury) was more athletic and tenacious as a defender away from the paint but still brought the size and mentality to mix it up down low.
It's easy to say now that Kerr should have taken Roy over Robin, but factoring in the injury, I don't see this one as a total whiff.
Since the Suns were trying to fill a need at the center position and had Amare and Grant Hill on the roster, it would have been difficult to take a power forward or wing. You can argue about McGee over Lopez if you want, just don't expect me to ever agree despite plays like this (and because of many plays like this).
As for the other guys, I'll just repeat that you won't find any draft that doesn't have examples of players over and under performing their draft slot. That means there's ALWAYS going to be both good AND bad examples.
The Suns mostly got "B" grades from the draft "experts". Some liked the Lopez pick but panned the Dragic selection:
ESPN Draft grades: Evaluating every team - Chad Ford
B. When the moment of truth came, Phoenix took the guy who might have been the best player available. Lopez could become an Anderson Varejao-type defensive presence. I do like Dragic at No. 42 as a guy who could eventually find his way here to play an important role on a team.
DraftExpress: 2008 NBA Draft Report Card
D. (Robin Lopez) has the potential to be a solid backup, which, considering his size and energy level, makes him a reasonable pick at 15. The Suns will of course hope he can develop into a bit more. What is surprising, though, is the way they handled themselves in the second round.
2008 NBA Draft Grades | NBADraft.net
B. Robin is clearly the more mobile of the two (brothers), and there are some that feel he could ultimately end up the better pro.
This draft was very interesting with Kerr taking Clark 14th. At the time, he acknowledged the high-risk, high-reward nature of the talented but complicated Louisville forward. Clark was widely (and rightly) considered to have top-five talent but had questions about his focus and toughness (which turned out not to be his problem).
The Suns also took Taylor Griffin (48th) and Emir Preldži?lm (57th) in the second round. Taylor Griffin was always going to max out as a hard-working practice player and that other guy was sold to Cleveland and has never been heard of since.
You might recall some (extensive) discussion about the relative merits of Clark vs James Johnson. That turned out to matter little. Personally, I was on the Ty Lawson bandwagon at the time (look it up). But the real gem turns out to be Jrue Holiday.
The Suns, to their credit, liked Holiday but reportedly went with the dynamic wing defender in Clark since they saw Dragic as the POINT GUARD OF THE FUTURE. Incidentally, the future is here and Dragic is the point guard.
I suppose we could now delve into an extensive comparative analysis of Dragic, Lawson and Holiday. But that's really missing the point, which is the idea of a team with Steve Nash AND Goran Dragic using a late lottery pick on another point guard. Kaaaaaaaahn!
With the power of hindsight, you'd obviously do it and figure out how to leverage the assets later. But at the time, Kerr's decision made sense.
UPDATE: I entirely forgot about the deal the Suns had in place to trade for Steph Curry. When they picked Clark, they thought their backcourt was going to be Dragic and Curry which makes passing on Lawson and Holiday even more defensible. The Warriors backed out of their handshake deal later that night.
Here's guys Kerr passed over in 2009:
Kerr received mostly "B's" for his 2009 Draft. Notably, folks seemed to like the Clark pick but downgraded him for taking Taylor Griffin...except for Chad Ford who saw T-Griff as an NBA 10th man.
2009 NBA Draft live analysis - NBA - CBSSports.com
B. (Clark) will have trouble co-existing with Amare Stoudemire, but might not have to ... Speaking of which: Which Warriors fan started incredibly lopsided Stoudemire-to-Golden State rumor?
2009 NBA draft report card - NBA- NBC Sports
C. Clark can shoot from range, rebound and defend. He just might prove to be a significant part of the start of a revival, especially if Stoudemire truly is on the way out.
SLAM ONLINE | " 2009 NBA Draft Grades
B+. Phoenix hit a home run in the first round by taking Earl Clark at 14. This is a guy who has top-5 upside and the potential to be a stud at the next level. Of course, Clark presents more question marks than certainties, and is one of the biggest enigmas in the entire draft.
B-. The Suns got one of the 10 most talented players in the draft with the 14th pick. The concerns over Clark's intensity seem to be a stretch. But drafting Griffin 48th seemed a little odd, as Blake's older brother probably shouldn't have been drafted.
A-. Judge the Suns on whom they grabbed at No. 14, and you have to be impressed. Clark was a top-five talent in this draft. He can play multiple positions, and if he gets motivated, he can be a dominant player who should be a terrific fit in the Suns' up-tempo system. Griffin is about grit and athleticism, but he has the talent to stick in the league as a 10th man.
This was Kerr's final draft and, in fact, he had already decided to leave the Suns before draft day came. He stuck around so the Suns wouldn't be rudderless at draft time. It turned out, of course, leaving the Suns rudderless in the following month's free agency was much more costly.
