In a league where stars generally rule the roost the Suns find themselves in the unenviable position of being closer to the coop.
Five straight seasons with no playoffs.
This is the grim reality facing the Suns and their fans as the franchise finds itself in unfamiliar territory. Still, the Suns have not been execrably bad this season... barring their recent 1-9 stretch to guarantee the team's third losing season in the past five years.
Maybe that's part of the problem.
Barring a lottery day miracle the Suns will be picking 13th in the draft again this summer. It will be the fourth time in five seasons the Suns will draft 13th or 14th. NBA purgatory... or hell depending on your perspective.
With its three recent late lottery picks the Suns have selected Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall and T.J. Warren. That's really not bad, considering Markieff is a serviceable starter and T.J. has shown at least glimpses of promise this season.
The one season the Suns were really putrid they picked Alex Len 5th overall. Len projects to a higher ceiling than those other three players. What a shocking correlation between draft position and talent level. With the Suns picking 13th again this season it is a dubious prospect that the player will be a franchise cornerstone. Linchpins rarely come that late.
Immediate help in the draft probably isn't coming.
Free agency and trades are the other areas where a team can make improvements, sometimes of a cataclysmic nature. Those instances, however, are hard to forecast.
This exercise will instead focus on an inventory of the Suns current assets. The Suns already have several birds in hand, so potential internal development will likely be one of the factors in returning the Suns to relevance.
Right now the Suns core appears to be Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris and Alex Len.
Let's take a look at the landscape of the league moving forward to see where the Suns "Big Three" might rank among their peers in three seasons.
*33 years of age is used as an arbitrary cut off, even though there may be players above that age playing at a high level.
The top portion of this list is players that are playing very well right now and project to be playing at a high level three years from now.
The two players from the top list that seem the likeliest to fall are Howard (injuries, loss of athleticism) and Brook Lopez (injuries). The other eight players will likely be top tier centers.
The second portion consists of players that are currently more average centers or young promising centers. The following lists will adhere to the same format.
The hope is that Len will be better than the Asik's and Gortat's of the world in three years. If he stays healthy that seems to be a pretty safe bet.
Looking at the upside of the younger players is a little more difficult. Enes Kanter is limited defensively, but has been averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds in 24 games for the Thunder. Rudy Gobert lacks offensive polish, but might end up being the best defensive center in the league.
What is fairly stunning is the glut of talented big men that are currently 24 years or younger. Len has a myriad of competition moving forward.
This one is hard to project. Alex has a skill set that could definitely make him one of the better two way centers in the league. My main questions are whether he can stay healthy and if Phoenix, with its vaunted history of developing big men, is the right environment in which Len can burgeon.
First take Davis and Cousins off the table. It's also fairly likely that at least one of Embiid, Noel or Gobert will be better than Len in three years. Factor in the possibility that a player like Karl Towns or Jahlil Okafor develops quickly at the next level and Len's stock continues to drop.
Best case scenario seems that Len will be a second tier center (5-10) in three seasons. There is always a possibility, however, that he will develop more past that point.
My guess is that he will be an average to slightly above average (12-16) starting center.
The case for Eric Bledsoe is much easier since he is more of a known commodity.
Bledsoe puts up numbers that few players in the league can match. After all, only LeBron James, James Harden and Westbrook join him in a group that has averaged at least 17 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game this season.
So, surely Bledsoe is a star, right?
Unfortunately, Eric's statistics don't seem to impact the game with the same magnitude as those other players, he sometimes appears to be on cruise control, and often makes critical mistakes at exactly the wrong times.
Plus, he almost never smiles.
He also plays at the deepest position in the league.
Looking at the top tier, it isn't unrealistic to think that Eric might overtake Paul and Lowry in their early thirties. Rose is also a complete unknown.
The short term outlook on the second tier players is easier for this position than at the center. None of these young players seem destined to be All-NBA types in the next three years.
The problem is that Curry, Westbrook, Lillard, Wall and Irving appear to be locks to remain above Bledsoe in the pecking order. Still, looking at this list Eric has a chance to be among the league's best at his position.
But can Bledsoe ever be the type of point guard a team can put its trust in? Right now he seems a little like a watered down version of Westbrook... slightly less athletic, vastly less intense, but plagued with the same baffling and exasperating decision making. Can Eric become a more engaged, better decision maker?
Best case scenario is that Bledsoe matures and chases that top group of star point guards (6). Worst case is that Eric remains where he is now (10-15) and less talented players like Mike Conley and Jeff Teague remain better fits on contending basketball teams.
Markieff is buoyed in this analysis by the dearth of talent at power forward. Please take a second to look at the list and appreciate how truly horrid it is.
While the top six here seem like obvious upgrades, is there anyone on the list below that seems to be destined to leave Markieff in his dust? Perhaps Green or Harris? The guys from the 2014 draft class barely even played this season.
Still, the power forward position for the Suns seems to be in need of an upgrade. The problem is the paucity of players that fit that bill.
Of the small group, though, many could be available this summer. Aldridge, Millsap, Love, Green and Harris will all be free agents. Will the Suns be buyers?
I think a case could be made that Markieff was already a top 10 power forward this season... at least in terms of statistical production. But does his penchant for technical fouls and ludic escapades off the court undermine his solid output?
Can Markieff get his sh%t together and grow into a role as a consistent presence and late game closer? Or will his colorful high jinks continue to be a distraction?
Morris lacks the raw athleticism of Griffin, the defensive presence of Ibaka and interior presence of Favors, but he could end up developing an unstoppable midrange game akin to Aldridge.
My biggest criticism of Markieff's game is his terrible rebounding. Second would be his subpar three point shooting. With those deficiencies can he ever be a fixture at the four on a contender?
If Markieff can ameliorate his shortcomings (rebounding, three point shooting, maturity) while honing his strengths (especially midrange game) he can chase that top group and be a devastating presence in the fourth quarter. Still, he lacks the physical gifts to be more than a smaller version of LaMarcus Aldridge that can't rebound.
Best case scenario Markieff is an above average starter (8-10). Worst case is that he stagnates or even devolves based on character issues.
Right now the Suns are a middling team with, depending on your outlook, middling future potential. That's where the middle road has gotten them.
Is the future brighter in Minnesota, with Andrew Wiggins and a potential #1 overall pick? If those assets were the Suns would the disposition of fans in Phoenix be a little bit sunnier?
What about the Jazz, with a core of Gordon Hayward, Favors and Gobert?
The Suns do still have extra future first round picks coming their way, but those reinforcements might take 5-10 years to arrive... The team doesn't currently possess any picks, including its own, that can be the cynosure of a blockbuster trade.
Do the Suns assets compare favorably to its competition moving forward?
The Suns appear to have done the easy lifting in its rebuild, acquiring several good to very good players (possibly including Brandon Knight). Now all they need to do is find a way to get a star player or two, because the current guys just don't project to fit that bill.
If the Suns' current core are the team's three best players in three years I have a terrifying vision of Phoenix picking 13th again in 2018.
For the sake of all Suns fans I hope that vision never materializes.