Through 50 years of the Phoenix Suns, a franchise that never has won a championship often still found its way to the top of players’ wish lists.
Tom Chambers signed with the Suns as the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent. Charles Barkley made Phoenix a permanent home and won a Most Valuable Player award with the Suns. Danny Manning once accepted a $1 million contract to play for Phoenix before tearing his ACL and still was re-signed for $40 million. Steve Nash joined Phoenix when he never thought he would leave Dallas and became a two-time MVP.
Their arrivals contributed to the Suns having the NBA’s fourth-best, all-time winning percentage.
Players’ exits, though, are now contributing to the Suns having the NBA’s third-longest playoff drought.
The current Suns front office has been retooling and rebooting to find a way back for a city that shifted favor to the NFL during this seven-year playoff absence.
The plunge started when a 2010 Western Conference Finals exit was followed immediately by then-General Manager Steve Kerr leaving when his contract offer included a first-year salary decrease and he could not get approval to exercise coach Alvin Gentry’s option year.
Hiring Lance Blanks as GM set back the franchise for three years. With fifth-year GM Ryan McDonough, the Suns have assembled talent but the chemistry and retention has not always followed.
The Suns’ latest fiasco would be solely an indictment of Eric Bledsoe if trade requests by Goran Dragic and Markieff Morris did not precede his repeated plea to leave Phoenix, and if the Suns had not often hailed Bledsoe as their star and leader.
Bledsoe asked for a trade this offseason after the Suns shut him down for the final 15 games of last season, when they went 24-58 after a 23-59 season. The Suns lost two of this season’s first three games by at least 40 points, including an NBA record for opening-night margin of defeat (124-76 to Portland without C.J. McCollum).
Coach Earl Watson was fired after an 0-3 start at nearly the same time that Bledsoe tweeted, “I Don’t wanna be here.” Bledsoe’s $10,000 league fine might now seem like a worthy investment to move to a rising contender.
Bledsoe told the Suns his tweet was referring to a hair salon but McDonough did not believe him and sent Bledsoe home and publicly announced plans to trade him.
That came 16 days later in a rare November deal. With the situation putting a short shelf life on Bledsoe’s trade value, the Suns moved him to Milwaukee for center Greg Monroe (whose Phoenix future is unknown with an expiring contract), a protected first-round pick and a second-round pick.
“We probably could’ve done a better job communicating the vision with our players and the reasons behind that,” McDonough said after Tuesday’s trade. “At the same time, there is a history. Over four and a half years, we’ve had hundreds and thousands of conversations with Eric Bledsoe about why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we didn’t do certain things, what we’re looking to do. You have to look at it from both sides.
“As far as us, it’s pretty clear our direction now in terms of rebuilding with draft picks, young players, cap flexibility and all that.”
The Suns could have three first-round picks in the 2018 draft and have stockpiled first- and second-round pieces to position for an acquisition. But acquiring talent has been less of a problem for the Suns than figuring out what to do with it.
They have gone for the splash previously, acquiring guard Brandon Knight in 2015 and signing him to a $70 million deal. Then they removed him from the starting lineup, shut him down at the end of last season and lost him for all of this season due to a knee injury.
The Knight move was in concert with the 2015 dismantling of a point guard triumvirate of Bledsoe, Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, each of whom was displeased about sharing the ball-handling despite a 28-20 record. Thomas went on to be an All-Star leading Boston to a No. 1 seed. Dragic has thrived into his 30s in Miami. Bledsoe could prosper too.
With a point guard solution, Milwaukee looks to be a top-four team in the Eastern Conference. Bledsoe has a place where he might be motivated to meet his defensive potential under Jason Kidd, gets an optimal pick-and-roll partner in Giannis Antetokounmpo and will not be needed for a leadership role that does not suit his personality.
The Suns had frustrations with Bledsoe and agent Rich Paul in 2014, when Bledsoe cut off communication with Suns personnel for an offseason until signing a contract extension days before training camp.
This summer, Bledsoe and Paul sought an extension with two years and $29.5 million remaining on his Suns contract but they were declined, prompting a trade request.
“I have some regrets about how public our process has been,” McDonough said, citing his inclination for honesty as the son of late Hall of Fame sports journalist Will McDonough.
Trading for Bledsoe in 2013 was considered a coup amid other teams’ pursuits with the Clippers. McDonough and his staff hit draft winners with Devin Booker and T.J. Warren outside the top 10 and potentially with this year’s Josh Jackson selection. It is too early to call Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss busts, but the bandwagon is emptying on 2013 No. 5 pick Alex Len.
“It (trading Bledsoe) is more of a move to fully show here’s what we’re doing, here’s what our timeline is,” McDonough said, using a word (“timeline”) that has become the Phoenix fan equivalent to Philadelphia’s “The Process.”
“Over the next two or three years, I think and hope you’ll see the results of that pay off.”