The Phoenix Suns Are Attempting to Reinvent the Game, but Without a Major Star, They're Mired in the Middle of the NBA

The Phoenix Suns Are Attempting to Reinvent the Game, but Without a Major Star, They're Mired in the Middle of the NBA
Andrew J. Nilsen

The young basketball scout was embarking on one of his first big assignments.

Ryan McDonough, 24, was visiting the Washington, D.C. area to see the Michael Jordan Classic, in which top prep stars (who then could go directly to the pros) would be scrutinized by NBA decision-makers. He was accompanied by an elderly gentleman with decades of experience in these talent searches.

The big names at the Classic included Dwight Howard, the nation's top prep star who would become the number one pick in the draft, plus forward Al Jefferson and guard Sebastian Telfair. But the older scout also liked a skinny guard with huge hands, a player who couldn't shoot but had terrific court vision.

McDonough noticed the relatively obscure Rajon Rondo, too, so he picked the brain of his Boston Celtics colleague, who merely was the winningest figure in the history of American pro sports, the iconic Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. The result was the acquisition of Rondo (in a draft-night trade with the Phoenix Suns), who went on to help lead the Celtics to the 2008 championship.

Yes, McDonough, now the 35-year-old general manager of the Suns has been schooled well. He and Suns coach Jeff Hornacek now are charged with finding a breakthrough, one that will require the acquisition of a star, for a team firmly stuck in the middle of the NBA's hierarchy.

They're attempting to find the answer to the game's never-ending riddles while simultaneously trying to reinvent the game itself.

Great teams sometimes have a Big Three: Wilt, Baylor, and West. Kareem, Magic, and Worthy. Bird, McHale, and Parish.

The Suns have a Small Three: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas. They are the first team to try to win with three starting-caliber point guards. Sometimes, they're on the floor all at once.

No team, ever, has tried this -- at least not as a team's chief M.O. Can this work?

Nobody knows. And that's why the Suns are the most carefully watched team in the sport.

 

Isaiah Thomas (left) and Coach Jeff Hornacek
Isaiah Thomas (left) and Coach Jeff Hornacek
Jim Louvau

Ryan McDonough grew up in sports royalty as the son of Will McDonough, the Boston sportswriter whose NFL coverage was so well regarded that he also landed a network TV job covering the league.

(Two of McDonough's brothers also went into the sports business: Terry is the Arizona Cardinals' vice president for player personnel, which prompted brother Sean, an ESPN and ABC broadcaster, to become a rabid fan of the Cardinals and Suns. Terry says he gets together on occasion with Ryan and picks his brain about players "who might not be able to shoot a jump shot" but could make a good tight end.)

As a kid, Ryan found himself trotting around the locker rooms of Boston's big-league sports franchises and started considering the possibilities. He accompanied his dad on trips, including some to the Valley of the Sun to cover NFL owners' meetings.

At one, he learned how much sports-establishment types trusted his father. Will had gotten wind that Pete Rozelle, then NFL commissioner and probably the most influential sports executive ever, was considering retirement. Will got hold of Rozelle, who asked him to sit on the story for a bit. Then, at a Cubs spring training game in Mesa, Will got word that Rozelle was planning to spill the beans at a news conference at the Arizona Biltmore.

So Will missed the big scoop, but Rozelle gave him an exclusive interview. "So 500 guys wrote one story," Ryan says, "and my dad got the one-on-one because of the respect Pete had for him."

Ryan attended the University of North Carolina with the idea of going into sports journalism. He also was a pretty good baseball player so he tried out for the Tar Heels' team, but he ended up getting cut. He wanted to stay in sports so, with his father's help, got a job as a junior-varsity basketball manager, filling Gatorade bottles and wiping up sweat. (Will knew Auerbach, who knew iconic basketball coach Dean Smith who -- though recently retired -- still was involved in the UNC program.)

But Ryan longed for a spot in the competitive arena. After graduation, he got a break when the Celtics changed ownership. His father's connections with Auerbach helped in getting his foot in the door with the new owners. "I pretty much begged them for a job," he recalls.

At 23, he got one. At this point, he started leaning on Auerbach for advice. He asked the basketball legend "every question I could think of about scouting" and wrote his answers on Celtics letterhead. "I still have the notes somewhere."

Red's advice?

"Look for players who're instigators, not retaliators," McDonough says. "He liked guys who initiated physical play, who created an advantage physically, kind of brought the fight to the other team and lifted your team's energy and effort."

