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(AP/Ringer illustration)
(AP/Ringer illustration)

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The Suns Will Come Up Tomorrow

Phoenix may have the NBA’s second-worst record, but it’s stocked with young talent. Will the Suns build slowly, or flip assets for a star? GM Ryan McDonough, coach Earl Watson, and up-and-comer Devin Booker on the team’s tough present and bright future.

The Phoenix Suns have the second-worst record in the NBA, but they decorate like champions. To walk through halls of Talking Stick Resort Arena is to be bombarded with the franchise’s storied history and the kind of atmosphere it wants to foster. There are photos of Suns legends Steve Nash and Charles Barkley; quotes from the likes of Winston Churchill and John Wooden are plastered on the walls; and across from the Suns locker room, there’s a picture of the Larry O’Brien Trophy next to the words "ONE GOAL." That’s what they’re missing: In 49 years of existence, the Suns have never won a title.

At 16–36, that goal feels particularly out of reach right now. After a surprising 2013–14 season in which their Goran Dragic–and–Eric Bledsoe–led team won 48 games, the Suns have torn down what they were and are trying to lay the foundation for what they will become. When you enter the Suns locker room, you see an image of a pyramid with five words written in it: family, mindfulness, momentum, joy, and love. "We’re obviously trying to build a championship team and you need a lot of talent — you need versatility, skill — but I think you also need selfless individuals who are willing to sacrifice for the greater good," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told me last week in a room at the Suns arena. "We’re trying to build something that’s conducive to success over time, and it starts with a lot of those qualities."

It’s head coach Earl Watson’s job to bring that institutional philosophy to life on the court. Watson was hired as interim coach in the middle of last season after the team fired Jeff Hornacek. His transition from player to coach happened fast: Watson played 13 seasons in the NBA, spent one year as an assistant coach with the Spurs’ D-League team in 2014–15, started the 2015–16 season as a Suns assistant, and finished it as head coach. Watson told me he tried to take in everything he could from his one year with the Spurs. "I’ve always said culture doesn’t come from a player. It comes from those in leadership: management, ownership, and coaching. That dictates the culture," Watson said, as we sat in an empty practice gym. "You can go to New England. Tom Brady can be out and they keep rolling. You can go to San Antonio. Somehow they’ll rest five guys and win. It’s the culture. It comes from Pop. It comes from R.C. [Buford]. It comes from ownership."

Culture is important, but talent wins games; that’s why the Suns haven’t made the playoffs since 2010 and don’t appear to be anywhere close to them now. But while the players develop — and make no mistake, the Suns have several interesting, high-upside young pieces — a culture can be installed. That’s where the Suns are now — they are rebuilding, in almost every sense of the word. And the franchise brain trust isn’t shy about it.

"You can’t say, ‘I’m gonna get talented players to play like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan,’ even if the skills are similar," Watson said. "You have to build it, which means you have to gut it and put in a solid foundation with character over talent." McDonough knows this isn’t the most fan-friendly period in team history. "We appreciate the support. We appreciate the patience," McDonough said. "It’s a painful process. … It takes time and it’s something I think is hard — organizationally, it’s hard; as a fan, everybody wants to win."

It’s not just the fans McDonough and Watson have to please: They also have to keep owner Robert Sarver on their side. Over the years, many of Sarver’s unwise, erratic personnel moves — failing to extend Joe Johnson, selling off draft picks for financial relief, and going through five coaches and four general managers — have robbed Phoenix of the kind of stability that has been a hallmark of franchises like San Antonio and Golden State. There is great irony in the fact that the Suns had Steve Kerr as their general manager from 2007 to 2010 and Alvin Gentry as their head coach from 2009 to 2013. Kerr reportedly had a contract disagreement with Sarver and decided to walk away from the job. Gentry was let go a few years later. The two would go on to set records and win a title in the Bay.

The Suns want to be the Spurs, but they are much closer to the stage the Sixers found themselves in last summer: rebuilding with a group of young players that may or may not fit together, and managing the expectations of a frustrated fan base longing to get back to relevance. Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie was forced out, making way for Bryan Colangelo, who ironically also felt the wrath of Sarver during his first GM experience. Colangelo reigned as Suns general manager for 11 years, but resigned after his relationship with the owner had reportedly gone sour. Perhaps Sarver gives McDonough enough time to execute his vision, or maybe the Suns GM ends up as another Hinkie, forced to watch someone else take over his process.

Even now, after the turmoil of the last few years, Sarver publicly reserves the right to clean house. "We would like stability in terms of our front office and coaching," Sarver said last year in an interview with AZ Central. "But at the end of the day, this is a results business and everybody needs to be held accountable."

