The 2012-2013 regular season was the Phoenix Suns' worst since their inaugural year.
The roster lacked the talent necessary to put up a winning or even competitive record, there was an unexpected coaching change midseason, and most recently, a new GM was hired.
The Suns are entering a rebuilding period, and they are clearly looking to reinvent their identity and build a winning culture. That could mean some busy summers over the next few years, as Phoenix goes through a roster overhaul in order to add more talent.
There are a lot of issues the front office will have to address, and not all of them can be resolved in one offseason. However, the coming months will provide new GM Ryan McDonough with an opportunity to set the foundation for a competitive, contending team in the future.
But in order to start making progress, there are a few huge questions that must be answered this offseason.
Who's the Head Coach?
Lindsey Hunter was promoted to interim head coach back in January, but he may not be in Phoenix for much longer.
To be fair, even Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich could not have turned this year's team into a playoff contender. And while the Suns were just 12-29 under Hunter, fans saw some great progression near the end of the season from players such as Wesley Johnson, Goran Dragic and Markieff Morris.
Still, Hunter completely failed at accomplishing some of his original goals. For example, he vowed to change the Suns into a better defensive team.
Just several days after being inserted into his new role, he told ValleyoftheSuns.com: "Of course, I want us to be a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team. That’s what I want. And that’s what we are going to work towards being."
Hunter played on several great defensive teams over the course of his 17-year career, but the Suns have not been able to emulate those clubs in the slightest. In fact, the Suns have only declined defensively.
After the All-Star break, Phoenix went 8-21 in 29 games. Opponents scored 104.8 points per game in those games, compared to just 99.9 points per game before the break. Opponents also shot slightly better from the field, behind the arc and from the free-throw line.
Hunter did not have much to work with, as P.J. Tucker is really the only Suns player known for his defense. Marcin Gortat, the Suns' greatest post defender, was also out with an injury for much of the second half of the season.
Even so, it is peculiar that the Suns regressed defensively despite Hunter's previous comments. That might lead you to believe that the Suns just put in more effort offensively, but that isn't the case, either. The Suns' performance on offense remained stagnant, and defensively they've only gone from bad to worse.
Hunter also isn't afraid to be aggressive with his players, which can backfire sometimes.
For example, Hunter publicly called out the multiple young players in his short stint as a coach, as detailed by ArizonaSports.com. While he had reason to be upset with his team's effort, some of his comments were unnecessary and unjustified, and they reflected poorly on his personality.
For those reasons, Hunter may have to look for a new coaching job. But who replaces him as the team's new head coach?
ArizonaSports.com lists several of the options, including Kelvin Sampson, Quin Snyder, Brian Shaw and Mike Budenholzer.
None of those guys have experience as an NBA head coach, and it is often difficult for a GM (especially one with no prior experience) to decide whether or not an assistant or college head coach is capable of translating his success to the NBA. In fact, it may be much more difficult than evaluating whether a college prospect can make that adjustment.
Whoever the Suns hire will reflect on what sort of playoff team the front office ultimately wants to build.
Do the Suns want to ditch their old ways and try to become a better defensive team, like Lindsey Hunter promised? Do they want to take a more balanced approach and become competent on both ends of the floor, but not particularly fantastic on either?
Or will they cling to their old identity and try and build another team that resembles the run-and-gun Suns from the mid-2000s?
These are all questions that will be answered. Hiring a new coach is McDonough's first test, and this acquisition could mark the start of a new era of basketball in Phoenix.
Who do the Suns Draft?
The NBA draft is now just weeks away, and after the team's position in the draft is solidified following the lottery on May 21st, the Suns can start coming up with a more detailed list of the top prospects they wish to pursue.
The 2013 draft is not expected to be nearly as strong as a 2014 class that features Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker, but any player Phoenix picks now could potentially play a significant role on a winning Suns team in several years.
But what exactly should the Suns look for in this draft?
Really, they could use just about any help they can get. Point guard is covered by Goran Dragic and Kendall Marshall, but the Suns could use help at all positions. They also need both a primary scoring option, as well as a defensive anchor.
That means that the Suns will have a lot of options to choose from with their pick.
If they choose to go with offense, perhaps Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore is the best option. Although inconsistent at times, McLemore has a beautiful shooting stroke and is widely considered to be the best shooting guard prospect in this draft. As a freshman at KU, he put up 15.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from downtown.
If there is one prospect who can score 20 points per game at a professional level and be the go-to scorer that the Suns need, it is probably McLemore. He may not be a superstar, but if all goes well he could perhaps make a few All-Star appearances during his career and become known as one of the better wings in the NBA.
