The Phoenix Suns haven't made the playoffs since 2009-10, when Steve Nash led the team all the way to the conference finals—the third and last time the franchise made it that far during the iconic point guard's reign.
Despite the post-Nash era's uneven results, last season's 48-34 record was nearly good enough for a postseason berth.
Now Phoenix hopes modest offseason action and internal growth will make the difference between another close call and a successful foray into the first round. Unfortunately, the Western Conference with which those Suns contend hasn't gotten any more forgiving.
Even as the Houston Rockets took a step back with the losses of Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Dallas Mavericks have positioned themselves to vie for a title by taking Parsons from those Rockets and acquiring old friend Tyson Chandler. The Los Angeles Lakers will be healthier and desperate to shed nightmarish memories of the 2013-14 campaign.
The young New Orleans Pelicans also appear poised to take a step forward, perhaps engaging Phoenix in a battle for the bottom of the playoff bracket.
If the Suns are to keep pace, a few things have to go right for them.
First and foremost, the organization has to reach agreement with 24-year-old guard Eric Bledsoe—preferably a long-term arrangement that prevents his future from later emerging as a distraction. Bledsoe played in only 43 games last season due to injury, but he made the most of his time and averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds in just 32.9 minutes per game.
It was the kind of performance that suggested he was all but indispensable for the up-and-coming Suns.
But it was also the kind of performance that falls just short of guaranteeing a maximum contract.
In turn, the two sides have reached an impasse.
In July, CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes reported that, "According to league sources, an 'ominous development' has arisen with sides still 'very far apart' in contract negotiations. It has even escalated to the point where the 'relationship is on the express lane to being ruined,' a source with knowledge of the situation informed CSNNW.com."
Haynes adds that, "The Suns offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million deal with declining salaries each year, two sources said. That proposal was quickly turned down."
In the subsequent weeks, little has apparently changed.
"We haven't heard from the guy in four months, so I couldn't tell you," Suns managing partner Robert Sarver said earlier this month, per AZCentral's Paul Coro. "I do know that when he played here, he felt good about the organization, his coaching staff and his teammates at the end of the season. We had the same feelings toward him."
Sarver also said, "We value Eric as a player. I hope at some point we'll be able to sit down and meet with those guys and make a deal."
By some accounts, the Suns aren't to blame in this particular instance.
Coro separately reported earlier that "four current NBA executives and two prominent agents were anonymously unanimous in their belief that the Suns made a fair offer to Bledsoe and that he does not merit a maximum-salary contract now."
"I'm surprised that they would offer him that much," one executive said to Coro of the $48 million offer. "They don't need to. It is really fair and, in fact, generous. He is talented, but he has never put it together very long, and he hasn't been healthy. It's hard to turn your team over to him."
Bledsoe may be banking that Phoenix's desperation will result in an even sweeter offer, but it probably behooves both sides to arrive at a reasonably fair middle ground.
Phoenix's long-term prosperity (and short-term playoff odds) likely depend on Bledsoe returning and playing at top form. There's now a risk that he could sign the qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next season, forcing the two sides to revisit the issue next summer—and all but ensuring a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the team in the meantime.
The 25-year-old—who will make an affordable $28 million over the next four seasons—averaged an impressive 20.3 points and 6.3 assists with the Kings last season. Assuming Bledsoe returns (for at least next season), Thomas figures to serve as a very capable sixth man. If Bledsoe takes his talents elsewhere through either free agency or trade, Thomas does have the starting experience needed to fill in.
Still, Phoenix would prefer the added depth, and that probably entails striking an agreement with Bledsoe—or at least getting something in return for him via trade.
Pending resolution of the Bledsoe situation and bracketing the addition of Thomas, the Suns have had a relatively quiet summer.
The draft yielded No. 14 overall pick T.J. Warren and No. 18 overall selection Tyler Ennis. Warren could immediately find minutes on a wing featuring Gerald Green and recently re-signed P.J. Tucker, but Ennis' opportunities may be limited early on as he fights for minutes in a crowded backcourt.
So long as Bledsoe remains in the picture, Phoenix is probably better than it was a season ago.
That said, there are some unanswered questions.
After starting all 82 games and averaging 11.1 points last season, stretch 4 Channing Frye signed a four-year, $32 million pact with the Orlando Magic. That means Phoenix will need more from the Morris brothers, especially Markieff. The 24-year-old made a case for sixth-man honors a season ago after tallying 13.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
Now the Suns may lean on him to start and increase his production even further.
The organization also inked Anthony Tolliver to replace Frye, but he hasn't averaged double-figure points since 2009-10.
Even more pressing is the club's ability to do battle in the paint. Alex Len was selected with the No. 5 overall pick in 2013, but early injury derailed his debut, and he was limited to just 42 games last season. His continued development may be as important as any move the organization makes going forward.
Without some steady rim protection, the Suns risk relying too heavily on a breakneck pace that can cut both ways. While the team ranked seventh leaguewide with 105.2 points per contest, it also gave up an average of 102.6 points to the opposition—good for just 21st in the NBA. Opponents also made 45.6 percent of their field-goal attempts, which put the Suns in average company.
Odds are the Suns remain an entertaining and overachieving enterprise, but contending in the crowded West will require more.
More from proven commodities like Markieff Morris and 2014 Most Improved Player Goran Dragic; even more from the less proven Alex Len.
And a fully invested Eric Bledsoe is no less essential.
The Suns are an ambitious team, and they have a right to be. But without a superstar to carry their load, 2014-15's success necessitates collective in-house growth—the kind of evolution that will put head coach Jeff Hornacek to the test.
This team didn't make huge strides overnight, but it still has the time to make up for it.