So, here's this: The Phoenix Suns have won three games in 2016.
You can argue that other teams have been worse over the last three months — the Philadelphia 76ers have posted a more punchless offense, the Minnesota Timberwolves' defense has been more permissive, and the Los Angeles Lakers have been outscored by slightly more on a per-possession basis — but they've inarguably been one of the league's very worst teams since mid-December, as a season that began with playoff aspirations has spiraled out of control thanks to injuries and internal dissension.
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What looked two years ago like one of the NBA's most promising rising teams has returned to its basement, leading managing partner Robert Sarver to issue a public apology to Suns fans in an open letter posted on the team's website. After acknowledging that the Suns haven't lived up to the "fair expectation" held by fans that the team "compete at a high level on a regular basis" and represent the city of Phoenix "with the utmost integrity," Sarver promises a renewed dedication to building and promoting "a culture of accountability, respect and trust."
Those all seem to have been in short supply in a season during which a coaching staff was fired in two increments and the utterly toxic situation involving Markieff Morris — a saga of displeasure over the trade of his twin brother Marcus, a trade demand standoff that resulted in fines, posturing, suspensions, scuffles and talk of betrayal before the two sides finally parted ways at the trade deadlne — and, most notably, Sarver's laughable January insistence that the team's problems (then a molehill compared to the mountain that they face today) stemmed largely from a "millennial culture" that has "a tough time dealing with setbacks."
I have also learned that in order to achieve success, you must take risks along the way. In time, certain risks will ultimately look like mistakes. It didn’t take long into my tenure as an NBA owner to understand that basketball decisions are not easy to make. It is my responsibility to hire the right personnel to make those decisions, and also to provide the financial resources and supportive environment to facilitate the success of our team. Our basketball decisions rest with Ryan McDonough, who I have full confidence in. Not every decision will be the right one, but he will continue to build our team around the young, talented players acquired through the draft and opportunistically in free agency. The best team in the NBA right now is a perfect example of that model.
That said, we will likely miss the NBA Playoffs for a sixth straight season this April. Many of you are disappointed in that lack of success, and for good reason. I can assure you that no one is more disappointed than I am, nor does anyone accept more of the blame. It’s important you know that we will not rest until we are competing at the highest level once again. In fact, we have swung for the fences once in each of the last two free agency periods, with my full support. While we have come up short, we have not compromised our goal of building long-term success with our young talent. Often that process takes more time, yet the rewards are that much sweeter and more enduring.
The journey back to the top certainly won’t be easy. It will come with its victorious moments and its frustrating ones. But it will come, just as it did shortly after I acquired the team, where we rebuilt from a 29-win season in 2003/04. Please know, that above all else, you have my word that we will do things the right way, and you and your family will be proud to be Suns fans.
Before we get too far afield: "we will likely miss the NBA Playoffs?" You own a team that's 15-44 and a full 14 games out of the eighth seed with 23 games left, and that went 1-for-February. "Likely" might be a bit too much of a hedge, sir.
The main takeaway, here, is that Sarver continues to have "full confidence in" McDonough. The general manager was largely lauded for orchestrating the roster reconfiguration that helped kickstart a 23-win turnaround between the 2012-13 and 2014-15 seasons, hiring Jeff Hornacek to lead the squad and dealing for Eric Bledsoe to pair with Goran Dragic in a two-point-guard attack. The fond feelings of a season that ended one win shy of the playoffs, though, have entirely dissipated.
After struggling to acclimate to playing off the ball, and at times as small forward, in two- and three-guard alignments hastened by the summertime addition of Isaiah Thomas, All-NBA guard Dragic eventually said he'd lost faith in McDonough and the front office and pushed his way to the Miami Heat. In the same trade-deadline reset, McDonough flipped Thomas to the Boston Celtics, a deal on which he recently admitted he wishes he had a mulligan, what with Thomas becoming an All-Star this season and all. Those swaps brought back Brandon Knight, who got injured shortly after his arrival, received a five-year contract and has frequently underperformed this season when healthy; they also sent out a golden-ticket of a draft pick, a first-round choice formerly owned by the Lakers that's top-three protected in the 2016 and 2017 drafts and wholly unprotected in 2018. Remember what I said earlier about the Lakers being one of the worst teams in the league this year, too? That means the Suns very well might have sent the 76ers a No. 4 pick — or, potentially, the No. 1 pick in two years — for the right to pay Knight $70 million.
McDonough followed those questionable decisions with the go-for-broke machinations that included shipping Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to Detroit, thus enraging incumbent top power forward Markieff, to open up cap space to sign Tyson Chandler (who has been a major disappointment this season) in a bid to woo prospective new starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who spurned their advances in favor of joining the San Antonio Spurs.
The potential reward of landing Aldridge, one of the top free agents on the market and the sort of interior offensive focal point Phoenix has lacked for years, was great, but the risk — alienating Markieff and winding up with paying a potentially cooked 33-year-old Chandler on the books (and blocking 2013 lottery pick Alex Len) $52 million over the next four years, limiting your flexibility while compromising your chemistry and not actually getting any better on the court — was perhaps greater, and that scenario went south really quickly for the Suns. Given the bum run of moves that have helped put Phoenix in this predicament, and with Hornacek's staff since jettisoned, it would stand to reason that McDonough's head might be next on the chopping block should the losing continue. But for now, at least, he's got the vote of confidence from the guy who signs the checks.
While Sarver's not wrong that the franchise has pulled off significant turnarounds in the relatively recent past — the jump from 29 wins in 2003-04 to 62 wins in '04-'05, and the aforementioned 23-win leap from '12-'13 to '13-'14 — it's worth noting that the former involved the signing of Steve Nash, who had previously been at the helm of the NBA-best offense of the Dallas Mavericks and whose talents dovetailed perfectly with the system of newly installed head coach Mike D'Antoni to catch lightning in a bottle, and that the second leap has completely bottomed out inside of two years. All that probably means that Suns fans aren't necessarily feeling too much better about the state of things after this open letter intended at boosting morale.
Oh, well. At least you've got Devin Booker, Suns fans, and at least your owner — he of the draft-pick sales and meddling, of the lockout hardlining, of the post-lockout schedule complaining — starting to act like he feels sorry for something that matters rather than, say, the quality of the competitive effort offered by a preseason opponent. That's something, I suppose.
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