Of course, there are other offensive weapons out there. Anthony Bennett, the undersized power forward out of UNLV, is expected to be a top pick, and he is one of the most versatile scorers in his class. Bennett is a powerful and explosive leaper who can stun the crowd with emphatic dunks, and he can either score in the paint on opposing big men or shoot mid-range jump shots and three-pointers.
Bennet averaged 16.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game for UNLV, and he could be an exciting prospect to watch, despite a shoulder injury that will keep him out for four months.
Defensively, Indiana's Victor Oladipo is the best option on the wing. Oladipo has great length and athleticism, and he is best known for his lockdown defense. He led the Big Ten in steals and defensive rating this past season, and he is also a great rebounder for his size, an efficient scorer and a fantastic leaper.
Oladipo may not be the go-to scorer the Suns need, but he could drastically improve the team defensively and form an explosive backcourt duo with current point guard Goran Dragic.
Another option down low is Nerlens Noel, the Kentucky center who could replace Marcin Gortat as the team's best rim-protector. Although he is still fairly raw offensively, Noel averaged 4.4 blocks per game with Kentucky while sporting a defensive rating of 81.9, and he could be the Suns' secret weapon for denying opposing offenses in the post.
Since the Suns need help everywhere, it really doesn't matter much if they take an offensive or defensive specialist. The important part is selecting a player who they truly believe has the skill and talent to become great.
There are a lot of busts in the draft every single year, and it is inevitable that the Suns will make a few mistakes as well while they rebuild. As long as McDonough and the front office make well-informed decisions, only selecting players they have thoroughly scouted, they will have more successes to point to than failures, and Suns fans will remain confident in their ability to draft and scout talent.
Which Path of Rebuilding is the Right Path?
The success of an NBA franchise is usually cyclical in nature. A team may have an era of success, playoff appearances and championships, but sooner or later they will go through a rebuilding period, usually of at least a few years.
And since the league's inception, team's have been trying to figure out whether it is more efficient to build a contending team through the draft or through free agency.
Obviously, no contending team will be built using only one of these resources. A GM may decide to stock up on draft picks for several years, but he will still sign a few decent veteran free agents and have a relatively balanced approach towards rebuilding.
But should the Suns try to find the centerpiece or core of a winning team by selecting a prospect, or by signing a big free agent?
Free agents are much more stable investments, because some lottery picks will always be busts, whether that be due to injuries, lack of motivation or any other reason.
Unfortunately, not many teams are able to simply sign a superstar whenever they feel like it. There are only a handful of true "franchise players" in the NBA, and when those players hit free agency (which they rarely do), New York, Chicago and Los Angeles will have the advantage over everyone else. Phoenix might be a big city, but they don't have the market to compete with those urban centers.
So, when teams miss out on the top superstar free agents, they go after borderline All-Stars. Occasionally, this works as a successful path to a title; other times it condemns a team to the seventh or eighth seed for several years, where they will lack the talent to contend but still be competitive enough to miss out on top draft prospects.
Instead, the Suns could choose to go after players like Andrew Bynum, Monta Ellis, Josh Smith or Andre Iguodala. Signing one of these players is no guarantee of success, but because of the competitive nature of NBA free-agency bidding, some fool may offer each one of these undeserving players a max contract.
On the other hand, attendance at Suns games is dwindling, and one only has to explore the average Suns Facebook page or forum to discover that many fans are discontented with the state of the team. This is only after one terrible season, and the Suns may be in for several more of these if they choose to build through the draft. Signing free agents is not a great strategy to win a title, but it will at least fill the seats at the U.S Airways Center with casual fans as the Suns suffer a first-round exit.
So, which path do the Suns choose?
As a fan more interested in winning than the team's finances, I'm obviously going to say that the Suns should build through the draft.
However, it won't be as easy as many people seem to think. The Oklahoma City Thunder built a fantastic team in just a few years through the draft, but does anybody remember the countless lottery picks that failed them in the mid-2000s? Robert Swift, Nick Collison, Mouhamed Sene, Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Ridnour were all taken in the lottery, but none of them did the team much good. The Sonics had several poor seasons that only led to another failed draft selection.
That is really the key point here: If you think you are ready to be patient and rebuild through the draft, you must first be willing to accept the fact that a losing season does not necessarily mean you will be rewarded with a top talent for the future. Some mistakes will be made.
But again, it is the team's choice to make now. They have several draft picks over the next few seasons as well as plenty of cap space, and it will be interesting to see how they utilize all of those resources this summer.
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