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Last summer, the Phoenix Suns' President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby originally had no intention to trade Steve Nash to a rival team like the Lakers. After some haggling and googly eyes from the Candian wunderkind, he and Managing Partner Robert Sarver eventually relented, in exchange for what appeared to be a bevy of low draft picks.

No lottery protection in 2013

Lost in the despair of such a depressing move was what turned out to be a stroke of genius: the Suns insisted on NO LOTTERY PROTECTION on the 2013 pick. (confirmed once again today by Lon Babby directly to me)

Back then, it didn't matter. The Lakers were going to win 70 games, so the pick would be of little value. It was a pipe dream to think that the Lakers would miss the playoffs THIS season, but there was certainly hope that the 2015 pick could be a good one with only top-5 protection. Gasol, Nash and Bryant were getting older, after all.

But whether a pipe dream or not, credit the Suns FO for making the Lakers agree to remove lottery protection from the 2013 pick. They didn't have to ask for it, or require it. But they did.

Just like Sam Presti insisted on removing lottery protection from the 2008 and 2010 picks Steve Kerr handed Seattle/OKC in 2007 for taking on Kurt Thomas. Ultimately, OKC only got a couple of picks in the 20s from the Suns, but giving away those picks without protection proved to stunt the Suns growth in ways not entirely obvious at the time of the trade. The Suns couldn't "tank" or rebuild for years even if they wanted to because their draft picks were someone else's.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. And we're gellin' like Magellan.

Lakers struggling to win games

Lo and behold, the Lakers are struggling even now. They sit at 15-20 at the moment - 5 games under .500 with almost half the season in the books.

To make the playoffs in a typical year in the West, the 8th seed needs at least 46 wins in an 82-game season.

For the Lakers to get 46 wins, they would have to finish the year on a 31-16 run starting RIGHT NOW. The longer they wait to notch a run of wins, the harder it will be.

(As a side note, the Suns - who have played one more game than the Lake show - would have to go on a 34-11 run of their own to finish with my preseason prediction of 46 wins. LOL)

I can definitely see the Lakers getting better, but 31-16 means they have to get a LOT better. With Dwight Howard looking very stiff while still recovering from back issues (after his shoulder heals), Pau Gasol getting underutilized in lieu of Metta World Peace at the 4 for spacing purposes, and the season dragging on for oldsters Nash and Bryant, well... 31-16 would be quite the turnaround.

Add in a much tougher schedule for the Lakers in the second half than the first half and the effort seems even more daunting.

Low playoff chance

Basketball-reference.com gives the Lakers only a 27.7% chance of making the playoffs today.

The top 6 playoff seeds are fairly well set (Clippers, OKC, SA, Memphis, Golden State, Houston), the worst of whom (Houston) only has to go 25-21 the rest of the way to finish with 46 wins. Each has a 90+% chance of making the playoffs, per basketball-reference. However, Houston is on the road for 25 of those 46 games, and is only 7-9 on the road this season, so there's that.

Denver should make it easily too. Denver has an easy second-half schedule, with 27 of their last 45 at home (where they are 12-2 on the season), and only needing a 25-22 finish to get to 46 wins.

The Lakers' toughest competition to make the playoffs as an 8-seed comes from Utah and Portland.

Minnesota (without Love for 8 weeks), Sacramento, Dallas and New Orleans appear to be out of the picture.

(note: with Minnesota's trek daunting, note that the Suns would not get their pick this year if they miss the playoffs. The pick would roll over until Minny makes the playoffs, hopefully in 2014 when the draft is deeper.)

Portland is young and prone to wilt under pressure, like Houston did in prior years. Utah is a mishmash of vets and youth with no superstar to carry them.

Basketball-reference.com gives Utah a 50.1% chance to make the playoffs at this point, but only gives Portland a 15.9% chance.

But even if Portland goes just 24-24 (after their 19-15 start), the Lakers would have to go 29-18 or better to beat them to the 8th spot. Portland has 25 home games left (where they are 12-4) vs. 23 road games (where they are 7-11 so far).

Utah has more veterans and made the playoffs last season, so they appear to have the best chance for the 8th seed.

Even if Utah goes 19-18 to finish the year, the Lakers would have to go 28-19 to beat them out of the 8th spot.

The Lakers have to start winning. And fast. Right now, the Lakers are 11th in the West, which gives the Phoenix Suns their first round pick at #12 overall. Couple that with the Suns' own pick, currently at #5 overall, and the future looks brighter than it did last month.