Also, "He emphasized the importance of relationships with coaches." Once, Auerbach accepted the advice of a coach and drafted, sight unseen, a player named Sam Jones, who went on to become a Hall of Famer.

Finally, "Look for high-character, unselfish guys who are tough, physical, and play the right way, who care more about winning than paychecks and stats."

Auerbach was proud of the fact that with all of Boston's championships (the count now is 17, all but one while Auerbach was alive), the Celtics never have had a player lead the NBA in scoring, Ryan says.

"They were unselfish. They just played the right way."

Young McDonough moved up in the organization and was a key assistant to savvy ex-Suns player and coach Danny Ainge when the Celtics won the title in 2008. He was put in charge of all scouting; he was becoming a name in the sports world in his own right.

At the same time, the Phoenix Suns had become a laughingstock, the object of the sort of ridicule aimed at the Arizona Cardinals 20 years earlier.

They had misfired on personnel moves, jettisoned respected head coach Alvin Gentry and replaced him with the underprepared Lindsey Hunter, bypassing Suns icon Dan Majerle (now doing well as basketball coach at Grand Canyon University). Two years ago, they finished 25-57, resulting in the firings of Hunter and general manager Lance Blanks (who was so low profile as to be invisible).

Owner Robert Sarver and team president Lon Babby maneuvered quickly to make changes. Nearly half of the NBA teams had head-coaching vacancies, possibly a record number, so they needed to get a general manager in place quickly so they could find the best possible coach.

"What attracted me to Ryan was, first and foremost, we needed a great talent evaluator with encyclopedic knowledge of every player in the world," Babby says. "He has that."

Sarver cited McDonough's experience in scouting and evaluating college and pro players around the world.

"A lot of guys in this business have a hard time taking a position . . . There's so much parity in everything we do. I liked the fact he had convictions."

Back in Boston, Sean McDonough heard the news. "I got really emotional. I thought of our dad (who died in 2003) and how proud he would be, not just as a professional accomplishment [but] more about what a good guy [Ryan] is and how well he treats everybody."

Sean brought a bottle of champagne to Ryan's home in south Boston. They talked a long time, with Ryan noting that the Suns were the fourth-winningest NBA franchise but lacked a title.

Recalled Sean, "He said, 'How awesome would that be if [I] helped them get that done?' Having worked with McDonough, Babby says, "The things I like most about him are that he's confident but not arrogant. In that job, you need to be decisive. You never ask him about a player where he doesn't have an opinion. It may not be fully formulated. But it's not out of indecision or equivocation."

 

Goran Dragic goes up for a shot.
Goran Dragic goes up for a shot.
Jim Louvau

If Jeff Hornacek is half as overachieving an NBA coach as he was a player, the Suns should be able to celebrate an NBA title someday.

You could've filled the Suns' downtown arena with skeptics of his playing abilities.

He was a smart player who could discern what was about to happen on the floor -- not a surprising talent for the son of a basketball coach. While Jeff was growing up in a western suburb of Chicago, father John recalls, "When he came into a huddle, he could draw up a play. He had basketball sense."

But he was slender and didn't have the chiseled look of an athlete. Never would. "He looks like my paperboy," vaunted Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons once said.

No school except Western Michigan offered him a scholarship. And even that offer disappeared, leaving Hornacek to work in a paper-cup factory in what would have been his first semester.

So he walked onto the Iowa State squad, eventually earning starting status. He burst onto the national scene, briefly, by hitting a big shot to propel the low-profile Cyclones to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Still, these feats weren't enough to earn Hornacek a spot at the NBA's pre-draft camp, where prospects are scrutinized by the pros in his hometown of Chicago. The situation prompted John to make a phone call or two. Legendary Indiana University coach Bob Knight was alerted. John contacted the Suns' Jerry Colangelo, who was familiar with John Hornacek from Colangelo's days as a Chicago-area prep star. And so Jeff got the invite.

Colangelo liked Jeff enough to tell him that the Suns would try to take him in the 1986 draft. The Suns had four picks in the first two rounds; Hornacek was the last of these. So his chances of making the team seemed slim. (The players picked ahead of him were William Bedford, Joe Ward, and Rafael Addison, who went on to lackluster NBA careers).

In the end, Jeff nosed out Sedrick Toney, who'd played briefly with the Suns the previous season, for the final spot.

