Why the Phoenix Suns Could Be the Biggest Wild Card in 2014 NBA Free Agency

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIDecember 27, 2013

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 23:  Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns reacts on the bench during the final moments of the NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at US Airways Center on December 23, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 117-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Phoenix Suns have surprised the NBA community with their level of play during the 2013-14 season, but the biggest trick up their sleeve may occur as a wild-card contender in 2014 NBA free agency.

Phoenix has shattered expectations in 2013-14 by compiling a 17-10 record, placing them right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Their immediate success in the midst of rebuilding has been impressive, but this team is clearly thinking long term. They have an opportunity to surprise the NBA community again next summer by becoming one of the biggest destinations for premier talent.

The Suns finished dead last in the Western Conference last season, but they’ve been able to flip the script this year due to two important people: general manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 28:  Jeff Hornacek head coach of the Phoenix Suns and General Manager of the Phoenix Suns Ryan McDonough pose for a picture on May 28, 2013 at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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McDonough burst onto the scene as an NBA GM by shedding salary and acquiring Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and multiple first-round picks.

According to an article by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Suns owner Robert Sarver was immediately impressed with McDonough’s demeanor.

“Given his age, I was really surprised at Ryan’s level of knowledge and confidence,” Sarver said. “A lot of guys can get wishy-washy about their convictions when it comes to players and coaches, but he had such strong opinion—such conviction—of what he wanted to do. He had an absolute strategic vision for our franchise.”

The 33-year-old GM deserves a great deal of the credit, but Hornacek has been able to mold his vision into a competitive on-court product.

Hornacek’s uptempo style embraces the backcourt tandem of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic because they are two smart ball-handlers who can run half-court sets as well as fast-break opportunities. His no-nonsense attitude appears to have gotten through to every young player, and they’re thriving as a result.

While financial factors often play a huge role in the decision-making process of NBA players, being part of a winning framework with a promising coach is an ideal scenario for everyone.

The biggest priority for the Suns next summer will be re-signing Bledsoe, who is set to become a restricted free agent. Aside from that, the Suns have numerous options.

The last time Phoenix entered an offseason looking to revamp the roster in a big way was after the 2003-04 season. The Suns fired head coach Frank Johnson after an 8-13 start and replaced him with Mike D’Antoni. Prior to the trade deadline, they traded Stephon Marbury and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway to the New York Knicks—a deal that saved more than $20 million in salary, according to ESPN. They finished the season 29-53 (second-to-last in the Western Conference).

That summer, the Suns signed Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, embraced D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense and won 62 games (tying a franchise record) in 2004-05.

DALLAS - MAY 20:  Quentin Richardson #3 and Steve Nash #13 of the Phoenix Suns speak to the media during Game six of the Western Conference Semifinals with the Dallas Mavericks during the 2005 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 20, 2005 in Dal
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Suns fans shouldn’t count their chickens before they hatch by expecting a reboot of the 2004-05 season, but this upstart team has everything moving in the right direction.

Phoenix can add talent through the draft, trade those draft picks for instant upgrades and/or bring in another piece via free agency. The latter of those three options can’t be understated.

With a visionary GM, a successful first-year head coach, plenty of talented teammates and even a beautiful winter climate, Phoenix is a dark-horse candidate to be atop many free agents’ wish lists.