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What Are They Thinking? The Suns

A series of Team-specific post draft analyses.

The Phoenix Suns were 29-53 in 2003-2004.  21 games into that season, they fired Frank Johnson and promoted Mike D'Antoni to head coach.  A month later they traded Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the Knicks for nothing (do you suppose Starbury has ever noticed how teams get better when he leaves?)

In the three seasons since, the Suns have won 62, 54 and 61 games.  Steve Nash was of course the biggest reason for the turnaround, but the Suns have made a lot of other moves, all of which have seemed to work out perfectly, during their resurgence.  In February 2002, they traded Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk for Joe Johnson and a first round pick.  They made a draft day trade for Leandro Barbosa in 2003.  They signed Quentin Richardson the same summer they signed Steve Nash (people forget that Q was a big part of that 62 win team).  And although they've battled salary cap problems the whole time, even when they've been forced to make belt-tightening moves, it has worked out for them, as when they traded Joe Johnson to the Hawks for Boris Diaw and two first rounders.  From a 20 win team to a consistently good 60 win team in one season - that doesn't happen very often.

But lost in this success story is the Suns dirty little secret.  Yes, they acquired Diaw when they balked at giving Joe Johnson a maximum deal and that worked out for them.  But since they acquired Barbosa, they have not signed a single draft pick.  They've had some good ones, too.  They drafted Luol Deng in 2004, Nate Robinson in 2005, and Rajon Rondo and Sergio Rodriguez in 2006, and dealt each and every one of them on draft day.  Finally, this year, they have actually drafted and kept (so far) a first round pick in Alando Tucker (29 overall).  But they also sold their higher pick, Rudy Fernandez, (24 overall). In return they have received... well, nothing.  (It looks a little worse than it is - in more than one of the trades, they received a future first round pick, which they then also dealt.  So Deng begat Nate Robinson, and Rondo begat Fernandez.  But still.)  

I'm a big Suns fan.  I've lamented their bad playoff luck the last three seasons.  If Joe Johnson doesn't get hurt in the 2005 playoffs, if Amare isn't hurt the next season, if Amare and Diaw aren't suspended this year...  they've had a key injury or suspension the last three years that undoubtedly contributed to their playoff elimination.  BUT...  the one glaring weakness on this team is their appalling lack of depth.  When your roster is paper thin and you have a key player missing, bad things happen.  Of course it's hard to overcome injuries on the deepest teams, but it's impossible when you have no bench.  The fact that they haven't had a rookie on the team since 2003 is a major factor in their lack of depth.

So the question remains, what are they thinking?  In a word, they're cheap.  Or more specifically, owner Robert Sarver is cheap.  The flip side of finding great players is that you have to pay them.  Amare Stoudemire was the 9th pick in the 2002 draft.  Shawn Marion was the 9th pick in the 1999 draft.  Barbosa was the 29th pick in 2003.  They signed Nash because they were willing to pay him more than other teams.  And Diaw made a lot less than Joe Johnson when they first got him, but he makes plenty now.  With five stars signed to huge contracts (even with Barbosa at a significant discount), the Suns team payroll has been knocking on the door of the luxury tax since Stoudemire's maximum extension kicked in.  Sarver has been willing to sign the stars, but unwilling to spend money on anything else.  Rookie contracts are the best bargain in the NBA, yet the Suns have eschewed them for almost four seasons.  It's not even smart cap management - he's sold first round picks in the last two drafts straight up for cash.  That's just money on his bottom line - it does nothing to help the Suns long term cap situation.  It would be one thing to bundle Diaw's contract and a draft pick for an expiring deal - at least that would help down the road.  But trading picks for Paul Allen's money only lines Sarver's pockets, while the Suns roster gets older and older.  I've said it before - if you're running an NBA team to make money, you're in the wrong business.  Go back to your bank.

One wonders what role D'Antoni plays in all this.  Phil Jackson is famously averse to rookies.  Is it possible D'Antoni is also?  Since he's never actually had one, we have no way of knowing whether or not he would play one.  Maybe we'll find out with Tucker.

Even new GM Steve Kerr seems to be on board with the 'get older' plan.  Among the myriad KG rumors, the trade that came closest to fruition involved the Suns sending Amare Stoudemire to Atlanta in order to get the Big Ticket to Phoenix.  Stoudemire is 24 and was just selected first team All-NBA.  Garnett is 31 and was second team All-NBA - and he makes about $6M per year more than Stoudemire?  How does that make sense?  

Everyone in Phoenix seems completely convinced that Steve Nash's back is a ticking time bomb.  Halfway through a contract that profligate spender Mark Cuban thought was too risky, all Nash has done is win two MVP's and compete for a third.  But the view seems to be that the window is closing, and they have to win a title NOW.  Rookies don't win titles.  And apparently the thinking is that Stoudemire doesn't bring the same urgency to a playoff series that KG would.  

Put it all together and it looks like the Suns run will end in two seasons, three at the most.  Nash is 33.  Marion has gone from underrated to overpaid.  Diaw is actively being shopped and Stoudemire was almost dealt.  With literally no one waiting in the wings to take over for their veterans, the Suns appear resigned to return to mediocrity once Nash is done.