Hornacek got there in time to experience the memorable Suns' 1987 drug scandal that centered on star guard Walter Davis but also included allegations against several other players. This was a wild time, with the story dominating headlines for weeks and frenzied reporters running around the Suns' practice facility at the Jewish Community Center asking players for comment. The case fell apart when witnesses started developing foggy memoriest. Nevertheless, the team broke up, with Colangelo shipping out or deciding not to re-sign several players. Hornacek, uninvolved in the mess, remained.

Hornacek quickly developed into a dependable point guard who had a nifty shot to boot. Then, when the Suns swung a huge trade for the dynamic Kevin Johnson, Hornacek found himself playing alongside K.J. as the off-guard.

Johnson once pointed out that Hornacek not only is the son of a coach but had earned an accounting degree. So he naturally was detail-oriented, a must for a playmaker. "He thinks like a point guard and shoots like an off-guard," Johnson said.

Hornacek came away with an important observation, one that he uses with the Suns today: Having two point guards playing together works well.

In those days, the Suns averaged as many as 118.6 points per game. By comparison, the celebrated Steve Nash-led "seven seconds or less" Suns never averaged more than 110.4.

"I thought it was an advantage," Hornacek says today. "We had two guys who [could] run the fast break, who could make passes. It makes for double trouble when you have two point guards out there."

By early 1992, Hornacek had blossomed into an all-star, those college recruiters, NBA scouts, and GMs who had passed on him be damned. A national magazine would call him "the patron saint of walk-ons."

He was the key to the trade that landed Charles Barkley from Philadelphia in the summer of 1992. He played well for the lowly 76ers, then got a big break when he landed in Utah and played alongside the great John Stockton, reprising the dual-point-guard concept.

By the time he retired, Hornacek had played in parts of three decades, amassed more than 15,000 points and 5,000 assists while establishing himself as one of the best shooters of his era.

You could fill only a small locker room with players who have piled up such stats.

Hornacek thought of going into college coaching, but the increasing prevalence of self-absorbed one-year-and-done college stars convinced him that he should look more toward the pros.

He was considered for the head coaching job in Boston by Danny Ainge (where McDonough was a young staffer), but Ainge ended up hiring the more experienced Doc Rivers. Later, Steve Kerr, GM at the time, considered hiring Hornacek for the Suns to replace Mike D'Antoni but ended up going with Terry Porter (who failed and was replaced by Gentry).

So when Gentry's successor, Hunter, proved to be a foolish choice, the Suns got a second chance to hire Hornacek. And the move not only gave them a coach who would prove instantly successful but would give them much-needed credibility with a skeptical fan base.

Hornacek seems likely to survive the normal ups and downs of the business.

"My theory about coaches," says Babby, a former player agent, "is you have good guys, and they are players' coaches, and it lasts for a period of time, [and] then the players take advantage of him. Then you hire a very tough disciplinarian. Then the players hate him, and it lasts for a period of time, and you go back to a good guy.

"What we tried to do is find someone down the middle."

Indeed, Babby says, Hornacek "has the respect of the players and can be tough on them when he wants to be . . . He could last 10 years."

When the new tandem of McDonough and Hornacek had a chance to land Eric Bledsoe, considered the NBA's best backup point guard (he'd been stuck behind the great Chris Paul at the Los Angeles Clippers) to play alongside Goran Dragic, the Suns' up-and-coming point guard, Hornacek fairly jumped at the idea.

"The question was," Hornecek says, "'Can [Bledsoe] and Goran play together?'

"I said, 'Why not? Kevin and I did. Kevin is pretty similar to Eric. Goran is similar to me. Yeah, they can both be out there."

There are differences. Johnson was expert at running pick-and-rolls, where a big man sets a screen for him so he could rive to the basket, pull up, and shoot or pass to a shooter such as Hornacek, Dan Majerle, or Eddie Johnson at the three-point line.

The current Suns do some of this, but the current setup often calls for swinging the ball from side to side in search of an advantage. The idea being that the defense can't load up on one side when there's a point guard on both sides who can find an open target.

In the weeks leading up to the Suns' first season under McDonough and Hornacek, Nevada sports books projected the Suns as a bottom-feeding 20-win team.

Instead, the Suns shocked the basketball world by winning 48 and narrowly missing the playoffs. The duo nearly won awards for the league's best executive and coach. They beat the odds by playing at a frenzied pace and with a gritty selflessness. They had a bunch of players trying to show that they deserved unfamiliar big minutes and, in some cases, that merely they belonged in the league. The leader was Dragic, who carried the team until exhaustion overtook him in the season's final days.

