As he sat before the assembled media at Friday morning’s end-of-the-season press conference, Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby paused and offered a moment of levity — one that in some ways also had some truth attached to it.
“Last year, everybody was pushing me in the back,” Babby said. “Now, maybe they’re patting us on the back.”
The change in temperature surrounding the Suns is evident.
In April 2013, Phoenix closed out the regular season with the second-worst record — 25-57 — in franchise history. It’s roster was filled with unhappy veterans and lacked a heavy dose of leadership. Interim head coach Lindsey Hunter looked lost in his brief stint at the head of the bench, and frankly the organization as a whole looked like a shell of the one that made five postseason appearances in six seasons from 2004-10.
Sensing changes needed to be made, Babby and the Suns parted ways with general manager Lance Blanks, and replaced him with an up-and-comer in Ryan McDonough.
The first-year GM then promptly went out and hired former Sun Jeff Hornacek before remaking the roster with 10 new players, including three acquired in trades — Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee.
While the collection of new faces — from the front office to the coaching staff to the on-court personnel — couldn’t deliver a trip back to the playoffs, they did just about everything else.
Phoenix recorded a 23-game turnaround in 2013-14, electrifying the league in the process with a young, exciting nucleus.
To say that Babby and the organization made a noticeable 180 would be a gross understatement.
The pats on the back these days are more than warranted.
“If you look around the league, there are probably a handful of teams that are as well-positioned as we are for the future,” Babby said. “And that’s mostly because of Ryan and Jeff and a front office that’s operating at the highest level. We have a coaching staff that’s operating at the highest of levels. We have a first-rate training staff. We’ve proven we can develop players and have a first-rate development staff. Our analytics are the vanguard of the league now.
“On all levels, we are well-positioned for the future. Now the challenge is converting that into more wins. We know that’s going to be hard.”
Repeating success and then building on it will certainly be a tough task for the Suns, but in a span of 365 days, they’ve proven that it is possible to go from the depths of despair to the brink of postseason play.
With plenty of cap space, at least three first-round draft picks at their disposal this June and big decisions looming thereafter on the future of free agents like Channing Frye, P.J. Tucker and Bledsoe, the Suns front office has noted that tweaking will be the key this summer, rather than full-blown turnover.
In Babby’s estimation, the most-recent campaign illustrated the gap between Phoenix and the teams still eying a long run into June has been trimmed quite significantly.
In 2013-14, the Suns were a Cinderella story.
In 2014-15, he’s hoping they will earn a slightly different label.
“Our goal hasn’t changed,” said Babby. “Our goal is to be elite. I’ve always defined that as legitimately competing for championships. You can’t compete for the championships if you don’t make the playoffs, so in that measure we’re disappointed.”
While that disappointment will unquestionably linger given that Phoenix dropped 11 games by eight points or less to the league’s top eight teams, the feeling Babby admitted quickly turns to optimism when considering the potential for what lies ahead.
“It’s pretty hard to argue that we’re not right on the brink of being an elite team.”