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A Tale of Two Cities: Phoenix and Philly Plot Different Courses to Contention

The Suns and Sixers are both making plans to have a legitimate shot at the title. One is in a rush, while the other is going with slow and steady wins the race.

There is a chanted mantra for the Cult of Hinkie — a sort of “serenity now” murmur the Sixers fan base leans upon when they get more bad news about Joel Embiid’s feet: “Trust the process.”

The Suns started a full-scale rebuild at the same time as the Sixers, but they’ve made so many unpredictable turns that it sometimes appears as if they have no guiding process at all. That’s wildly unfair, but the contrast between these teams — and the gut punches they’ve suffered over the last week — provides a window into the unmatched influence of owners in charting a team’s course.

Suns owner Robert Sarver admits he’s an impatient sort, but he embraced a rebuild when he empowered GM Ryan McDonough to gut the wretched postSteve Nash roster ahead of the 2013-14 season. That team nearly blitzed to the playoffs, and the Suns have been prisoners to that shocking success ever since. They’ve veered off the rebuild path, and reached in a half-dozen different directions for missing pieces in an attempt to quickly turn themselves into contenders.

They met with LeBron James’s camp a year ago, and after James held the league hostage for two weeks, the Suns dealt for Isaiah Thomas — tripling down on a point guard experiment that already included Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. When Dragic soured on his role, the Suns dealt him to Miami in exchange for two first-round picks — a killer return for a player on an expiring contract who wanted out, and a classic rebuild move. Phoenix at that moment had the trade chips to compete with anyone for the next disgruntled superstar.

And then, boom, the Suns traded two of their best chips — Thomas and a lightly protected pick from the Lakers — and didn’t have much other than Knight to show for it. Phoenix had dealt two guards, dangled its most enticing bait, and somehow come away with yet another point guard — and no big men to fill out a thin frontcourt.

Four months later, they came out of nowhere to sign Tyson Chandler, opened up cap space with a salary dump in Detroit, and emerged as San Antonio’s only real competition for LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge chose the Spurs, and the Suns are now left with Chandler — a 32-year-old center at least seven years older than the rest of the team’s core, and a seven-foot barrier to Alex Len getting the minutes he needs.

So, umm, what the heck are the Suns doing?

“It has been a roller coaster for sure,” McDonough says, chuckling.

“I am not a real patient person,” Sarver says. “You don’t have the kind of success that allows you to buy an NBA team by being a patient person in business. But it’s just a personality trait, and you try not to make decisions based on that.”

It’s no secret that Sarver desperately wants to make the playoffs again,1 and the team’s basketball operations staff has done well satisfying that hunger without mortgaging the future. They’re straddling two paths at once, something a lot of teams that chase free agents — like the Mavs — haven’t managed.


1.

He has talked to me before about seeding playoff teams 1 to 16 without regard to conference alignment.

“Most of the time, to play the cap space game, you have to strip down your roster,” McDonough says. “That won’t be the case for us. We want to win quickly, but we also want to build something sustainable.”

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail BlazersSam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
Sarver bought the team in 2004 and walked right into the greatest run of success in franchise history. But Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee issues robbed Phoenix of the foundational superstar who could transition them out of the Nash era. The Suns were right to let Stoudemire walk in 2010, but they had no road map without him. Phoenix blundered free agency in 2011 and 2012, and it was awful and aimless when the McDonough/Jeff Hornacek regime arrived in 2013.

This is not a franchise that does well financially when the team is bad. The Suns make very little from an ancient local TV deal, per several league sources, and they’ve ranked 21st or worse in attendance every season since trading Nash to the Lakers. They broke even before revenue-sharing in 2013-14, per league documents obtained by Grantland, and the final numbers for last season will look about the same, sources say.

