Will the Suns rise again in the West?

By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
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Considering the regularity with which the sun rises and sets every day . . . why is it the media are always a day behind when it comes to getting a handle on the Phoenix Suns?

In 2002, the conventional wisdom was that the Suns would be the worst team in West. They had traded away star Jason Kidd for the erratic Stephon Marbury, had drafted a high school kid, Amare Stoudemire, to play power forward and had a gimpy, washed up Penny Hardaway playing power forward. Their starting group of power forwards -- Jake Voskuhl and Scott Williams -- induced snickers. An emerging Shawn Marion seemed like the only real selling point in Phoenix.

That season, Marbury recorded his best year ever, Marion put up all-star numbers, Stoudemire became the first high school player ever to win Rookie of the Year, Hardaway found his groove and Voskuhl and Williams combined forces to become a pretty decent presence in the middle. The Suns ended up in the playoffs and scared the heck out of the eventual world champion Spurs in the first round.

In 2003, the conventional wisdom said that the Suns were the best young team in the league. Marbury had turned the corner and had just received a nice fat contract extension. Joe Johnson, after a stellar summer league perfromance, was ready to take over from Penny Hardaway. Marion was now an all-star. Stoudemire had a shot at becoming an all-star. The draft had yielded two impressive prospects, Zarko Cabarkapa and Leandro Barbosa, who were supposed to step in and contribute immediately. The Suns were deep, athletic and poised to take on the big guns of the West.

Then disaster struck. Marbury became selfish again. Johnson was erratic and Penny looked old. Marion's shot faltered. Stoudemire kept improving, but constant injuries kept holding him back. Cabarkapa went down with an early season injury. A trade of Bo Outlaw and Jake Tsakalidis to the Grizzlies back fired and the Suns suddenly were too small to defend the paint. Frank Johnson lost his job. Assistant Mike D'Antoni took over. Then, GM Bryan Colangelo pulled the plug.

In the most shocking trade of the season, he sent Marbury and Hardaway to the Knicks for Howard Eisley, Antonio McDyess, Charlie Ward, Maciej Lampe, the rights to Milos Vujanic and the Knicks' No. 1 pick.

The hottest young team in the NBA just went up in smoke. As Suns fans freaked and commentators everywhere scratched their heads, Colangelo remained calm. The team had realized early into the season that it wasn't going to win a championship with Marbury at the helm. His selfishness was already causing rifts in the locker room. With a huge extension under Marbury's belt, the Suns had to act quickly to trade him away while they still could.

In the process the team slashed $31 million in payroll and actually positioned itself to be roughly $7 to $9 million under the cap this summer. Owner Jerry Colangelo subsequently put the team on the market and sold it within weeks of the regular season ending.

With new owners coming in (Colangelo remains the team's CEO and his son, Bryan, remains the GM), a lottery pick, and lots of free-agent cash to spend this summer, the Suns have the potential to be one of the most improved teams in the league again next year.

How will they do it? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.

Suns Summer Blueprint

DRAFT: The Suns currently own the No. 6 pick in the draft, but all signs point to them attempting to move the pick this summer in an effort to clear more cap space.

That may change if the Suns get the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft. However, with just a 6.4 percent shot at getting No. 1, that scenario is pretty unlikely. Drafting sixth, the team could find another point guard or a European big man to create depth, but the team really doesn't need either right now.

What the Suns really need is more cap room. That No. 6 pick amounts to a $2.1 million cap hold on their roster. The team would really like to package the pick along with Jahidi White (who makes $6.2 million in the last year of his deal) to a team with lots of cap room like the Bobcats. A trade like that could put them as much as $15 million under the cap next season.

FREE AGENCY: Free agency could be the key to the Suns' turnaround next season. The team wants to add a superstar in the backcourt to complement Stoudemire. If the Suns can figure out a way to trade their pick and White, they'll have plenty of money to throw at Kobe Bryant.

If they can't clear the cap space, the Suns will likely look to either make another trade to land the star they've been looking for or use the money wisely to add a few missing pieces. They've had their eye on the Pistons' Mehmet Okur for some time and have enough cash to make him an offer the Pistons would be unlikely to match.

McDyess and Keon Clark both come off the books this summer, but neither is expected to be re-signed.

The other big news on the free agency front concerns Vujanic. Vujanic, widely considered the top point guard in Europe, is currently in Italy playing for one of the top teams in Europe. He's had an excellent season and now has a top U.S. agent who will be in charge of handling a buyout this summer.

Vujanic (who wisely turned down a chance to play for the dysfunctional Knicks last summer) sounds like he's ready to come to the NBA this year if the money is right. Expect the Suns to lure Vujanic here this summer. He'd be a great addition to their backcourt.

TRADES: Here is where things could get interesting. If the Suns can't clear the cap room or get turned down by Kobe, they have enough assets to make a great trade for a star if they want to. The Suns would likely be willing to part with their first-round pick, Marion and possibly even Johnson to land another star.

With star swingmen like Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and, at the point, Steve Francis, all potentially available, the Suns would have a nice pool of players to pick from. The Magic would likely be the most interested in making a trade with the Suns.

The Magic would likely demand Marion, Johnson and the No. 1 for McGrady. Trading McGrady away would be tough to swallow in Orlando, but the two young swingmen plus the extra lottery pick would give the Magic a serious headstart in the rebuilding process in Orlando. If the Magic could turn their two number ones into Emeka Okafor and a point guard like Devin Harris or Ben Gordon, they would be in business with a very nice young core.

McGrady would be a great fit alongside Stoudemire in Phoenix. Throw in free agents like Okur, Vujanic and the rest of the Suns young players like Carbarkapa and Barbosa and the team would be ready to take off again.

COACHING: D'Antoni inherited a terrible situation in Phoenix and did the best with what he could. He's a good fit for the Suns. He likes to play an up-tempo type game and his European background has helped him relate to the plethora of international players on the Suns' roster. He's going to get another year to turn this thing around, and given D'Antoni's background, he may be able to do it.

FRONT OFFICE: Bryan Colangelo is one of the most underrated GMs in the league. He has a great eye for talent. The Suns have been one of the best drafting teams in the league over the past five years. He also has made solid decisions about cap management and rebuilding the team. Now that the ownership situation is taken care of (Bryan is now a part owner) his job should be secure and he can get busy rebuilding the Suns back into a contender.

If he can land a player of Kobe's or T-Mac's caliber this summer, the Suns should be able to hang with anyone in the West next year. If he has to settle for something less than that, the Suns still have enough talent to return to the playoffs next season. Either way, the future looks bright in Phoenix at the moment.