In an era when NBA franchises have realized they need at least two or three superstars to compete for championships, the Phoenix Suns, for several reasons, have taken an unconventional approach, and are dearly paying the price.
The Suns sit second-to-last in the Western Conference (only ahead of New Orleans) and hold the fifth-worst record in the entire NBA at 12-25 after losing a close game to the Boston Celtics Wednesday night. Last season the team pushed to make the playoffs in what fans knew would likely (and later proved to be) Steve Nash’s final year with the franchise, but the team came up short. This was the beginning of a string of bad decisions coupled with poor luck. Due to their average record, they did not get a high pick in the lottery and settled for North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, who proved to be a project and has only seen minutes during garbage time this season. The team then attempted to sign Eric Gordon away from New Orleans over the summer, but the Hornets matched the Suns max contract offer and retained their star.
It was at this point the team decided to dump fan-favorite Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers, and proceed without a superstar for the 2012-2013 season. They claimed Luis Scola after he was amnestied from Houston, and signed Goran Dragic to run the point with the departure of Nash. Although Dragic and Scola have proven themselves to be solid NBA players, they are nowhere close to the level of the Nash-Amare’ Stoudamire tandem the team relied on for much of the 2000s.
Simply put, this is the problem for the Suns: they have several good players that would be valuable second or third options on many teams. However, they lack a proven superstar to turn to late in games that will pull them through in the clutch. Looking at the main players other than Dragic and Scola, an average NBA fan will recognize the names: Sebastian Telfair, Marcin Gortat, Jermaine O’Neal, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown and Markieff Morris.
The franchise tried to sell fans on the concept of balance and teamwork, and they have held to that philosophy with five players averaging in double figure scoring, but none of those five are even averaging 15 points per game. The team has played many close games against top-level opponents, but lacks that killer-instinct player teams like the Heat, Thunder and Clippers possess. The team’s listed attendance on a given night will range around 14,000, but anyone watching the game sees the empty seats. Even people who have already paid for seats don’t want to come watch a team without a face. Ownership went to the extent of a bizarre “have fun at the game or get your money back” promotion to try to get fans to come watch the team. To their credit, they do play hard every night, they rarely get blown out even on the road, and at times play an up-tempo style that is fun to watch, they simply aren’t good enough to win, the only thing that truly matters to fans.
After constructing a championship-level team in the 2004-2005 season that many around the league saw as favorites to win it all before Joe Johnson broke his face against the Mavericks in the Conference Semifinals, Suns management has made awful personnel decisions at every turn. That team’s key pieces were Nash, Stoudemire, Johnson, and Shawn Marion, playing in a Mike D’Antoni system perfectly suited for their talents, locals knew them as “The Run-N-Gun Suns.” Following that season, Johnson was traded after owner Robert Sarver refused to pay him top-level money. Marion was traded a couple years later, and Stoudemire was let go during free agency due to long-term health concerns. The reasons for letting go of Stoudemire were completely valid, but what the team tried to do to replace him was idiotic at best, signing Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye to long-term big money deals (Frye is the only one still with the team, sitting out this season due to injury). The team has gone from four all-stars to none in a span of eight years. For anyone who thinks the future is promised to successful teams with young talent, think again. Win when you can, the future isn’t guaranteed.
For fans, there isn’t even a player on this team who excites you. New Orleans may be the worst team in the West, but fans there can look at Gordon, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers and see hope for the future. Markieff Morris is a good option off the bench for the Suns, but not a player who shows any signs of becoming a superstar down the road. One would imagine opponents don’t know how to defend the Suns coming into a game not because they are so stacked it’s scary, but because no one on the roster demands a double-team. An optimist will say, “Anyone could go off on their team and lead if they get hot on a given night.” A realist will say, “No one on that team is good enough to lead them, even if they do get hot.”
Suns fans can look at the team and say at least they are tanking it badly enough to get a good spot in the lottery. Other teams can also look at them as a viable trading partner for solid pieces to add down the stretch of the season without having to make a substantial financial move, with Dragic as the team’s highest-paid player at $7.5 million this season. Few of the Suns players are signed past this year, so there will be flexibility in the off-season as the team tries to rebuild. They also have the benefit of an additional first-round pick acquired from the Lakers in the Nash trade, a pick that would be in the lottery if the season ended today.
For now, there is nothing exciting about the Suns. Parents raising their kids will emphasize the value of teamwork over individual talent, but even the best of parents realize the teams with the best players will win as long as those players can co-exist (take a look at the aforementioned Lakers for an example of talent that can’t co-exist). The Suns players work very well together, they just aren’t very good individuals. Teams need superstars. Superstars put butts in seats, get cities excited and proud to be supporting their home-town team, but most importantly, they win games. When you put multiple superstars together, you win championships. The Suns have no superstars, no chance of winning a championship, and practically no hope.
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