So start rooting, gulp, for the Portland Trailblazers and the Utah Jazz!!!

(and, for Houston not to lay a second-half egg either)

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The Suns are 12-25 and have lost 10 of their last 11 games with no relief in sight. They have effectively ended any pipe dream of sneaking into the playoffs and at this point will be fortunate to finish the season with 30 wins.

When things go south it's completely expected that players will get frustrated and the team will begin to splinter. Alvin Gentry, who has plenty of experience coaching bad teams, knows this which is why his media comments lately have been filled with talk of "staying together".

Well, it looks like the inevitable might have happened. This team is either over the mental cliff or right on the brink. You decide.

Paul Coro's postgame report from Boston gives us these quotes:

Dragic said some of his teammates "don't care," but he obviously did by the look on his face after going through 41 minutes against Boston's full-court pressure from an older team.

"We got three guys battling on the floor, and the rest of the guys aren't on the same page," Dragic said. "It's tough. Right now, we're not together as a team."

[...]"We play well at times," Scola said. "We're just not able to play 48 minutes well. We go up and down. We're just not good enough to play that way."

"We're obviously in a negative dynamic. We believe that sooner or later something bad's going to happen. But it wasn't like that the whole year. So that could be something that is increasing the problem. Everything snowballs. We don't have confidence."

[...]Said Suns power forward Markieff Morris, the only second-half sub besides slumping Shannon Brown, "We've got to find a way to finish and score and get stops. "As a team, we've got to man up and play like men when it's time. That's including myself. We've got to have balls and the heart to make shots and get stops when we need it."

Three guys who are "battling". Hmmm. Just three? Dragic, Tucker and Scola?

Before you go all crazy calling guys out for not playing hard, calling for the Coach to be fired, and generally going into pitchfork and feathers mode, let's remember that this was always a flawed team. There was some hope at the beginning of the season that Beasley and Johnson would perform up to their lottery potential but it was always an "if" and not a certainty.

As much as we'd like to think professional athletes will fight tooth and nail regardless of the score and standings, they are human beings too and...ah screw it. I'm not going to defend them. I'm just not going to burn them at the stake either. It's hard being on a bad team.

#LotteryBallers

But hey, at least the Suns have won a game in 2013 - something the Lakers can't claim.

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It only took 2,144.9 miles for him to find it, but Sebastian Telfair has found his home in the NBA. The Brooklyn, New York native baller went straight from high school off the toughest streets in the world to the toughest league in the world. He came in with acclaim and a big contract from Adidas, but has bounced from around five different destinations before settling in with the Phoenix Suns.

Sometimes that is how the cards are dealt to you and "Bassy" as he is affectionately known as evolved from high school phenom, to draft bust, to one of the better back-up point guards today.

"I played for some pretty bad teams," said Bassy with a bit of a laugh as he thought back to his early days in the league. "A lot of times it is the right time and the right place. Where you get drafted and where you end up, it works for some guys, but for some guys you end up where it is not to be at that point in time. I have been a victim of that a little bit."

He was a victim of circumstance with the Portland Trail Blazers as well as the Minnesota Timberwolves when he was brought in there and expected to be more than what he was ready to be at that time.

The Blazers were a team in transition with minimal veteran leadership expecting Bassy to step in as a leader taking over the team, at 19 years old, straight out of high school. It was a similar situation with both Minnesota and after a brief stint with the Boston Celtics where he started 180 games combined in his first four seasons -- on three different teams in 349 games.

At that point he was 23 years old and in terms of veteran leadership the only consistent voice in his ear was Theo Ratliff who followed Bassy around to all three stops early in his career.

In four years Bassy played for Maurice Cheeks, Kevin Pritchard, Nate McMillan, Doc Rivers, Randy Wittman, and Kevin McHale. Zero consistency in coaching, in a message, gameplans, or a commitment to a young player needing guidance.

"Last year was the first veteran team I have played on," says Bassy talking about his early struggles. "Playing with veterans is important and provides structure. "It makes your job a lot easier, you pick up on veterans with things like how to carry yourself and to be consistent on-and-off the court. That helped me last year."

