Here's me talking to my past selves about the Phoenix Suns:
2016 James: The Suns drafted Dragan Bender AND Marquese Chriss! They could really have something here. They had to give up that Bogdanovic guy to move up and get Chriss, but think of the upside! Think of the versatility!
Present James: I have some bad news for you...
2017 James: Oooh, Phoenix got Josh Jackson with the fourth pick. This guy has some moxie. He said on draft night that the teams who passed on him will be sorry. The Suns are high on him, too: Apparently, they refused to put him on the table when they talked to the Cavs about a Kyrie Irving trade.
Present James: Hmm, yeah, this is awkward…
2018 James: You have to give Phoenix credit. I didn't like that it passed on Luka Doncic, and I'm not sure it should have surrendered that unprotected Heat pick to move up, but a core of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges is pretty cool. Elie Okobo has potential, too, and I love that the Suns traded for De'Anthony Melton. Jackson had a rough start but the second half of his rookie season was pretty good, and I heard T.J. Warren has improved his 3-point shot, which should at least increase his trade value. Sure, Igor Kokoskov is their fourth coach in four years, but he seems like a sharp, creative guy. If they can just get a starting point guard, their future will look pretty bright.
Present James: Well, uh, a core of Booker, Ayton and Bridges is indeed pretty cool. Okobo does have potential. About the rest of it, though…
The last time Phoenix played a postseason game was 2010, Amar'e Stoudemire's final season in the desert. Steve Nash was the point guard and Steve Kerr was the general manager. The Suns have flailed around ever since, trying to rebuild and retool and rebuild again. Only four of their players -- Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Okobo -- remain from last season's opening-night roster, and it cost them multiple second-round picks to dump Jackson, Melton and Warren for cap space. Their front office, led by new VP Jeff Bower and GM James Jones, has essentially given new coach Monty Williams a clean slate. Phoenix has been pilloried for its recent moves -- mostly because of a confusing flurry of activity on draft night -- but I can still talk myself into being optimistic about its future … to a point:
Positive James: For a moment, let's put aside the weird, depressing road that the Suns took to get here. Let's imagine that this roster belonged to a franchise with a sterling reputation for scouting and player development and no history of ownership-driven dysfunction. Ricky Rubio and Booker will be able to run pick-and-rolls with plenty of shooting around them. Restricted free agent Kelly Oubre is expected to be retained, and he can provide some secondary playmaking. Dario Saric can, too, as long as Williams empowers him to play his game. On defense, Rubio and Aron Baynes can't be expected to fix all of Phoenix's problems, but they should help. Does it really matter that Cameron Johnson was considered a reach if he's the best shooter in his class and can play a role immediately? Ty Jerome looks like he could contribute as a rookie, too. If Ayton and Bridges make significant strides and Booker benefits from carrying a lighter load, all of a sudden the Suns might look pretty smart.
Skeptical James: Phoenix won 19 games last season. Only the Knicks had a worse record. The payoff for that kind of misery is supposed to be a potential star, not a role player who is older than Booker. As much as I like Saric's game, trading down to get him will only be worth it if the Suns re-sign him as a restricted free agent next summer (or move him). I know what a sunk cost is, but it's hard to get past the fact that all of their 2016 and 2017 first- and second-round picks are gone, with almost nothing to show for them. That is horrendous asset management. Booker is 22 years old and Williams is his fifth coach in the NBA. I would be more likely to believe that Rubio and Baynes are going to stabilize the team if I didn't remember that Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson were supposed to do that last year. Does Phoenix have a coherent plan now? Am I supposed to give owner Robert Sarver the benefit of the doubt?
Positive James: Nobody is going to give Sarver or the Suns the benefit of the doubt, which is exactly why you should get in on them now! The Booker-Ayton duo represents their best chance to build something sustainable since Nash and Stoudemire left. For them to succeed, Phoenix will need to develop its other young players, establish an identity and add talent. I understand that the organization has been spinning its wheels for a while, but think about what the Sacramento Kings did last year. The Suns don't have to match their 39 wins in order to have a similarly encouraging season. Expectations are so low that merely being competent will be seen as something of a revelation.
Skeptical James: For Booker and Ayton to reach their potential, Phoenix just needs to get its coaching staff and front office on the same page and create a healthy environment in which they can develop? Oh, good, because that has been simple and easy for the Suns lately! Seriously, though, recent history makes it hard not to question just about everything they do. Was it really necessary to add Rubio on a three-year, $51 million deal? Why not go for a cheaper option like Tomas Satoransky? What are we supposed to make of Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic's report that they didn't try to sign D'Angelo Russell because they thought he'd be a bad influence on Booker? How big of a factor was Bower's experience with Johnson -- ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that he recruited the sharpshooter when he was coaching at Marist -- on draft night? I actually agree that they have a low bar to clear when it comes to being surprisingly competitive, and I don't mind how their pieces fit. If they are decent, though, can't you see them overreacting and pivoting to full win-now mode like they did five years ago?
Positive James: I mean, Sarver can't possibly think that this team should make the playoffs … [Positive James and Skeptical James fuse into one entity as these words hang in the air] … can he?