This is a story about youth. With nine players age 25 or younger, Phoenix’s future will be decided by the kids on their roster — whether they pan out in the desert or are flipped for established stars. But it’s an Arizona story, so it also features senior citizens (at least in basketball terms). The Suns have intentionally surrounded their young players with seasoned vets. Phoenix’s older players don’t hog the ball and are strong locker room presences. "We’re not running a charity here, but … they can show the young guys how to play and add to that culture," McDonough said.

These particular veterans provide an institutional knowledge of the franchise, with several having preexisting relationships with the organization: Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, and Ronnie Price all had prior stints with the team; P.J. Tucker is a hard-nosed leftover from the Lance Blanks–Gentry regime; and Tyson Chandler has been friends with Watson since high school. "I know we talked about playoffs, but our whole thing is about developing these young guys," Dudley admits. "Let’s just be honest about what it is. We’ve gone young early. … [It’s about] how we can develop these guys to be ready to play at a high level quicker." Dudley understands, and it seems like the other veterans do, too. They know what they signed up for and have taken on mentor roles.

Chandler and Barbosa have organized events at their house, which has kept the team close. Most of the young players live in the same apartment building and spend a lot of time together off the court. "Everything we do, we do it together," rookie forward Marquese Chriss told me before a game. Last month, the Suns held their annual charity gala, headlined by Shaggy, and the team’s rookie class got on stage for a karaoke version of "Ain’t Too Proud to Beg" by the Temptations. This isn’t the type of atmosphere you’d expect from one of the worst teams in basketball. "The spirit’s good. There’s no kind of dark cloud hanging over the franchise. The guys bounce back," McDonough said. "Coach Watson’s done a great job of continuing to grow those relationships and continuing to build that culture."

McDonough calls Devin Booker "the ringleader" of the young players. He’s also the franchise’s cornerstone. Or, he is until someone better comes along. Booker turned 20 years old last October and he’s averaging 21 points per game this season. That’s rare; per Basketball-Reference, the only players in league history to average that many points in a season before turning 21 are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kyrie Irving, and Carmelo Anthony. That’s a list of top-three picks, all current or future Hall of Famers. But Booker wasn’t a top pick. He went 13th in the 2015 draft. "I look around the league [at] a lot of people in my draft class or the class this year, and they’re doing the normal rookie duties: sit on the bench the first few years, play spot minutes," Booker said to me after a Suns shootaround. "But I have a coaching staff and organization that trusts me. … I know I have a great opportunity, so every day I’m trying to work hard."

After being used almost exclusively as a spot-up shooter as a freshman at Kentucky, Booker has expanded his game with the Suns, logging the 27th-most pick-and-roll possessions in the NBA. Booker seldom ran pick-and-rolls with the Wildcats, playing more of a Kyle Korver role in John Calipari’s offense, running off screens and spacing the floor, making his NBA career something like an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist. Booker isn’t surprised, though. "That was how I was playing a lot of my life until I got to Kentucky," he said. Booker was one of a record-tying six Kentucky players drafted in 2015. "If you just go off college, you’d think Karl Towns was a post-up player. … We all sacrificed and it worked out well for us."

McDonough told me that during predraft workouts, the Suns run prospects through drills that are designed to test skills they might be uncomfortable with. For Booker, it was ballhandling. He’s pretty comfortable now. This season, his most-used play is the pick-and-roll, and while he isn’t particularly efficient, scoring just 0.77 points per possession, he is getting reps. "You can’t ask him to be great without first giving him the opportunity to fail," said Watson. The Suns are developing Booker into a combo guard by giving him the freedom to experiment. Right now, he’s getting by on feel; his handle still isn’t airtight, and his first step doesn’t allow him to blow by his man. "It’s about keeping him in good habits," Dudley said. "He’s at a point now where he’s picked up to a whole new level where he’s ready to contribute every night."

When it comes to shooting, Booker’s level is already pretty high, showing a deft touch at unloading 3s over the top of the defense:

Defenses have to guard against his jumper, which mitigates his lagging first step, allowing him to get one pace ahead of the defender. Booker is developing hesitation tricks to snake to the middle of the floor, and he likes to use his 6-foot-6 frame to keep his defender on his back or create space for quick pull-up jumpers. For a player who struggled with scoring at the rim in college, Booker is quickly developing a presence in the paint.