The experiment with two point guards went well, with the Suns going 23-11 when both Dragic and Bledsoe started. (Bledsoe, the team's best defender on the perimeter, was injured for about half the season, but the Suns nevertheless agreed to a $70 million deal just before the current season started).

What is revolutionary this year is having three starting point guards.

That the Suns signed Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 20 points with the Sacramento Kings last season, to a four-year, $27 million deal seemed a precursor to other moves. Surely, they weren't going to keep Dragic, Bledsoe, and Thomas -- they must be angling to trade one of them and maybe a first-round pick or two to land a star.

Yet they've spent this season trying the experiment.

The idea, say McDonough and Hornacek, is to keep the Suns' style intact -- the racehorse pace allowed them to lead the NBA in fast-break points last season.

"We need somebody to drive the engine and push the ball." McDonough says. "You can't get just anybody to do it. Our three guards are invaluable because they can create shots for themselves and others, not only score efficiently but get good looks and break down the defenses for their teammates."

Moreover, "If you have a system that's effective in running one way, when they have an injury or go to the bench, they try to play completely differently. We wanted to play the same way the whole time."

Also, Hornacek says, "This allows us to spread out the minutes and not wear down Goran." So Thomas provides an insurance policy.

"But if they're all healthy, we can lower their minutes, and they should be fresh toward the end of the year."

All three had to buy in at the start. But judging from mediocre results (they were 12-14 through mid-December), and skeptical comments by Thomas, the grand experiment appeared on the verge of imploding.

 

Eric Bledsoe prepares to take a shot.
Eric Bledsoe prepares to take a shot.
Jim Louvau

Instead of the hustle and selflessness that fans saw last year, certain Suns this season have played tentatively, as though they were continually carrying stat sheets from the previous game, with the numbers circled for shots taken and minutes played.

The first warning signs of this attitude change came with terrible home losses to bottom-feeding Charlotte and Orlando. What was apparent was that Thomas liked to dribble. And no player in the history of basketball ever has scored, nor will he ever score, by dribbling in place.

The Suns also were crushed by mind-numbing bad luck. They'd worked frantically to claim a win in Los Angeles over the Clippers and led by two points as the final buzzer was about to sound. That's when superstar Blake Griffin launched an ugly line-drive three-point shot that hammered the rim, bounce high, and somehow drifted into the basket for what may have been the most improbable bucket (and certainly the most replayed one) of the entire NBA season.

The Suns' basketball IQ also was called into question. They have been among the league leaders in drawing technical fouls. They've sometimes appeared confused in end-of-game situations. They've fouled on three-point shots (once, incredibly, three times in a single half). As the All-Star break approaches, they're 2-9 in games decided by three or fewer points, the NBA's second-worst such record. No loss was as depressing as their come-from-ahead-debacle February 2 versus the Memphis Grizzlies, when they led by seven points with less than two minutes left. Thanks to a series of fouls (a team should almost never foul with a lead late in a game), turnovers, and clutch Memphis shots, the Suns gave up eight straight points and lost.

The season's low may have come December 12, when they blew a home game to Detroit, losers of 13 straight. Making matters worse, Bledsoe argued with a Pistons fan who was heckling him about the size of his contract.

The situation got even worse three nights later. The Suns had a two-point lead in the closing seconds against Milwaukee. But just in time to beat the buzzer, Bucks forward Khris Middleton threw up a three-pointer that banged off the backboard and the rim before somehow going in.

It was their sixth-straight loss. The shot at making the playoffs in the Western Conference, with perhaps nine of the NBA's 12 best teams, seemed a distinct long shot. Thomas broke the silence in the deathly quiet locker room:

"It looked like a lucky shot. That's just how things are going for us right now. We've got to figure it out and get out of the hole we've put ourselves in.

"This one hurts. They all hurt. The Clipper one and this one. We felt we did enough to win the games. Man, oh man."

In this game, Hornacek made a change. Big man Miles Plumlee, after a surprising, breakout season the year before in which he'd been one of the NBA's statistical leaders in blocking and altering shots, had been struggling.

So Hornacek began bringing him off the bench while starting Alex Len. That the Suns drafted the big Ukranian with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft (one of the highest picks the Suns have had in their 47-season history) puzzled pundits and fans alike. Len had played only one year in college and had operations performed on one ankle before the draft and on the other ankle afterward. Drafting a big man with bad feet is a little like a football team drafting a quarterback with a bum arm. The NBA is littered with the bones of big men whose bodies failed them.

