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Phoenix Suns experience stigma of being bad NBA team

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

PHOENIX — “Everyone thinks I’m faking it, because obviously they think we’re trying to tank, but that’s not the case.”

That’s what Suns guard Devin Booker said when asked about his right-hand injury, but it speaks more about a bigger issue in the NBA.

The league has plenty of issues, from the one-and-done rule, to the tension between referees and players, to the danger super teams present.

But perhaps the biggest concern is the opposite of those aforementioned super teams: teams that tank.

For teams that aren’t that good and have no real building blocks, there’s a belief that they lose on purpose to better their chances of securing a higher draft pick.

This belief has been preached by many fans and, at times, members of the media, who look at a bad team and assume they’re tanking. This idea becomes emboldened when people such as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban say that losing is the team’s best option.

This accusation has hit the Suns the past few years and it’s not hard to see why.

This season they’re at the bottom of the standings at 19-59, they haven’t gone .500 since the 2013-2014 season, and they’ve traded many of their top players since 2014. Booker said that the fans who look at the team and think they’re tanking “have the right to think that.”

“A lot of teams do (tank),” Booker said. “I think in our situation, it’s not like we have a lot of vets on our team. We have a lot of young players that need the experience out there and they need to play so you know we’re going out there.

“Coach (Jay Triano) has done a really good job, even towards the end of the season, staying on people, making sure that we’re finishing like it’s a playoff push, so for us we’re going over film every game and none of our routine has changed.”

While it’s easy to classify teams that are losing as tanking, it also could just be these teams are bad in general. When you look at the worst nine teams in the league, three of them (Suns, Nets and Knicks) have been there for the past three years, three of them (Magic, Mavericks and Kings) have had bad records for the past two years, and for the Bulls, Hawks and Grizzlies, this is their first year being this low in the standings.

For those three teams, the argument that they’re tanking is a lot stronger due to how they got there.

The Bulls traded away their best player (Jimmy Butler) to start their rebuild. Atlanta not only started trading away key parts of their team but also lost key players to free agency in their attempt to rebuild. Memphis’ key players are aging. These three teams, however, don’t carry the same stigma because they’ve been competitive recently.

And herein lies the issue that many teams encounter: How do you rebuild without tanking?

For these teams, their best way to rebuild is through the draft since the draft allows teams to have a building block that they can hold onto for about seven to eight years. You could throw hundreds of millions of dollars to free agents in hope they’ll come, but history shows top players most likely won’t waste their prime playing on a bad team when they can go to a contender.

So in order to get elite prospects, you have to be bad. For the team that has the worst record in the league, you’re guaranteed the fourth overall pick at worst. Some players that were taken with that pick include Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kristaps Porzingis and Suns 21-year-old wing player Josh Jackson.

Those players, however, often don’t come into the league ready to dominate; they need to grow physically and mentally. Those growing pains usually result in another bad season, resulting in another lottery pick. This state of perpetual losing is what deters free agents from joining.

This is the stigma that many bad teams find themselves dealing with. You want to rebuild and get talent, but to get that talent, you sacrifice the present and the immediate future going through growing pains and the luck of the draft lottery.

A perfect example is the Philadelphia 76ers.

After six years of losing seasons, three of them quite painful, they just now are getting back into relevancy. That situation could have been eased if veterans were willing to join a rebuilding franchise. But why would anyone want to sign with one?

When it comes to the Suns, there are reasons for free agents to avoid the Valley. The team has struggled on defense (dead last in points allowed), and when Booker isn’t on the court, they look like a seriously deficient NBA team. With only two real veterans, it’s clear this team is going through a lot of growing pains.

Triano said that this season has been tough on players, and it has been an “individual challenge” for his players, his staff and himself. He also said that regardless of what’s going on, the team needs to focus on the process of “doing the right thing each possession and playing the right way.”

Perhaps most importantly, he said he and the veterans on the team have to stress to the younger guys that this isn’t normal.

“Jared (Dudley) and Tyson (Chandler) have been very good at that, giving their expertise that this is not fun and it’s not normal and how hard we work will determine whether we have to face this type of situation again,” Triano said. “You find out a lot about people when you go through tough times, and that’s a real positive about this … we’re finding out a lot about a lot of people.”

For the Suns, the light from the other side of the tunnel could be opening up soon. Booker is a dynamic scorer, and Jackson has shown promise. They’ll have a high lottery pick, and with all that’s going their way, this team could be on the rise once again.

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