That might explain why Phoenix rushed to replace Dragic with Knight, a borderline All-Star in the East, instead of simply keeping Thomas and the Lakers pick. Phoenix wagered that the Lakers would upgrade enough this summer to shove that pick toward the bottom of the lottery, but it appears to have lost that part of the bet. They could have waited to pursue Knight in free agency, though prying away restricted free agents is usually a loser’s game. Still: Knight now makes about double Thomas’s salary, raising the possibility that Phoenix effectively traded one point guard and one draft pick for a worse asset at point guard they might have signed anyway and a worse draft pick — the Cleveland first-rounder Phoenix received from Boston in exchange for Thomas.

But as I wrote here, Knight is a high-character guy in the same 25-and-under age range as Bledsoe, Markieff Morris, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin, Devin Booker, and the rest of the young core. He can more easily play alongside Bledsoe, and he might have been the only target available at the deadline who at least approached the value of the Lakers pick. The Suns also knew they could re-sign Knight for the long haul in restricted free agency. That certainty has real value. He fits, even if the process of getting him was chaotic.

Phoenix showed it is willing to ditch the whole ‘stay young’ thing, chasing two 30-plus starters the moment free agency opened.2 “It might look a little crazy,” Hornacek says, “but if we land LaMarcus, I really believe we are a top-four team fighting for home-court in the West.”


2.

Aldridge turns 30 next week.

The Suns telegraphed their desire for Aldridge by hiring Earl Watson as an assistant coach in early June. Watson and Aldridge played together in Portland, and they remain close; Watson was the only coach other than Hornacek to appear at the team’s two-hour pitch meeting with Aldridge, according to several sources.

Phoenix envisioned Chandler as a calming leader for a mouthy team, but it also signed him as a lure for Aldridge; they knew that Aldridge wanted to play alongside a true center, and they had learned through background work that he was fond of Chandler. “He wasn’t signed just because of that,” Sarver says. “It was an added benefit.” The Suns struggled to patrol the defensive glass and battle behemoth low-post scorers, and they thought Chandler could help on both counts — even if Aldridge spurned them, McDonough said.

Chandler agreed to terms quickly, and the Suns invited him to be the surprise guest at their Aldridge meeting — probably the first instance of one team using another team’s unsigned free agent as a recruiter. Rival execs loved that, by the way. The pitch meeting is officially a thing now, and teams need to stand out. The Suns wanted to shock Aldridge by having Chandler just sitting there when Aldridge entered the meeting room, but someone tipped Aldridge as he walked toward the room, sources say.

Everyone agrees the meeting went well, and Aldridge told teams his choice came down to San Antonio and Phoenix; the Spurs were scared enough to send Gregg Popovich back for a second meeting with Aldridge on July 3. The Suns knew that Aldridge had been annoyed playing in the shadows of Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and Damian Lillard, and they marketed Phoenix as a place to be the face of the franchise — the true heir to Charles Barkley and Nash, team officials say.

It wasn’t enough, and this summer has made it clear — again — that using cap space to chase stars is a low-odds proposition. It is not a path to bank on. It has happened with Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, and LeBron (twice), but most big-name free agents stay home. Winning recruiting battles because of cap space will get even harder next summer, when 20 or more teams with max room could be elbowing each other for a shot at Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Howard, or some other huge name.

Still, going hard after Aldridge was a smart play that didn’t cost Phoenix much. The Suns veered out of the patient lane when they dealt the Lakers pick, but once you enter that murky in-between team-building phase, you might as well go for broke. They no longer had much to lose. Aldridge has an ageless jumper, and he remains young enough that he could still be a borderline star as Bledsoe, Knight, and Morris enter their primes. The final year of Chandler’s deal could be ugly, but he’ll mentor Len, and Len’s presence will allow Hornacek to sit Chandler 10 or 15 games per season. The Suns’ legendary training staff should help stave off age, and if things go really badly, Phoenix could always waive Chandler with the stretch provision.

The Suns sacrificed Marcus Morris to open cap room, but Marcus is the alpha twin; the team can reasonably hope that separating the twins will soften Markieff’s temper, and that Markieff will learn to play at his peak without his twin on the floor. Marcus is a solid tweener forward, but he’s more of a wing player, and the Suns wanted to open minutes for other young guys — especially Warren.