But Len long had been on McDonough's radar from his scouting days. And, sure enough, Len mostly has stayed healthy and come around this season, protecting the rim and flashing basic passing and shooting skills that are prized in big men.

With the change, the Suns started winning. Maybe more significantly, the Small Three appeared to be buying in.

They swept three road games against inferior teams, then returned home and ran circles around the Dallas Mavericks, who were thought to be a title contender, making them look old and slow.

Will the three-point-guard concept work consistently?

"It worked pretty well tonight," said unhappy Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.

Said Rajon Rando, the same player scouted by Auerbach and McDonough a decade earlier (who had just been sent by the Celtics to the Mavs in a trade), "They're the best fast-break team in the league."

Aging superstar Dirk Nowitzki said of the Small Three: "They're pretty quick and explosive. All three can drive and kick." If opponents don't take advantage of the vertically challenged Suns at the defensive end, Nowitzki said, "Then they're beasts offensively because they're quick, and they can really break you down."

What Nowitzki talked about is true in spades whenever the Suns have the Small Three together on the floor. The other two players have to be extremely active on defense and the boards and give effort to protecting the rim.

This is what happened in a game at Milwaukee, the Suns trying to avenge that crushing, freak-bounce loss to the Bucks. With the Small Three on the floor, Markief Morris, who is trying to fill the old role of Channing Frye of a big man who can shoot from the perimeter, nailed a three to give them a win. Morris then scored a career-high 35 to push the Suns to a hard-earned win over LeBron James and Cleveland. Then, a wild back-and-forth home win over Portland pushed them to 14 wins in 18 games.

Beyond these ups and downs, there were broader questions about how Thomas was fitting in. After a late November loss at Toronto, Thomas raised eyebrows when he said his situation with the Suns was "not what I expected."

McDonough and Hornacek say they, along with Babby and Sarver, explained to Thomas that they expected to re-sign Bledsoe and keep Dragic long-term. Clearly, Thomas would be coming off the bench.

Thomas has a firecracker personality. He answers direct questions directly. He's also become something of a team leader off the floor. He led the Suns in wearing T‑shirts during a pregame warm-up that said "I can't breathe," in protest of the choke-hold death of Eric Garner in New York City.

So just what did Thomas expect?

"I thought we [the Small Three] would be playing more together. On the six-game winning streak, I think that was the most we'd played together. It showed we can play together . . . finish games together. We made other teams adjust to us. We didn't care how it looked at the defensive end.

"We made other teams make substitutions and put guards in and go small. I think that's what the good teams do. They make you adjust to them, no matter what the circumstances are."

Yet Thomas claims he's buying in.

"I got my trust in [coaches and management]. I got my faith in them."

The message that Thomas is the sixth man was re-delivered when Dragic sat out two games with a sore back. Gerald Green, their explosive off-guard, started in his place, not Thomas.

So far, the Suns are winning more than 60 percent of their games when the Small Three have been healthy enough to play. Over the course of a full season, this would give them about 50 wins and a likely playoff spot. But the early-season struggles are making a playoff bid an uphill struggle in a league in which most of the best teams are in the West.

 

Isaiah Thomas and Austin Rivers apply defensive pressure.
Isaiah Thomas and Austin Rivers apply defensive pressure.
Jim Louvau

So where do the Suns go from here?

Off the floor, Sarver has made surprising noise about wanting a new arena. Their current building, which opened in 1992, has been popular with fans and is extraordinarily convenient because of nearby light-rail stations.

The Suns' owner makes the case that the building will be the NBA's second-oldest when the lease expires in 2021-22 and that "it's becoming obsolete in terms of . . . loading docks, storage, technology." The arena is the NBA's smallest -- 550,000 square feet -- and new arenas are between 650,000 and 850,000 square feet, he says.

Further, owners and the NBA front office prefer new buildings, he says.

The idea would be to have a new arena in a new location ready to go after the '21-22 season. The new arena would be in a different location "because the site we have right now is too small. And it would be far too disruptive to try to relocate our team to, say, Glendale for two or three years while we built a new arena."

Sarver's preference is to keep the team downtown. "If that's not an option, then just to stay in metropolitan Phoenix.

"It won't be easy to do," he acknowledges. "But I think we'll get it done over time."

That Sarver, who operates according to five-year plans, is talking up a new arena is significant in that he intends to stay as lead owner for the foreseeable future.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, while not wanting to negotiate in public, appears to support the concept. Stanton says, "As mayor, I am fully committed to making sure the Phoenix Suns will be in downtown Phoenix. They are a thriving part of our downtown."

