What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week we look at a team that has been on the playoff bubble for the past few years, the Phoenix Suns.
NBA purgatory is the term we use to describe the teams in the middle of the standings; the teams hovering around the playoffs who aren’t good enough to compete for a championship, but are too good to have a chance at winning the lottery. In few places has that purgatory been more stifling than in the middle of the Arizona desert. The Phoenix Suns are an OK team. They have some solid young players who work hard and play together as a team. The problem is that OK doesn’t win championships, and in the Western Conference, it doesn’t even make the playoffs.
The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were playing in the Conference Finals. They’ve been close, placing ninth or 10th in the conference for four of the five seasons since then. They’ve selected in the top five of the draft once in that period, selecting center Alex Len in 2013. As frustrating as it must be for the Suns’ front office to be as close as they are to making the playoffs, they need to realize how far away they truly are and get off the treadmill of trying to make the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Looking at the playoff landscape in the West, the Suns would have to look at who they could feasibly replace as a playoff team next year. Oklahoma City is taking one of those spots, and I don’t think Phoenix is so deluded to think they’re better than a healthy Thunder team, so the Suns would need to be better than two teams holding playoff spots next year, and that’s not even considering any of the other teams in the West who missed the playoffs. They could try to sign a big free agent this summer, as they have only $43.7 million committed to their cap, but even if a free agent could push them into the playoffs, I don’t think there’s a player on the market outside of LeBron James (who could technically opt out of his contract this summer) who would turn this team into a championship contender. They need to recognize their situation and get themselves out of the lower-middle position in the standings they’ve found themselves in. Unfortunately, in order to do this, they need to get worse before they can get better.
The Suns have already started this process, trading Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas earlier in the season for future draft picks. The Suns should continue this process of looking for future assets, even if it means taking on bad contracts to do so. This team will not be good (good enough, at least) for some time, and because of this, they can afford to take on bad contracts in exchange for draft picks, as the contracts will come off their books by the time this team is ready to contend. If the Suns were in the East, they could probably try to build a solid team and hope to get lucky in the playoffs. In the West, however, the margins are more slim, and if you’re not at the top, you may as well be on the bottom. Ninth place in the West is just as bad as 15th … the only difference is that 15th gets a better draft pick.