Most NBA discussions are sparked by two sides of a debate. The Thunder’s new big three will make them a title contender … or it will completely collapse. Stephen Curry is the best point guard in the NBA … or it’s Russell Westbrook (or Chris Paul or John Wall or five other guys).
There’s no debate over the Phoenix Suns. They are just very bad. We learned as much in their first game of the season, when they lost 124-76 to the Trail Blazers. It was the worst defeat in franchise history and the worst opening-game loss in NBA history. Things didn’t get much better from there. By Sunday, Eric Bledsoe was all but issuing a cry for help:
I Dont wanna be here— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 22, 2017
The Suns are a mess. And while the franchise choked down its proverbial Advil and fired head coach Earl Watson on Sunday, there still isn’t a clear sign of light after three-plus seasons of crawling through a river of shit.
How did it get so bad? A look back at the major transactions the franchise has made since a breakthrough 48-win season in 2013-14 forms a clear path to the bottom.
February 19, 2015: Traded Isaiah Thomas to the Celtics
The season before, Sacramento had sign-and-traded Thomas to Phoenix for loose change and expired coupons. With the Suns looking for a way to break up its point guard trio of Thomas, Bledsoe, and Goran Dragic, Boston GM Danny Ainge scooped up Thomas’s bargain contract (four years, $27 million) for Marcus Thornton and the Cavaliers’ top-10 protected draft pick.
The “King of the Fourth” soon became a star in green and white, breaking franchise records and regularly closing games with SportsCenter highlights. Thomas is nursing a hip injury in Cleveland now, but after the spotlight he received in Boston, there’s no doubt the Suns could’ve gotten way more for the discarded guard. Thornton did not re-sign, and the Suns packaged the Cavs pick with another to move up to no. 8 in the 2016 draft and select Marquese Chriss.
General manager Ryan McDonough later called Thomas’s trade “a mistake. […] If I could get a mulligan, that’d be it.”
February 19, 2015: Traded Goran Dragic to the Heat
Dragic was clearly unhappy in Phoenix, asking publicly for a trade after sharing ballhandling responsibilities with Bledsoe and Thomas. The Suns unloaded him the same day as they did the latter, sending Dragic to Miami in a three-way deal with the Pelicans. In return, the franchise received Danny Granger, John Salmons, Miami’s 2018 first-round pick (top-seven protected), and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick.
Granger was dealt to Detroit as part of the eventual Marcus Morris trade. Salmons was waived. The first-rounder will likely transfer because the Heat, with Dragic still at the commands, should not finish with one of the seven worse records this season. Here’s to hoping for a gem in 2021.
February 19, 2015: Traded the Lakers’ First-Rounder for Brandon Knight
Milwaukee sent then-23-year-old Knight to the Suns in another three-way deal with the Sixers. Phoenix received Knight and Kendall Marshall (later waived) and sent Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee to the Bucks and the Lakers’ highly coveted protected first-rounder to Philadelphia (which may convey to the Celtics next season if it lands between nos. 2 and 5).
Two seasons later, Knight is coming off the bench while making the second-most on the team (he signed a five-year, $70 million deal the summer after the trade). His salary, nauseating defense, and reputation as one of advanced analytics’ least favorite players make him a tough fit both on the roster and as a potential trade chip.
July 2, 2015: Marcus Morris Traded to the Pistons
Phoenix botched its relationship with Markieff Morris after trading his twin brother Marcus to the Pistons. Markieff soured on the franchise, saying it “backstabbed” his brother with the trade not long after the twins reportedly gave the Suns a two-for-one discount in contract negotiations. The trade of Marcus gave Phoenix the requisite cap space to chase free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, but as a result, Markieff became a major issue that ultimately had to be dealt with.
July 1, 2015: Signed Tyson Chandler in Free Agency
This was done to entice Aldridge to come to Phoenix. To the organization’s credit, Aldridge later admitted that Chandler’s presence increased his interest. (The former Defensive Player of the Year is a fine consolation prize, but in 2017-18, the 17-year veteran doesn’t make sense on a tanking team.)
July 4, 2015: LaMarcus Aldridge Signs With the Spurs
February 1, 2016: Fired Jeff Hornacek, Named Earl Watson Interim Head Coach
Watson had been a member of Hornacek’s Suns staff for less than a year when he was given the reins on an interim basis.
February 18, 2016: Traded Markieff Morris to the Wizards
Bitterness from his brother’s trade carried over to the new year; at one point, Markieff threw a towel at then-coach Jeff Hornacek in frustration during a game. The Suns traded Markieff—and his four-year, $32 million bargain of a contract—to Washington for Kris Humphries (currently unsigned), DeJuan Blair (since waived and now playing in the G League), and a first-round draft pick that was later traded to the Kings in the package to move up for Chriss.
April 19, 2016: Officially Hired Earl Watson As Head Coach
Calling the former point guard’s time with the clipboard “limited” is quite kind. Before he joined Phoenix as an assistant in 2015, Watson’s prior coaching experience—at any level—was comprised of one season as an assistant on the Austin Spurs’ staff.
June 23, 2016: Drafted Dragan Bender No. 4 and Chriss No. 8
Two teenagers who play the same position—what could go wrong!
February 23, 2017: Traded P.J. Tucker to the Raptors
Dealing Tucker, an impending free agent, for Jared Sullinger and two second-rounders was probably the right move for a team targeting a top draft pick. But his loss did seem a bit symbolic. Tucker was the lone holdover from 2012-13, the franchise’s first after sending Steve Nash to Los Angeles. The halcyon days of Seven Seconds or Less are indeed long gone.
October 22, 2017: Fired Earl Watson, Named Jay Triano Interim Coach
October 23, 2017: Sent Bledsoe Home
A day after the dismissal of their coach, the Suns effectively said goodbye to their one good veteran player. Bledsoe, in a performance for the ages, apparently told McDonough that he was at a hair salon when he sent out his now-iconic tweet. McDonough, to his credit, didn’t even try to play along, and told reporters Monday that the combo guard “won’t be with us going forward.”
It’s easy to point out McDonough as the common denominator in the Suns’ recent malaise, or even the Lon Babby–Lance Blanks tag team before him. But the real culprit for seven seasons (and counting) without a playoff berth is the one constant: owner Robert Sarver. In February 2016, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst went on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM and exposed what the league thought about the culture in Phoenix.
“When people talk about the Phoenix Suns in the league, people who have to make decisions on whether they want to sign in Phoenix or whether they want to coach Phoenix, the first thing they talk about is the owner,” Windhorst said. “There is damage there that needs to be rectified and it’s not going to be done in one summer.”
SBNation’s (now-ironically titled) Bright Side of the Sun did an excellent recap on Sarver’s front-office history this July. Back in 2006, without a contract extension, Bryan Colangelo walked as the team was inching toward a second consecutive conference finals. Steve Kerr left on similar terms in 2010, departing without a contract extension the summer after reaching a conference finals. Babby was extended after three playoff-less seasons. After recently extending McDonough through the 2019-20 season—which, by then, would give him seven seasons with the team, and thus make him the longest-tenured GM under Sarver’s reign—the owner said he finally has “a clear vision of what we want to do and how we want to get there.”
Sarver, when announcing the McDonough extension, noted that he had “learned through some of my mistakes.” Given Watson’s firing, the team’s current state on both ends of the ball, and Bledsoe’s expected departure, one has to wonder if the damage is already done.