PHOENIX — Rebuilding the Phoenix Suns to elite status, to when they were perennial playoff contenders making trips to the Western Conference Finals on average once every two years, was expected to take several seasons.
And it may still.
But a 23-win improvement from a year ago has accelerated the thought process and, naturally, the expectations of GM Ryan McDonough.
“We’ve reached the point where we’d rather put ourselves in that elite group of contenders sooner rather than later,” he said Friday at the Suns’ season-ending media availability. “Coming into the year, I think we all weren’t sure how long that would take. Luckily we’ve made a lot of progress and hopefully gotten closer to that elite group.
“One of the things that was impressive this year, if you look at our record when the starters were healthy, when our five starters played, obviously (Goran) Dragic, (Eric) Bledsoe, (PJ) Tucker, Channing (Frye) and (Miles) Plumlee, we were 23-11. So if you win more than two-thirds of your games, you’re an elite team.
“We feel like we’re not far away.”
Again, how much further the Suns (48-34) close the gap on the rest of the NBA’s upper class will be determined by the decisions that are made this summer.
McDonough is armed with upwards of $20 million in salary cap space, three first-round draft picks and, more importantly, a solid foundation with which to build upon.
“I feel like our backcourt is among the NBA’s best with Goran and Eric. I feel like we have good depth, but there’s some roster upgrades we can make,” he said. “We can obviously get better. We’re not going to sit here as a team that didn’t make the playoffs and tell you we’re all set. But I don’t’ think there are any glaring holes or holes that aren’t filled if you factor in some internal improvement.”
McDonough pointed specifically to the strides made this season by Plumlee and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Markieff Morris.
“I don’t see any reason those guys can’t take another big step next year,” he said. “There’s no overwhelming hole where I say we need a small forward or we need a center or this or that. It’s more whoever the best players are that are available that we can get.”
Lakers center Pau Gasol, an unrestricted free agent, is available and a player that the Suns were linked to prior to the trade deadline.
Forward Kevin Love might be another option should the Timberwolves be willing to trade a player they may risk losing for nothing because he has an opt-out clause in his contract after next season.
Both would address a need of not only low post scoring, but the team’s overall half-court effectiveness.
“We do need to find a way that when we can’t get going up-and-down…when we can’t run and teams slow us down, how do we counter that,” McDonough. “I felt like sometimes this year we didn’t have the answers.”
Of course, the reward of any such move must be weighed against the risk of disrupting the team’s current chemistry, something that’s been praised and believed to have attributed to the fourth-best turnaround in franchise history.
“That’s what I think makes us lean towards bringing a majority—I don’t think we’ll bring all of the guys back, but a majority of them back next year and trying to add to that group because we feel like we do have a special chemistry,” McDonough said. “We still need to get more talented. We know that. But there are some good things in place here and we don’t want to rock the boat too much and screw that up.”