Since playing for six coaches in five years the structure has been there for Bassy starting only 12 games in 176 games finding his niche off the bench as a player that brings energy, defends, and while growing as a leader. Having consistency here has been a major factor

The biggest transition for me was basketball itself. I came from Lincoln High School -- a public school -- so in high school it wasn't as structured a program as a prep school or the upper high schools in the country. The practices, the shoot-arounds, the mental part of the game, there is just so much more to preparing for a game. I didn't expect all that.

That structure is in part a young player coming into his own based on his experiences like what Bassy has gone through, but also because of the structure here. He has known one coach, one general manager, and one way of playing basketball for the past two seasons. He is no longer that young, naive, 19 year old. He is a veteran.

Structure for a player starts with the head coach, in this case that has been Alvin Gentry who fought to get Bassy here two years ago.

"I think he feels an acceptance here," said Gentry. "I think he fills a need for us, I think he feels he is wanted here, and we fought to get him here. I've always liked him, his tenacity, and just his energy that he plays with."

Now that he is here the tenacity and energy he plays with has to be the spoils for younger players as the fourth oldest player and harboring the second most NBA experience on the roster. Funny to think a 27 year old is in that role as a veteran that younger players are turning to, but that is the NBA where a veteran team turns into a re-building team overnight.

"That changed fast, right?" said an emphatic Bassy. "Go from having those guys (Steve Nash, Grant Hill, and Channing Frye) for a season, enjoying it, and then going back to a young; half rebuilding team. I have to step into that role for a lot of these young guys now."

He has done that now as a mentor for younger guys on the bench like Kendall Marshall and Diante Garrett who struggle to get on the court, as well as other young guys who need to have the game broken down for them like Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, and P.J. Tucker who have to have different complex schemes pointed out to them.

It has all come full circle -- clear across the country -- for Bassy as a basketball player. He is a vastly different player and person than that 19 year old excited to sign with Adidas before taking the Blazers to a Championship.

Obviously he had a lot to learn along his path to where he is today, which is the opposite of the traditional cautionary tale that is told about the ones that do not make it through struggles. Sebastian Telfair didn't fit in a cookie-cutter or with either of his previous teams, but as a frequent victim of circumstance he is finally the benefactor of chance. A chance the Suns gave him that turned into a positive situation for the Brooklyn Baller.

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Times are tough! Like the economy, over the past couple of years, the Suns roster has been ravaged and their performance has caused many to run screaming in terror. As our politicians face many different options on the table to turn things around, so do our Suns. And like our politicians, we fans cannot seem to come together and agree to a solution to our problems.

In an effort to bridge the gap across the aisle, I will try, by process of elimination, to help think through our options so that we may be able to pare them down to the most likely strategy for future success.

Before we dive head first into the extremely shallow pool of free agents [most likely culminating with a severe head trauma and probably paralysis], I want to first present a few caveats, whatever those are.

When looking at the free agent ["FA"] crops, I only looked at unrestricted players. Restricted guys are tough to pry away from their teams unless it's one of those poison-pill deals (Lin, Asik) where the suitor can back-load a contract for a second-year player who doesn't have a guaranteed contract (ie. second rounder, or free agent). Those don't come often. At all. So let's focus only on unrestricted players.

Additionally, I don't plan on commenting on all of the FA players.

I will only highlight a few, and here is why: It is clear the Suns have a number of role players, and based on the range of thoughts we fans have on those role players, they number several and are from decent to very good role players. It is apparent that we have no #1 or #2 option on this team.

Our best player is Goran Dragic [although I would say Dudley is outplaying him right now] and he really should be the third best player on a team. While I would love to see him become a #2 guy, realistically I have my doubts he will become that. Certainly I have no delusions that Goran will ever be a #1.

That said, the purpose of this exercise is to determine if free agency is a method that will yield players who can help turn this franchise around. I will look at the next three years of FA crop to see if it is possible to be a player in the FA market over multiple years in order to accomplish our goals - to find that #1 and/or #2 guy.

Granted, there are other methods you can use in combination with FA to accomplish this, but let's keep it simple and not complicate this thought process with too many variables. So, I will look only at FA that are #1 or #2 players [and are not at the ends of their careers], as anyone else only adds to the role players we already have, and more importantly those role players are replaceable parts that in the end only matter after you know who your main cogs are.

For example, Manu is nice, but not an answer. Neither is Kevin Martin, Al Jefferson, David West or Stephen Jackson. Sure, if we acquire a #1 and #2, and are able to get one of these guys I would do it, but let's focus on the task at hand.