Though Booker rarely had pick-and-roll opportunities in college, his distribution was impressive. Now, in the pros, under the tutelage of the former point guard Watson, he’s developed that part of his game further. Whether it’s timing a pocket pass, seeing the lob, or handling re-screens, Booker is showcasing solid vision for a young player:

He’s also able to fire off-the-bounce lasers to spot-up 3-point shooters:

Booker looks like an All-Star in the making, and Suns brass are hoping for similar development from their other young players. Phoenix drafted Dragan Bender with the fourth pick last summer, and then traded up to the eighth pick to grab the equally raw yet enticing prospect Marquese Chriss. McDonough said the front office was "almost split down the middle" between Bender and Chriss with the fourth pick, and the opportunity to potentially land both "came up on the morning of the draft." The Suns had to get creative trading for Chriss, dealing the 13th and 28th picks, as well as a future second-round pick and the draft rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Bender and Chriss are very different players. Bender is a 7-foot-1 big man with guard skills; he can shoot 3s and handle, and has a high basketball IQ. Chriss, a 6-foot-10 forward out of University of Washington, lacks experience and feel for the game, but he’s an athletic specimen who jumps like he’s wearing rockets for sneakers.

They share two key traits: versatility and raw upside. The Suns passed on more NBA-ready players like Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield in favor of long-term projects. These picks were a declaration of the team’s intentions to build for the future rather than the present. Their development could ultimately be the determining factor for the success of the franchise. "We have built a team to be versatile," McDonough said, adding the long-term goal is to be able to switch defensive screens at every position. "Golden State obviously does that better than anybody. So, if you can move your feet defensively and guard smaller guys as a big and stretch the floor and shoot in the mid-upper 30s from 3, that’s really valuable."

Coming out of Washington, Chriss was an athletic dynamo, and his 1.2 points per possession in transition this season, per Synergy, speak to his ability to adapt to the pro game. But he gets into foul trouble too quickly, and his moments of brilliance are offset by spurts in which it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Chriss was always going to be a project, and the Suns knew what they were getting into. To his credit, Chriss understands where he is in the development cycle. "It’s about taking my time and getting adjusted to the pace of the game," Chriss said. "It’s halfway through the season and I feel like I’ve come a long way."

Bender has received inconsistent minutes so far this season while battling a foot bruise. The Croatian, who turned 19 in November, is the youngest player in the NBA. "I know people look at the raw stats," McDonough said, alluding to Bender’s 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, "but more for us, when we look at him defensively, him moving the ball, him making the right play, and being in the right position, he does all those things at a very high level for a 19-year-old guy."

In Bender’s limited minutes, the Suns haven’t shied away from letting him switch pick-and-rolls and defend guards. They’ve essentially thrown him to the wolves, putting him on an island against the likes of C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, and Kyrie Irving. The results have been mixed, as you’d expect, but the Suns like Bender’s resilience. "Some rookies will come in, you really have to kind of hold their hand and do a lot for them off the court," McDonough said. "Dragan’s fine. I’d give him my two-and-a-half-month-old daughter to babysit and I know he’d take good care of her. He’s a very responsible and mature young guy."

"Those guys have potential to be All-Stars someday," Dudley said. "I think once they hit their primes, Ryan is banking on one of them having All-Star potential to pair with Book. The key for them will be summertime: who stays in the gym, who works on their game, who watches film to see what they can improve on." Dudley observed that advances in training and conditioning have aided in the development process. That could pay dividends for Bender, who admitted to me most of his weight gains will happen over the summer, since the focus is on basketball during the season.

If Booker is the franchise’s future cornerstone and Chriss and Bender are long-term projects, then what does that mean for their current best player, Eric Bledsoe? McDonough acquired Bledsoe from the Los Angeles Clippers for Dudley and a second-round pick in 2013. Injuries have become a near-annual occurrence for Bledsoe, but he now looks healthy and is having a career-best season. Bledsoe is averaging 21.4 points and 6.2 assists with a 49.3 effective field goal percentage, while ranking in the 93rd percentile of pick-and-roll ball handlers, per Synergy. Booker is currently learning the tricks of the pick-and-roll trade, but Bledsoe is already established. "Bled is the ultimate competitor," Watson said. "He’s like the engine of our team," added Booker.

Bledsoe is a V4, but the team needs a V6. He’s a good-but-not-great point guard who still pounds the air out of the ball. And while his offense has accelerated, his once-elite defense has regressed. Ideally, Bledsoe is a championship team’s third- or fourth-best player, not the go-to guy. Even in that situation, Bledsoe is an imperfect fit for the Spurs-like system being installed by Watson, which puts an emphasis on multiple ball handlers and spacing. He shoots just 35.1 percent off the catch, per SportVU, and he’s not a skilled enough passer to warrant possessing the ball the majority of the time.

Bledsoe, 27, is the only player on the team older than 25 and younger than 30, which puts him in limbo on this particular roster. He’s the avatar of the Suns’ organizational dilemma. While Bledsoe is currently the team’s most consistent performer and a stabilizing force, he’s also the best trade asset (aside from the picks and the youth) McDonough has. You could position him as free-agent bait, but is anyone coming to Phoenix due to Bledsoe? He is signed for a bargain contract of $15 million through 2019, so a pseudo-contender with fantasies of making a playoff push, maybe one with a first-round pick in the loaded 2017 draft, could make a deal for him.

