Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on Dec. 28 and has been updated with new information.
It seems like just yesterday that the Suns, with their daring two-point guard attack, were the darlings of the league. They had talented players at several positions, tons of draft picks and a seemingly intelligent and innovative young head coach. They had everything an up-and-comer could want, and it manifested in a magical 48-win season when they were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the league.
That was 2014. Now, less than three years later, the wheels have fallen off. A decent start has faded into an awful stretch that threatens to put the Suns near the top of the lottery. They were 12-20 when they weirdly fired their top two assistant coaches while keeping head man Jeff Hornacek. The Suns then lost 15 of their next 17 games and gave Hornacek the ax anyway.
The worst part is the franchise no longer has any direction. Eric Bledsoe, the team's best player, is out for the season with a knee injury. Brandon Knight, the team's second-best player, is in and out of the lineup with a hip injury. The Suns' remaining mix of declining veterans, rudderless youth and moping Markieff Morris has barely been competitive since. The organization tried balancing a win-now approach with some promising young players, but instead they've failed to gain much traction in either area.
How did a team that was the envy of most of the league morph into a rudderless trainwreck in less than three years? As is often the case, there's no single clear or concise answer.
The Best of Times
Hornaceck's first year at the helm went about as well as he could have hoped. Even he couldn't have expected the Suns to play as well as they did. Phoenix was expected to compete with the 76ers for the worst record in the league. Instead, they barely missed out on a playoff berth in the loaded West. With a fast-paced offense that averaged 107.1 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-best mark in the league, the future appeared bright.
Most of that success came as a result of Hornaceck's daring decision to play his two best players, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, together despite both being point guards. The move paid off tremendously. Dragic averaged 20 points and six assists per game, was named the league's Most Improved Player and even received a few MVP votes. Few guards were as effective or efficient as him at the rim, and he and Bledsoe, a dynamic player off the dribble who could lock down opposing guards defensively, formed a formidable duo. The Suns outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions when the two shared the floor, per NBA.com. The season may have gone even better if Bledsoe didn't miss 39 games due to injury.
Phoenix ultimately fell short of the playoffs, but for the first time since Steve Nash ceased dribbling in circles around opponents, the Suns had direction and hope. Not only did they have Dragic and Bledsoe, but they also had one of the league's best shooting big men in Channing Frye, some pop from the wing in Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker, the promising Morris twins and their lottery pick from the summer before, Alex Len.
Things seemed to be on the rise.
The Suns seemed poised to capitalize on their momentum in the summer of 2014. Not only did they own three first-round picks, but they also had enough cap space to pursue the marquee free agents who were available: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony. In hindsight, the belief that any of these stars would actually move to Phoenix seems silly, but at the time, the Suns believed they had a legitimate shot at netting a franchise-changing player.
Phoenix missed out on those big fish, though, and instead curiously signed another point guard in Isaiah Thomas. The deal (four years, $27 million) was certainly team-friendly, but Phoenix forgot to consider what bringing in yet another ball-handler would do to the team's chemistry. The Suns also lost Frye to the Magic and failed to flip their three first-round picks for a better asset. Phoenix instead drafted T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis (another point guard!) and Bogdan Bogdanović. Only Warren is a member of their rotation today.
That offseason left the Suns with too many players who needed the ball in their hands and no big man to stretch the floor for their drives. What made the Suns special the year before was no longer there. After a solid start to the season, they fell apart down the stretch. The offense plummeted down the rankings, as Phoenix scored just 102.7 points per 100 possessions. The defense, never the team's strong suit, remained average at best.
Worse, signing Thomas had an adverse effect on Dragic. Angry with being relegated to an off-ball role, the Suns' cornerstone demanded a trade just days before the trade deadline. The Suns were forced to grant his wish and sent him to Miami two days later. The Suns failed to deal with Dragic's unhappiness quietly and behind the scenes, so Dragic felt the need to use the media to issue his trade demand. Doing so took away the Suns' leverage, though they salvaged a nice package of future draft picks from Miami anyway.
But GM Ryan McDonough wasn't done making moves. Rather than settle for that Dragic deal, he made two last-second moves. In one fell swoop, he sent Thomas to Boston for a low first-round pick, then acquired Bucks guard Brandon Knight for a package that included a high Lakers draft pick.
The Suns began the 2015 season with Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas and the Lakers' soon-to-be high lottery pick. By February they had lost Dragic, Thomas and that pick, and replaced them with Knight, a soon to be restricted free agent, and a much worse first-round pick from Cleveland.
The Suns were 29-25 at the time of these moves. They fell apart down the stretch and finished with just 39 wins, well short of the playoffs. Yet a below .500 record was the least of the team's problems.
The Worst of Times
The 2015 summer got off to a promising start. The Suns quickly snagged Tyson Chandler, and for a moment, they seemed on the verge of nabbing LaMarcus Aldridge, the best free-agent available. Aldridge considered the Suns heavily, but elected to sign with the Spurs. Phoenix eventually locked up Knight and looked like a team that could compete for one of the Western Conference's lower playoff spots.
That hasn't been the case. Chandler has looked old and slow and is having his worst season as a pro. Both the offense and defense are mediocre at their best. Phoenix's half-court sets devolved into Bledsoe or Knight dribbling constantly to set up bad shots, and that was before both players got injured.
Even worse, no one on the team seems happy. Markieff Morris certainly isn't since the Suns traded his twin brother Marcus to the Pistons in an attempt to clear more cap space for Aldridge. Suns management isn't, which is why they fired Hornaceck's top two assistant coaches over the weekend despite Hornaceck's objections. It's why they then fired Hornacek anyway a month later despite Knight's injury issues and little changing with the situation around Hornacek.
Now, the Suns sit toward the bottom of the league standings, and unlike many of their fellow cellar-dwellers, they arrived there accidentally. The present is bleak, especially with Bledsoe done for the year.
Just a few years ago it seemed as if the franchise was on its way. Now, it's unclear how (and if) it'll manage to claw itself out of its current mess.
* * *
SB Nation presents: NBA rookies imitate Kobe, LeBron and more stars