2013 Unrestricted Free Agents

Chris Paul: I give it a 99.9999999% chance that he will die from a lightening strike before he signs in Phoenix. "So you are saying there is a chance!" Move along.

Dwight Howard: He is a weird guy, so it is possible he could decide to come here. I would give it a 5% chance, just because Dwight is a little off. Nevertheless, I believe Howard to be a very good #2, and an average #1 option [I might even be overvaluing his contributions]. Of course, looking at the Suns currently, Howard looks like a #1 with a bullet, but in reality, he has proven he cannot carry a team. In fact, he may be proving that he cannot even contribute to a talent laden roster enough to get them in the playoffs. What will it cost? Max money.

Josh Smith: I think he will sign were the money is, so I will give it a 50% chance, not knowing what his market might be and whether Sarver is going to play in that market. I know a lot of you love Smith, but truth be told, Josh Smith is what he is. The days of believing that he has huge upside are over. He has proven himself to be a 16/8 guy that will defend well part of the time. I see him as a great #3, an okay #2 and a crappy #1 guy. What would you pay for that?

Andrew Bynum: The obligatory "if" statement - if healthy, Bynum is a #1 guy in my view. He has a post game and demands doubles. Is he a #1 on the level of James, Durant, or other past greats? Probably not. But in today's game, he is a top 10 player [not talent, but player] when he is healthy. But there is your problem. Bynum is following in Greg Oden's footsteps. I am not sure he will be playing in a year or ever again. But, we do have the trainers to get him right. The question is, do we want to max this guy out when we wouldn't max out Amare? I give it a 20% likelihood he ever gets healthy for a long stretch, and a 30% likelihood he would be willing to sign here, but a 1% chance of Sarver actually doing this.

Paul Millsap: One thing I don't like is when a player who has been given plenty of opportunity, actually has downward trending production. Despite Millsap killing us and looking good doing it, he has not improved while in the league and is probably as good as he will ever be. I think he is a #3 guy at best, but really more a #4. Plus, he will command some change. I am not convinced to spend more than $6-8M on a guy like him.

J.J. Hickson: Going after a FA that is having close to a career year in a contract year is scary. Doing so for a guy that is not producing much more than Gortat is even more daunting. Hickson is an undersized whatever he is, or an oversized whatever he isn't. Regardless, JJ hasn't shown steady improvement, doesn't possess any great skill set and is probably a solid #4. Yes, he is probably slightly better than Scola [mostly because of age] or any of our other PF, but so what. He gets us nowhere if we focus on him first.

A look at the 2014 Crop

The big boys here are [in no real order] Dirk, Kobe, Pierce, Granger, Iggy, Pau, and to a lesser extent, Deng, Ellis, Mayo, Bogut and I will include Gortat.

So here we go: old, old jerk, old, injured but possible #2-3 guy, #2-3 but interesting, old, then the lesser players are guys I don't think, for one reason or another, are in the #2 category.

How About 2015?

This crop has some gems [I said some]: Rondo, Melo, Aldridge, Amare, Marc Gasol, Chandler, Deandre Jordan, Gay, Parsons, Asik. However, being three years away, I am not sure how relevant they are to a plan that would be seeking a #1 or #2 guy for a turnaround now. Certainly if we drafted well, traded well, or got lucky and signed a guy like Bynum and he stayed healthy, this crop might yield a real gem as our #2 or #3 guy. Do we have that kind of patience? Also, most of these younger guys, if still viable #1 or #2 options, will re-sign with their current clubs by then.

Conclusion:

In looking at the crop of free agents, it is clear to me that hinging our success on finding a franchise or even a go-to player through these means is a long shot at best. The only guy that seems worth going after is Andrew Bynum, and by worth I mean not worth it. If he was healthy, it is a no-brainer. But how many of you believe that will happen? Exactly!

The rest of the crop are either players that are not going to significantly impact the team if they are all we acquire, or are guys that are too unlikely to sign here. Looking down the road, the picture doesn't get any better. While a Granger or Iggy might be a nice grab, it still really depends upon our ability to acquire a #1 option and how much Granger or Iggy command.

The bottom line here is that we are one step closer to figuring out the correct path to success, and it isn't going to be through free agency. While FA might play a role [via acquiring other role players or upgrading our current roster], it certainly is not going to be the main catalyst for transformation.

Next, we will look at solving our problems through trades...