On the floor, the Suns need to re-sign Goran Dragic, who had a career year last season (third-team All-NBA) and is their most important player in terms of consistency and forcing their favored frenzied pace. During their slow start, rumors and speculation abounded that he was unhappy. So the Suns are careful to praise Dragic, who will test the free agent market this summer.

(Based on current salary rules, a lowly team in the standings, such as the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks, could offer him more than $75 million over four years. The Suns could offer a fifth year for maximum deal of more than $100 million, though they're not expected to go this far. In any case, Dragic should get at least in the range of Bledsoe's $70 million.)

Says Hornacek, "We love Goran and what he does for us. He's the one guy we can count on every night to go out there and play hard. We're all under the assumption that he's going to be back."

While not making any commitment and admitting the addition of Thomas made for a bumpy transition this season ("It was hard . . . All those years, I was playing as a point guard. So I had the ball in my hands. Now . . . I'm playing off the ball"), the Slovenian star sounds on board.

"I think I have the right to explore the market, but I'm really happy here . . . Jeff is a great coach. The Suns are a great organization."

Dragic says he "loves everything" about the Valley. Significantly, Dragic says he and his wife, who have a 1-year-old son, are talking about whether to move back to Europe after his playing days or stay in Arizona.

"It's all about kids," he says. "We're probably going to stay here."

The Suns also want to re-sign flamboyant off-guard Gerald Green. He is a classic gunner; every team needs one shooter with no conscience, and Green fills the bill. Moreover, he has freakish athleticism, which he uses for monster dunks on fast breaks and to create his own shot by simply leaping over his defender.

On the downside, his decisions can be perplexing, and he's had an up-and-down career.

Says McDonough, who has known Green since he scouted him as a prep star in Houston, "A lot of coaches say, 'Don't shoot that shot. That's a bad shot. Move the ball. Get a better shot.

"Jeff is almost the opposite. He'll say, 'Look Gerald. You're 6-foot-8. You have a beautiful stroke. Any time you're open for a three-pointer . . . I'm only going to get upset with you if you don't shoot it."

Green says his relationship with Hornacek is "great" and that though it's up to the front office and my agent to decide . . . I would love to come back here."

Even if Dragic and Green (who has slumped lately) are re-signed, the basic problem remains unsolved: The Suns are mired in the middle of the league.

Three days before the All-Star break. they were outscoring their opponents by 1.4 points per game, which had them ranked 15th in point differential, a great gauge of a team's relative strength. Media power rankings have had them pegged at about 13th, a shade higher than the exact middle. With the best teams residing in the West, the Suns risk becoming the first squad ever to win 50 games and miss the playoffs, though they were playing at a 45-win pace just before the break. (The answer to the trivia question of the winningest team to fail to make the playoffs: The '71-72 Suns won 49 and failed to get into the postseason.)

To rise above the status of mere playoff contender, they need a big-time star.

Yet it's unlikely they'll be able to draft one, even though they hold a number-one pick from the lowly Lakers (which the Lakers keep if they get a top-five pick). Teams rarely trade superstars, unless they don't think they can keep them. Perhaps Oklahoma City's management will decide the Thunder no longer is a title contender and need to get something substantial for Kevin Durant to guard against his leaving in free agency.

A year ago, the Suns had a chance for an upgrade in center Pau Gasol; they likely would have had to give up a mid-first-round draft pick. Hornacek notes that there was no guarantee Gasol would have signed long-term, and by the time the Suns are ready to contend for the title, Gasol probably would be too old to help.

But things can change quickly in the NBA. Could anyone have foreseen Golden State and Atlanta being the league's top two teams this season? A chance for Gasol long-term probably would have been worth giving up the chance to draft an end-of-bench player such as T.J. Warren or Tyler Ennis.

To swing any mega-deal for a superstar, the Suns could have to deal the first-round pick they hold from the Lakers, the fast-improving Markieff and Marcus Morris, and even break up the Small Three.

About landing a superstar, McDonough says, "You evaluate the other 400-plus players in the league. You put a price on all of them, and you see what's available.

"The hardest thing to do in the NBA is to acquire a superstar. There are only 30 teams. There are only so many of those guys. Every team is trying to position themselves to get one. We feel we are well positioned. It's a matter of those guys becoming available. We're still waiting for that opportunity."

If nothing else is certain, the Suns know who will guide them for the next several years: McDonough and Hornacek.


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