PHOENIX — Call it selling off the present to empower the future. Call it the ground stages of a reconstruction project that’s well overdue. Call it a shrewd start to Ryan McDonough’s tenure as an NBA general manager. But don’t call it tanking, at least not around those still left on the Phoenix Suns’ roster.
Friday’s five-player trade — which saw the Suns send Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Emeka Okafor and a top-12 protected 2014 first-round pick — was just the latest example of McDonough washing his hands of acquisitions accrued during prior regimes.
Former assets like Brown, Gortat, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola are now calling new places home, and in their collective place stands a clear vision for the organization’s future — one built around a young core, a budding head coach and four potential first-round picks in a 2014 draft that according to the Suns GM is “shaping up to be one of the best in a decade.”
It’s a forward-thinking vision, however, that’s doesn’t seem primarily concerned with whether the on-court product is a successful one in 2013-14.
While McDonough publicly stated that he hopes his team will “try to win” games over the next six months, only a handful of days stand between the Suns and their home opener on Oct. 30 and already it appears that the left side of the win-loss column will take a back seat to the organization’s desire to build for seasons to be played at a later date.
Yet from a competitive standpoint, how do veterans like Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker rationalize the perception that the Suns will enter the campaign with a ‘play for the future’ mentality? The truth is, they don’t.
“Nobody wants to be a loser and nobody wants to get smacked,” Frye said when asked if the notion of tanking exists in the NBA. “I was on a team where we won 23 games in a season, and it was absolutely miserable. So nobody comes out like, ‘We don’t care about winning.’ I think teams might buy into that, but I don’t think this is one of those teams that’s going to buy into that.
“Number one, you have too many guys on contract years. And I think you have too many young guys. So us losing, nobody pays losers the amount that they should get paid. Maybe it happens once in awhile, but I’ve always known guys on winning teams getting paid what they should get paid. For us, our aspirations of the playoffs may be a little bit high right now, but we’re going to be competitive and do the best we can.”
Will Phoenix be competitive enough to shock those around the basketball community? Well, Frye didn’t dismiss the notion.
“This may sound rude, but people thought we were going to be 12th [in the West Conference] in 2010,” Frye said. “But people don’t really know until it happens. I see how hard guys are working. When you have a lot of young guys who get a chance like this, good things usually happen. We don’t have quitters. We have guys who want to play hard. We have really good guys on our team.
“For us, if we can continue to get better every game we’re going to start to make progress and start winning those games people think we shouldn’t win.”
Tucker, who with just two years of NBA experience makes for a rare veteran leader in the Suns’ locker room, seemed to echo Frye’s sentiments Saturday.
“It’s impossible [to tank],” Tucker said. “That’s why I don’t listen to talk radio or stuff. These guys don’t know what they’re talking about. Nobody tanks. You go up to any guy in this gym right now and ask them what they want to do this year. All these guys have careers.
“Tanking? You call our careers tanks? No. We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to try and win every game we play. No matter if we’re playing the Heat or Sacramento, we’re going to fight and try to win games.”
While head coach Jeff Hornacek made two trips to the NBA Finals during his 14-year career, he also knows a thing or two about rebuilding projects in the Valley, having gone through one from 1986-88.
During Hornacek’s first two seasons in the league Phoenix compiled a record of 62-102, but in the process managed to rebuild its foundation from the ground up with the first-round selections of Armon Gilliam (June 1987), Tim Perry (June 1988) and Dan Majerle (June 1988), the acquisition of a rookie point guard named Kevin Johnson along with veterans Mark West and Tyrone Corbin (Feb. 1988), and the free agent signing of All-Star forward Tom Chambers (July 1988).
Although Hornacek wasn’t around long enough — involved in the blockbuster deal that sent Charles Barkley from the Philadelphia 76ers to Phoenix — to reap the ultimate reward in June 1993, the Suns’ first-year coach can certainly testify to the importance of a smart long-term plan.
“The [rebuilding process] I was in is a great lesson to think if all the guys play together and play hard, and then you add a piece or two you can get back to winning ways pretty quickly,” Hornacek said. “That’s all of our hopes, that we can do it in a year or two. This is a great year for us to really start that. When we made the trade way back in the day [with the Cleveland Cavaliers] to get Kevin and Mark and Tyrone, we were all a bunch of no-name guys.
“I think we ended that season above .500 for the games they were there. I think we were 15-13. There’s no reason that if these guys play together that we can’t do the same thing.”