The Suns had no first round picks thanks to two separate trades.
In 2004, the Suns traded the Knicks 2010 pick (and Tom Gugliotta's contract) for nothing (Keon Clark and Ben Handlogten). The Suns' own pick was one of two used to bribe the Thunder into taking Kurt Thomas' contract. This turned out to be the 26th pick, Quincy Pondexter. That Knicks pick (9th), six years after the fact, was used by the Jazz on Gordon Hayward.
Damn you, 2004 Suns for not anticipating that!
In the second round, Kerr took two bigs: Gani Lawal (46th) and Dwayne Collins (60th). Collins had big hands and wore the coolest shoes I've ever seen but after going to Italy, has seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth.
Lawal, however, was considered a great pick given his incredible athleticism and energy. He suffered a torn ACL during his rookie year and despite a few different attempts to make it the NBA, has found a home in Europe where he currently plays for an Italian team. I wonder if he knows what happened to Collins?
UPDATE: I'm told Collins never really recovered from a knee issue which is why he disappeared.
Jeremy Evans (55th), is the only guy taken after Lawal having any sort of NBA career, most notably as a dunk contest winner.
Given what he had to work with, Kerr received decent feedback for his second-round picks.
ESPN 2010 NBA draft results: Draft grades - Chad Ford
C. With Amare Stoudemire about to test the free-agent waters, the Suns attempted to shore up their front line with two tough, athletic rebounders. Neither Lawal nor Collins is great on the offensive end, but they'll add toughness for Phoenix in the paint.
2010 NBA Draft Grades | NBADraft.net
A-. Both power forwards were great value picks with no risk as second rounders. Either one of these ACC products could crack the Suns' rotation this season potentially, and both will help on the boards, which fills a big need.
2010 NBA Draft Grades: Did The Clippers Actually Win? - SBNation.com
B-. Lawal is pretty good at a lot of things, but doesn't really stand out with one elite skill. Still, he's big, decently athletic with a good motor. He has a chance to contribute in the desert. The same applies to Collins, another bouncy big out of Miami. Not bad work for the mid to late-second round.
Things start to get more interesting now since we are talking about the Lance Blanks era of Suns drafting history. In his first year running the ship, Blanks picked Markieff Morris with the 13th pick. He had no second-round picks to worry about.
Kieff is an interesting cat. I think at this point, he's got the most upside potential of all the young players on the Suns roster, including his twin brother (that's not saying much). He does pretty much everything you'd want from a modern power forward. He rebounds, has post game, can face up, and can even shoot from distance. His defense is suspect, so far, but I believe he has the potential to improve that part of his game as he gains experience.
Of course, as we've seen over the last two years, Markieff has struggled mightily to put all those things together into a consistent package. This isn't all that uncommon, but it does tend to lower his ceiling potential in my mind. It's hard to see him not having a decent career as at least a role player, but if he was going to develop into a starting-caliber player, I think we would have seen more by now. Maybe.
Out of context, Markieff was a decent and safe pick for a first-year GM. Unfortunately, there are several guys taken later in the draft that are having much better NBA careers...so far. Those include: Kawhi Leonard (15th), Nikola Vucevic (16th), Iman Shumpert (17th), maybe Donatas Motiejunas (20th), and obviously, The Manimal, Kenneth Faried (22nd).
You could argue the Suns would be better off with any of those guys, especially Leonard and Faried. Time might still prove Blanks right, but so far, things don't look so good for his pick...yet.
Blanks got "B's" across the board. Only one writer, Tom Ziller, suggested the Suns would have been better off with Leonard or Chris Singleton (?), but calls that a "quibble". So overall, while we have some issues with this draft in retrospect, at the time all those "experts" didn't have as good foresight as they have hindsight.
NBA Draft Grades 2011: Suns Confuse Markieff Morris' Family, Get Tougher - SBNation.com
B. Morris immediately becomes Phoenix's toughest power forward. The Suns now have two brawlers in the frontcourt (Morris, Marcin Gortat), and the team's famously bad rebounding should improve, provided that Alvin Gentry gives Morris lots of early minutes. Chris Singleton or Kawhi Leonard would have been better value picks and also met the defense/toughness need. But that's more a quibble than a demerit.
2011 NBA draft team grades - Sam Amick - SI.com
B+. The Suns were focused on adding some muscle to their frontcourt, with the thinking that Channing Frye would be better served eventually coming off the bench. And while Markieff Morris (No. 13) wasn't expected to be taken before his twin brother, Marcus (who would go a pick later, to Houston), I'm fine with any team taking a deliberate approach to a draft and being able to execute its plan.
