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Taking the Phoenix Suns to the Next Level

A look at the Phoenix Suns and what they should consider to move up the ranks in the West.

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With significantly higher expectations this season following Jeff Hornacek’s surprisingly successful initial campaign as a head coach, the Phoenix Suns find themselves in a battle to remain within the playoff picture in an ever-so-tough Western Conference. At 23-18 and currently in what would be the eighth seed, the Suns have relied heavily upon a high-energy and fast-paced, but balanced attack that has been strong enough to at least compete with opponents on most nights.

The million-dollar question around the Valley of the Sun is whether they will use some of their backcourt and swingman depth in order to at least attempt to not only place more distance between themselves and other teams in pursuit of what will eventually be the final playoff spot (the Nuggets are 3.5 games back, but the New Orleans Pelicans trail Phoenix by just one game in the loss column and the Oklahoma City Thunder are lurking close by as well), but also propel this scrappy bunch into a realistic discussion with some of the West’s stronger competition? It’s one thing to beat or compete with a team that’s in the midst of three games in four nights in January, but an entirely different proposition when evaluating whether the Suns are strong enough to beat some of the West’s ‘elite’ in a seven-game series.

While teams are scrambling to make moves in order to bolster their respective rosters, the Suns are one of the few playoff contenders with several movable pieces if they so chose to go that route.

Many of us were at least intrigued by GM Ryan McDonough’s plans when he decided to not only sign Isaiah Thomas this summer, but also retain Eric Bledsoe even after drafting rookie point guard Tyler Ennis. There may have been rumblings about soon-to-be free agent Goran Dragic (who has a player option for 2015-16) just prior to the draft, but here we are at the actual midway point in the season for much of the league, and the Suns still have at least four legitimate lead guards on the roster even if Bledsoe (16.4 PPG, 6.0 APG, 5.2 RPG) has shown an ability to play off the ball just as effectively.

This may sound like a good problem to have as a head coach, as we highly doubt Coach Hornacek will complain about such a luxury; that said, it doesn’t do you much good to have so much depth at one particular position when the roster and rotation could use upgrades in other areas. The truth is, while everyone loves an underdog or feel-good story as these Suns have been, they probably still are not strong enough to beat teams like the Warriors, Grizzlies or Blazers. In reality, while 10-12 against the conference, these Suns have only managed to muster a 4-8 record vs. teams currently in the West’s playoff picture thus far this season.

The recent addition of small forward Reggie Bullock was another peculiar move given the roster composition as well as the current rotation. Gerald Green really seemed to finally find his place in the league during last year’s 48-win blitz from a team that had been expected to be lottery-bound, but finds himself in a somewhat diminished role in this year’s rotation due to the aforementioned roster redundancy. After posting career-high numbers, although still playing well, Green’s productivity has dipped along with his playing time (21.7 minutes compared to 28.4 last season).

With Green coming up on unrestricted free agency this summer, the presence of swingmen (generally shooting guards and small forwards) like P.J. Tucker, Bullock, Archie Goodwin, TJ Warren, Dragic’s brother Zoran could mean the 28-year-old isn’t in McDonough’s future plans. Each of those other players have either recently signed extensions or are locked into what are CBA-friendly rookie contracts for at least another season.

Dragic (16.7 PPG, 3.9 APG) has the opportunity and is expected to opt-out of his current contract following this season. Even though the market will dictate his eventual value, the 2013-14 Most Improved Player award winner will likely seek a deal somewhere between $12-15 million per season as that seems to be the going rate for lead guards at this stage. Of course, the Suns could always re-sign him at his desired rate, but the lengthy deals they signed with Bledsoe and Thomas at least open the door to allocate the cap space toward other needs.

Although you certainly wouldn’t want to mortgage any future opportunities for success by giving up too many assets in a mid-season deal that wouldn’t necessarily guarantee anything this year, these Suns may be in a prime position to pursue a player they were widely-reported to have been interested in last offseason.

No one knows how the Kevin Love experience in Cleveland will ultimately end, but one thing that is certain is it hasn’t gone nearly as well as anyone within that franchise would have liked. Love appears to be (at best) uncomfortable and even out-of-sorts at times. While Love may not be the perfect fit within Cleveland’s offensive sets, he’s as close to tailor-made for Hornacek’s system as you can be at the power forward position. He’s still able to stretch the floor as well Phoenix’s current crop of versatile bigs, and although clearly not the best defender (either), Love will still snatch double-digit rebounds on a nightly basis.

Would McDonough consider attempting to package Dragic and Green in an effort to lure the Cavs into a deal for Love if things simply cannot be worked out? Obviously, as with any hypothetical question or trade, you ask under the assumption of proposed variables, but this really isn’t a stretch to at least contemplate.

The Cavs are clearly in a “win now, at all costs” mindset with LeBron James’ potential free agency after this summer (opt-out clause) and next, and may find themselves in a position of having to survey their options. At that point, the key would seemingly be in McDonough finding a way to convince a West Coast native why life in the Phoenix area and most importantly with the Suns’ organization would be the best choice for what will likely be the prime years of the 26-year-old’s career.

Again, as this is merely a hypothetical idea, who knows if Love even becomes available or if the organization would still covet his services? The point is, if the Suns want to truly step into the conversation in a conference that doesn’t appear to be tapering off anytime soon, these are the types of deals they should be considering. The depth and roster flexibility are great, but you have to be willing to sacrifice some of it if the opportunity to significantly bolster your lineup presents itself. It will be fun to see what type of creativity McDonough shows with all these young assets in the coming years.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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