Chandler is a popular dude who will help the Suns’ cause in the next round of free agency, and they would have had cap room even with Aldridge on the books. That was part of the appeal: The cap boom has the NBA approaching an unusual moment in which loaded teams can have cap flexibility, and Phoenix with Aldridge, Chandler, Bledsoe, and Knight would have been able to make a super-intriguing case to free agents in 2016 and 2017. The Chandler/Aldridge combination might not have transformed Phoenix into a contender right away, but there’s nothing wrong with being a solid playoff team — especially one with cap room coming.

“We are going to be aggressive,” McDonough says. “We want to establish the Suns as a major player in free agency.”

Phoenix swung and mostly missed. They’ll swing again. “One of these years,” McDonough says, “we hope we can win one of these.”

That may never happen. That is the danger of relying on cap space. Good news: The Suns aren’t just relying on cap space. They have a boatload of young players, and the 2018 and 2021 first-rounders coming from Miami loom as both interesting trade chips and key building blocks for the next era of Suns basketball. Those picks could decline in value if Pat Riley’s beachfront pitch seduces another star, raising the possibility that Phoenix will lag behind at least Boston and Philly in the race to build a trade package for the next available star.

Then again, first-round picks might rise in value as salaries for veteran players leap with the cap bonanza. Rookie-scale salaries are set in stone at cheap levels, pending a potential lockout in 2017, and they will look like gold as veteran salaries skyrocket.

The Suns know they may never get a star via free agency or trade. But they’ll keep trying, and they can develop all of their young players in the meantime.

“There are a lot of ways to lose out and never make it,” McDonough says. “It’s hard to win at the highest level. You need good timing. You need a little luck, but you also need to be aggressive.”

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ersMitchell Leff/Getty Images

Few teams have tried to minimize the role of luck as thoroughly as the Sixers, who don’t appear interested in any team-building path they can’t control almost completely. They haven’t traded for any veterans they see as part of the long-term picture, and for the third straight summer, they sat out free agency. Several executives gathered in Vegas for summer league have asked a version of the same question: “When will the Sixers rejoin the NBA?”

That question took on renewed urgency when news broke that Embiid will miss another full season. Philly’s best hope of a transformational superstar might be the next Greg Oden, and people have wondered, “The draft is no guarantee; do Philly’s owners really have the stomach to just keep doing this?”

They just might. They are the anti-Sarvers, for better or worse. The team has been profitable during this extended downturn, per league documents obtained by Grantland; Philly pays no money into the league’s revenue-sharing system and receives the same luxury tax distribution as every other team that comes in below the tax line. The value of the franchise has at least tripled since Josh Harris and his private equity partners purchased the team in 2011.

And the main point of Philly’s unprecedented strategy is that it can absorb a blow exactly like Embiid’s foot injury. If your owners are only willing to punt on two seasons, you are at the mercy of lottery balls and injury luck. Blow one draft, or fall from no. 1 to no. 4 in the Anthony Davis lottery, and the teardown gives way to panicked spending toward mediocrity.

If Philly is really willing to do this for five, six, or seven seasons, it almost cannot fail. It will either land a superstar or draft so many good players that they will gather a solid NBA team. Brett Brown may check himself into an asylum before then, but if you keep getting lottery picks, you will eventually succeed. Even when Philly was on the clock at no. 3, it was on the phone with teams in the lower half of the lottery, working to secure another high pick, according to league sources.

Philly needs to nail the draft, because big-time free agents don’t appear willing to consider the Sixers until they start winning a respectable number of games. Some agents have even called around to other teams, trying to ignite trade talks that would get their players out of Philadelphia, according to several league sources.

The free-agency route is likely closed to them for now, and they just aren’t good enough to flip their massive pile of trade assets for a star with only one or even two years left on his contract. Why would that guy stay?

Philly’s owners know this, which is why they trust a process they can shape more than “normal” teams like Phoenix will ever be able to shape free agency or the trade market. But you can only do that if the owners let you.