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Michael Beasley: F

Beasley was the first guy the Suns met with and signed this past summer. He was given a 3-year, $18 million deal to be the Suns new starter at small forward, replacing the departed veteran Grant Hill.

Now, 27 games into his Suns career, the Beasley experiment has been a total and abject failure. He's averaging 9.6 points on 10.1 field goal attempts. He's accomplished such a feat (more shots than points) by shooting 37.2 percent from the field. He's putting up career lows in almost every single category.

Beasley is playing the worst basketball of his career, and it's not even close. Beasley's O-Rating is a putrid 86 and he's at a -1.2 offensive win shares. And he was supposed to be one of the Suns' go-to scorers. Defensively, he hasn't been much better, with a 110 D-Rating and 0.3 defensive win shares. By any statistical measure you look at, Beasley has been on of the worst players in the league.

Beasley spent a couple games riding the bench before rejoining the rotation against Boston, and as soon as he stepped on the court Boston went on a run and took control of the game with Beasley's man Jeff Green going off for 10 points.

I really have no idea why Beasley has been this horrendous, but the fact is he has been and I see no reason to expect much improvement. It's time to pull the plug on the Beasley experiment already. If the Suns can't find a way to move him in a trade, then they need to bite the bullet and waive him at the end of the year using the stretch provision. This would allow them to spread the remaining money due to Beasley over the next five years for cap purposes, minimizing the damage done.


Goran Dragic: B

Goran Dragic was the Suns' other big free agent acquisition this summer. The Suns brought Dragic back to the Valley of the Sun to replace another departed veteran in Steve Nash, and thus far Dragic has don a solid if unspectacular job of running the point.

Dragic is putting up 14.5 points and 6.3 assists in 32.7 minutes per game. Those are above-average number for a point guard. However, Sun fan thought they were getting a little more in Dragic after seeing him put up 18 points and eight assists per game as a starter for Houston.

Dragic got off to a great start in November, but has struggled with inconsistency since then, and the Suns have struggled to win. However, while Dragic does need to step up and be more assertive, he has been placed in a very difficult situation (the Suns' roster is a mess, and their play on the court reflects that). I'm giving Dragic a bit of a pass right now.

Overall, Dragic was a good signing and is a solid, above-average starting point guard moving forward.

Shannon Brown: C-

The Suns brought Shannon Brown back on a cheap two-year contract after the shooting guard market dried up, and they've got pretty much what they expected out of him. He wasn't good last year, and he hasn't been good this year. Occasionally he gets hot and makes some shots, but his shot selection is almost always poor and he really doesn't do much to help the Suns win, especially considering his efforts on the defensive end.

Brown has been what the Suns should have expected him to be so far, although he's really been struggling over the last several games and we haven't seen any of those games where he's got it going (thus the minus).

Brown's second year is not fully guaranteed, so the Suns can move on without him next year if they so choose. I'm hoping they do. Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker are a solid pair of wings. Now the Suns need to focus on upgrading at the other two wing spots (Beasley, Brown). Either draft or sign someone. Just don't bring Brown back for another year.

Jermaine O'Neal: B+

When the Suns brought in O'Neal, I thought he was done. He looked really old in Boston, and couldn't stay healthy. But we've seen a completely different O'Neal in Phoenix. Jared Dudley tweeted this summer that O'Neal looked five years younger, and he wasn't kidding.

However, at times O'Neal has played as if he really were five -- or maybe 10 -- years younger offensively, and it's led to some very poor shots. However, poor shot selection is not an uncommon trait on this Suns roster, and O'Neal has provided a solid interior defensive presence.

The fact that O'Neal has played in 28 games this year in itself is a small miracle, and more than good enough for a B grade. But this should be a one-year thing, for both parties. In fact, the Suns might be well-served to scope out the trade market and see what contender may be in need of another big.

P.J. Tucker: A

From Summer League, to a guaranteed contract, to a rotation spot and now a starting spot, P.J. Tucker's path is a testament to where hard work and a little defensive intensity can take you. Tucker was the the Suns best pick-up, value-wise, an he continues to impress.

Tucker is a hard-nosed player who doesn't back down from anyone. He's easily the Suns best perimeter defender, and probably one of their better rebounders as well. And now he's even begun to show some signs of an offensive game.

Tucker isn't a gamechanger by any means, but he is a solid find and should be a keeper moving forward.

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