The Bledsoe situation is one of several questions McDonough will have to resolve in the coming months. This is a crucial period in his tenure. The product on the court is ugly; the Suns have the league’s second-worst record, third-worst defense, and 10th-worst offense. Some fans understandably lack confidence in the McDonough-Watson tandem. Watson might preach about love and togetherness like a 1960s singer-songwriter and McDonough might sell potential, but on the court the players don’t share or take care of the ball. The Suns are last in assist-turnover ratio, last in assist percentage, and last in potential assists, per NBA.com. "I feel like a big thing for our team is we’re really close off the court, but we don’t talk as much on the court," rookie point guard Tyler Ulis told me, though he wasn’t sure how to make that change. It’s a perfect metaphor for the franchise at large — they want to be better, the how is the hard part.

Few would argue with Suns owner Robert Sarver if he decided to clean house, but the franchise is in a favorable position. This is the part of the rebuilding phase that takes stomach and patience. McDonough has assembled an intriguing collection of young players. But he’s also failed to push the franchise over the top. The Suns reportedly pursued a deal for Kevin Love in 2014, and then made a run for LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, signing Tyson Chandler to entice the former Blazers star, only to come up short. McDonough traded a Lakers first-round pick (top-three protected in 2017 or unprotected in 2018) for Brandon Knight, who has been one of the worst guards in basketball this season. MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas was dealt for scraps. These are major mistakes. But McDonough is trying stuff. The Suns came in second in the Aldridge sweepstakes; Knight showed promise last season before suffering a groin injury, and he hasn’t looked the same since. And Thomas, ah, well, even McDonough admits he’d take a mulligan if he could.

Over the next three or four summers, the Suns should have the cap space to sign a player to a max contract, and they own all their first-round picks, along with two firsts from the Heat via the Goran Dragic deal (an unprotected first in 2021, and a top-seven protected first in 2018 or an unprotected first in 2019). They could continue along the slow and steady path, or they could accelerate the process. "We built it to do either one and I think which path we choose will be simply just based on which opportunities present themselves," McDonough admits. "We’ve loaded up on a lot of rookie-scale contracts. With the cap spike continuing over the next couple years, that gives us the opportunity and flexibility to do a lot of different things down the road."

The Suns discussed a trade with the Kings for DeMarcus Cousins, according to Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro. It’s still unlikely that the Kings trade Cousins, per a league front-office executive, since they hope to ink him to a significant contract extension this summer, but it’s conceivable that he could be available at some point. McDonough would neither confirm nor deny the trade rumor during an interview with Arizona Sports, since he can’t talk about players on other teams, but did admit he’s confident the Suns could manage to land a player with a reputation like Cousins’s because of Watson’s coaching ability. The only two teams with more trade assets than the Suns are the Celtics and Sixers, and I get the sense both of those franchises aren’t all in on Boogie like the Suns might be, making Phoenix the potential leader in a Cousins space race.

The slow path is always more likely than the fast one, though. I talked with Watson multiple times over my week in Arizona, and nearly every time he referenced his playing days with Kevin Durant. Watson told me he reminded his players that Durant won 20 games as a rookie, then 23 in his second year, and then 50 in year three. The point was that the growing pains they’re going through now won’t last forever. That message is relevant for the fans, too. "It’s one thing to be a fan and say, ‘We made a great acquisition and we got someone at the prime of his career in a trade. It’s our chance to win.’ It’s another thing to be a fan and say, ‘I was there when Devin Booker grew up. I was there when Tyler Ulis looked like he was 12. I was there before Devin Booker’s first beard. I was there.’ It’s rewarding," said Watson, who won an average of only 37 games each season over his 13-year playing career.

McDonough cites Golden State and how the team struggled for Steph Curry’s first three seasons before exploding on the scene once it added more young talent and savvy vets like Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston. The patient model extends to other sports, too. McDonough brought up the Chicago Cubs, who are run by Theo Epstein. Epstein guided the Cubs through a controlled implosion, stripping the team of talent for three seasons and built each year through the draft and trades. It was painful, but they’re now one of the best teams in baseball and won the World Series this past year. "They were patient. They developed a culture. Their young guys improved individually and all of sudden it came together quickly," McDonough said. "It does that sometimes. It’s not always a linear process."

The Suns are hoping that Booker is their Kris Bryant. Epstein was fortunate enough to have the Cubs ownership buy in, and that’s what McDonough needs for the chance for it to work in Phoenix. Neither McDonough nor Watson would ever use the word "tanking," but it certainly seems like that’s what is happening this season. They need time to hit rock bottom and then hope fans and ownership give them time to bounce back. "The Suns have been in existence 49 years and haven’t won a championship," said McDonough. "We figured it was time to try something a little bit different."

Stats current through Monday morning.

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