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It’s Playoff or Bust for Suns in 2015-16

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The Phoenix Suns’ plan to return to relevance after trading Steve Nash was supposed to be clear. They had a terrible 2012-13 season and were entering 2013-14 with zero expectations. Another year in the West’s basement was in store in the eyes of almost every expert, and with it a shot at Andrew Wiggins and rebuilding through the draft.

Instead, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe clicked, Jeff Hornacek made the most of the talent available to him and Phoenix won 48 games, one shy of a playoff spot.

The unexpected success accelerated their rebuild and turned them into a team to watch. It turns out it might have also been the worst thing that could’ve happened to the franchise at that particular time.

After finishing with the best record out of every non-playoff team, the Suns added late lottery pick T.J. Warren to their roster instead of a top selection. With the team trying to win now, there was no time for development, so both Warren and 2013 pick Archie Goodwin remained glued to the bench for most of the 2014-15 season. Only center Alex Len got a regular role, but even a former top five pick like him had to earn his minutes.

In free agency the front office decided to upgrade the roster’s talent level regardless of fit and signed Isaiah Thomas. Two dominant ball handlers sharing the ball provided a volatile enough situation. Adding a third lead guard who wanted touches predictably disrupted team chemistry beyond repair. The result was trades sending out the disgruntled Dragic and Thomas for future picks.

At that point, the playoffs were a long shot, so it would’ve made a lot of sense for general manager Ryan McDonough to focus on going back to a more traditional rebuilding plan. He doubled down on being competitive instead, essentially trading a top three protected 2016 Lakers pick for Brandon Knight.

Once that move was made, the offseason was already mapped out. The Suns needed to make a big splash. They almost pulled it off, first signing Tyson Chandler and then getting into the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes. Unfortunately for them, Aldridge ended up picking the Spurs and the move they made to clear out cap room had unintended repercussion. Sending out Marcus Morris led to a trade demand by his brother Markieff that’s still unresolved.

Now coming to this season, the Suns are locked in to an expensive core that doesn’t seem to have championship potential; their young players are intriguing but also all but unproven at the NBA level; their locker room is in turmoil for the second year in a row; and worst of all, arguably their most valuable asset is gone. All for the opportunity to finish, at best, eighth in the West.

That’s the nightmare scenario the 76ers are trying to avoid: being stuck in mediocrity with little chance of breaking out soon. And that’s why this upcoming year is so important for the Suns. They either need to take that step forward and become a playoff team that can attract top-level talent or go back to the drawing board, even if it means trading some of their best players.

The good news is there’s still some hope for this core to emerge as a threat to make the postseason. Bledsoe proved last year that he can stay healthy for a full season. He and Knight barely shared the court, but their games complement each other well. Len was a solid defensive anchor as a sophomore, but Chandler is an upgrade and now the team can always have a rim protector on the floor. If they can convince Morris to stay and bring maximum effort or can get a replacement for him via trade, they should be able to hover around a .500 record and potentially eclipse it.

That wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in the West a couple of seasons ago, but the conference isn’t as deep as it once was. The Trail Blazers will almost surely be a lottery team next season and the Mavericks will take a step back. The Jazz and Kings might not be ready to emerge yet. Even accounting for an inevitable surge by the Thunder, the last spot should be up for grabs. If the Suns secure it, they could start appearing on the short list of destinations any disgruntled star seriously considers.

If it doesn’t look like they will make the playoffs, however, clearing the deck is the way to go. Bottoming out is typically the best shot a franchise has at getting the stars to truly build a contender, and it might be the only way for one like the Suns to do it in the new NBA environment.

The Rockets flirted with mediocrity before landing James Harden, but the circumstances that facilitated that move are about to disappear for a long time. The cap is about to rise significantly, which means no team will desperately try to avoid a luxury tax line that’ll be too high to reach. It also means the Suns are about to have a lot of competition for talent. A dozen teams — including free-agent destinations like the Lakers and solid playoff squads like the Wizards — will have cap space. Contracts that seem bad now will soon be movable. Phoenix will really need to stand out to have a shot at landing a superstar by any means other than the draft.

The process that started two years ago needs to bear fruit now. This upcoming season, management’s decision to speed up the rebuild will either pay off, as the team takes a step forward and the franchise becomes a serious alternative for star players looking for greener pastures, or it’ll be time to reassess.

Trying to skip a step was worth the try at the time, but like any plan, it can fail due to luck and circumstances. When it does, moving on is the only option. The Suns were quick to veer off the path they originally decided to travel in 2013. They shouldn’t be afraid of returning to it if they find out it doesn’t lead to where they want to go.

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