The Suns are trusting the process. Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough may not be as blunt about it as Sam Hinkie was with the Philadelphia 76ers, but the front office has no interest in winning another game. The worst possible record gives them the best chance to either find a franchise-altering talent in the draft or swap that draft pick for one in a trade. In other words, the Suns are tanking.
This isn’t a novel concept. The Lakers essentially made this move a while ago, shelving their veterans as healthy scratches for the remainder of the season, and with good reason. L.A. loses its first-round pick if the Lakers fail to “win” a top-three pick in the draft. Phoenix isn’t in such dire straits, but the Suns have no hope of making the playoffs and therefore no incentive to move up in the standings.
As of today, they’re 22-46, owners of the NBA’s third-worst record — behind the Brooklyn Nets (12-54), who nobody’s catching in the plunge to the bottom, and the Lakers (20-48), who the Suns out-tanked in a 122-110 loss to L.A. a week ago. The Orlando Magic (24-44) and Sixers (24-43) are hot on their heels in this battle for inferiority. So, why not shut down your best player for the rest of the season?
Suns have shut Eric Bledsoe down for the year
— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) March 16, 2017
Confirmed the Suns are shutting down PG Eric Bledsoe for the season. He's been playing through knee soreness.
— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) March 16, 2017
The Suns already shelved veterans Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler in favor of a “youth evaluation period,” otherwise known as Phase 1 of Operation Tank, and now they’re adding Eric Bledsoe to that list. There are advantages to the youth movement — gauging their in-game capabilities, getting them some NBA experience and showcasing their talents for trade bait — but no NBA coaches know full well vets will help win more games. They might not all admit it, but Suns coach Earl Watson wasn’t afraid to:
“It’s a great thing for younger players; it’s a dangerous thing for coaches,” Watson said, via The Arizona Republic, when management shut down Knight and Chandler late last month. “This is not college. Coaches don’t have 7-10 year contracts. … But for us, coming into this situation, we owe it to these players for them to be great for their career. And as a former player, I’ve had my chance, so I have to give these young guys their opportunity. I have to give them whatever it takes, even if at some times there’s risk for us moving forward as a staff. We owe it to these players. I always believe that if you do the right thing, then somehow opportunity opens up, whether it’s continue to coach somewhere else, but you owe it to these younger players every day to develop and build confidence.”
People can fall under the misconception that tanking is a player’s issue. But players want to play. There might be a tendency to take their foot off the pedal when the season is a lost cause, but for the most part, players have enough pride and financial incentive to compete so long as they’re playing.
Eric Bledsoe is no different:
— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) March 16, 2017
That emoji is “unamused face,” and it came soon after the Suns shut him down for the season with what’s being called left knee soreness. He could have meant to use a sad face emoji over some new revelation about his injury status, because he has had several season-ending knee injuries and conceded to recent soreness, but Bledsoe had played all but one game this season. After not seeing the end of 2014 or 2016, it must be frustrating to see another season end abruptly, injury or not.
Still, this was a management decision, plain and simple, and Watson sure made that clear, too:
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) March 16, 2017
“Management decision. I don’t think any coaching staff would hold Bled out,” Watson said, via Hoops Habit’s Gerald Bourquet, of benching Bledsoe for Wednesday night’s 107-101 loss to the similarly tanking Sacramento Kings. Asked if the DNP was a one-time thing, the second-year coach added, “I think if you talk to a lot of veteran reporters they can kind of tell you the answer to that question.”
It’s the same tact Watson took when the Suns sat Knight and Chandler. “I’m not changing it unless management changes it,” he said at that time. “I have a boss and my boss has a boss, so whatever comes from up top is what’s going to happen. And right now, that’s not even part of our equation.”
The answer is no, we will likely not see Bledsoe again this season. That way, management doesn’t risk injury to a player they’re invested in through 2019, and they’ve got a better chance of entering the lottery with top-three odds at the No. 1 overall pick. Everybody wins, except the Suns and their fans.
For the time being, 20-year-old budding star Devin Booker is exempt from the tank’s path, which might have to change, considering he now leads the league in game-winners. He qualifies for the youth evaluation period, which gives Phoenix faithful a reason to show up at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and the Suns do have some intriguing young talent. Dragan Bender underwent season-ending ankle surgery, but the athleticism of fellow lottery pick Marquese Chriss has come as advertised, diminutive second-round pick Tyler Ulis has shown flashes of point guard potential and undrafted rookie (and Slam Dunk contest participant) Derrick Jones Jr. is even seeing some run on the wing.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) March 10, 2017
With Bledsoe and Booker in the backcourt, the Suns could at least compete, winning three straight to start March, and with that their lottery position dropped from second to third. Something had to be done, and sitting the guy who saw two of his last three seasons end in injury made the most sense.
Now, the onus is on management to capitalize on a pick that should have no worse than a 46.7 percent chance of landing in the top three. We haven’t heard too much from McDonough, but we know this:
“We really like this draft — it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen over the course of the last decade-plus, so we really value our pick this year,” McDonough said after dealing veteran P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, via Arizona Sports. “I realize that requires patience and a lot of people don’t want that or don’t want to have that or wait for the season to play out.”
McDonough also stressed the value of draft picks in trade talks leading up to the deadline, suggesting one team offered its three best players for three top Suns in “a blockbuster deal” and “a franchise-altering thing,” which “maybe there’s some other version of it we can reconstruct in the summer.”
“Going through the process we’re going through now is not easy, for sure, but at the same time, that’s how the championship teams recently have been built, or that’s how they’ve been built the most sustainable,” he added last month. “It’s great to make deals and to wheel and deal … but some of the elite players that were available or were potentially available, their contracts are coming to an end soon and we just couldn’t risk mortgaging the future of the franchise on a short-term play without any assurances we’d be able to keep that player beyond the next year or two.
“Ultimately that’s what it came down to. Now, as we continue to acquire draft picks and young players and cap space, and as our players continue to grow and improve and develop more value around the league, I think we better position ourselves to make a deal. But that’s something I think would be more likely to happen in the summer time.”
Maybe they are being blunt about “the process.” Summer can’t come soon enough for the Suns.
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