Ball Don’t Lie’s 2011 NBA draft grades - Ball Don't Lie - NBA Blog - Yahoo! Sports
B- The less-heralded Morris brother can turn into a fair pick-and-pop or roll guy, and his long arms and defensive instincts will serve Phoenix well in stretches. With this team in win-now mode, however, I fail to see where he'll make an immediate impact. Does anyone believe that this guy is coming in to play consistent minutes next season? Considering the options, though, this was a talent worth selecting.
2011 NBA Draft Grades | NBADraft.net
B+. Once again we witness the Suns take the more defense-orientated twin, but this time they're on the hook that that guy turns out better. Markieff Morris is an NBA ready power forward that can defend the rim, clean the glass and make an open jump-shot from the perimeter. He seems like a nice fit for the Suns who are obviously attempting to become less of a disgrace defensively. Good for them.
This is where things really went off the rails for Blanks in my mind. I realize there are some who still hold out hope for Kendall Marshall (13th). I don't. The more I watch him, the more I'm willing to take your bets that he won't be in the NBA three years from now.
But let's not rehash Marshall's failings now. At the time, the Suns knew Steve Nash was leaving and they didn't know Goran Dragic would be replacing him. That placed an extremely high priority on the point guard position, and even a hater like me sees Marshall as a point guard.
Also in Blanks favor, there's not exactly a ton of guys picked after Kendall that have torn shit up. Of course, it's still only their rookie year. The Suns had no second-round picks.
Here's some guys who you could see as being better pros than Kendall: Maurice Harkless (15th), Tyler Zeller (17th), Andrew Nicholson (19th), Jared Sullinger (21st), Tony Wroten (25th), and Perry Jones III (28th).
None of those guys are a sure thing by any means and most are bigs, a position the Suns didn't need to fill with more mediocre players. Wroten is the only point guard of the group, and he's not doing much in Memphis (although I still like him better than Marshall).
The biggest sin of the Marshall pick seems to be the classic mistake of taking need over talent. Obviously, if you consider two or three players as roughly equal, you pick for need. But in a case where no one is jumping off the page, you take the best player available.
There were no players taken ahead of Marshall who are obvious busts.
The grades for this pick are very interesting and foreshadowed the debate that still rages around Marhall's future. Blanks received everything from "A" to and "F" for this selection.
NBA Draft Grades: Who Won (And Lost) The West? - SBNation.com
A. If the Suns magically keep Steve Nash, Marshall could be one of the best back-up point guards in the league quickly. If the Suns lose Steve Nash, Marshall could sit on the fringes of the Point Guard Era conversation. Concerns about his foot speed are valid, but Phoenix is quite adept at playing with a matador at the point, and Marshall should be better than Nash defensively in total.
ESPN 2012 NBA Draft -- Chad Ford
C. I think Marshall will be a solid NBA player. He might be the best passer in the draft, but his lack of lateral quickness might limit him to role player duty in the pros.
Instant Grades: 2012 NBA Draft Round 1 - NBA - CBSSports.com
F. The Suns took what seems to be their new point guard and wow, what a downgrade. This is probably about six picks too high, and with questions about his speed and ability to guard, the Suns only regressed.
Ball Don’t Lie grades the 2012 NBA draft | Ball Don't Lie - Yahoo! Sports
B. The Suns were the first — or, depending on how you judge a few other squads, the only — team to pick for need.
B+. Kendall Marshall was able to operate the point guard spot at North Carolina in beautiful fashion. He understands how to play the position at such an advanced level, but Phoenix does not have the talent relative to the NBA that North Carolina has compared to the rest of college basketball.
The Suns take a lot of heat for their picks which really seems to be a stand-in for the overall lack of young talent. Having zero players selected for this year's Rising Stars Challenge was a real smack in the face.
However, when you look beneath the covers of each of these drafts, it becomes more difficult to assign blame. Ultimately, the Suns had several late-lottery picks and the results are about what you'd expect from late-lottery picks.
The best pick of the bunch was Dragic and, in my opinion anyway, the worst was Marshall. The rest? You can find examples, in hindsight, of better options, but for the most part the Suns got decent grades for their selections at the time. To expect a team to turn every mid-first round pick into a home run is not reasonable.
A fun study would look at the draft grades and contemporary assessments of the players we point to as better than those selected by Phoenix. Hindsight is one thing -- and it's certainly fair to hold the front office accountable for results -- but I have much more respect for folks screaming about the decisions when they happened and not years later.
And who's to say those guys would be doing as well as they are if they were in a Suns uniform on a less-talented roster. Would The Manimal really be all that effective with this team or would the holes in his game be more pronounced? Would Leonard be able to focus so much on his role if he wasn't surrounded by the Spurs Hall of Fame talent?
It's hard to say. Players are not fantasy pieces you can simply plug into any situation and expect the same results.
The only real takeaway I have from this VERY long-winded exploration of well-covered history is this: Be very careful drafting for need over talent. That's not exactly a revolutionary concept. If you made it through 3,720 words to get to this point...thanks?