At first glance, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s interest in the Suns job doesn’t make much sense besides the franchise being located three hours from his hometown.
Budenholzer doesn’t want to be part of a long-term rebuild with the Hawks, but why would he exchange one tanking team for another? After surviving the dysfunction of the Hawks’ previous ownership, why would Budenholzer sign up to work for the wild-card owner of another middling NBA franchise?
But there are professional reasons why the Suns job could be more attractive to Budenholzer than his current gig. Here are three:
1. The Suns say they are done with tanking
Over the past three seasons the Suns won 23, 24, and 21 games. Their best veteran player, Eric Bledsoe, talked his way out of Phoenix in October. Bledsoe, like Kent Bazemore with the Hawks, was caught between winning and rebuilding eras.
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But the Suns said they are ready to stop tanking and start winning. Back in January, GM Ryan McDonough declared that the Suns plan to be aggressive in free agency with up to $10 million in cap space. McDonough reiterated that strategy last week.
“Three years is kind of the right amount of time to acquire a decent amount of young talent, other draft picks and salary flexibility,” McDonough told azcentral.com. “I think if you go beyond that, the losing starts to set in and the guys start to become accustomed to that and the bar is lowered. Next year, we’re going to try to raise the bar. We’re going to try to raise our standards. … I think our approach will be different and the talent level will rise because of that.”
By contrast, the Hawks have more lottery seasons on the horizon. The Hawks will have considerable cap space this summer, but GM Travis Schlenk is more likely to use it to take on contracts in exchange for draft picks and young players rather than add core talent.
2. The Suns already have a potential franchise player
It’s no secret that nearly every NBA champion had at least one player named first- or second-team All-NBA. For non-marquee franchises like the Hawks and Suns, the only realistic way to acquire a top 10 talent is via the draft.
The Suns may have already done that with wing Devin Booker, the No. 13 pick in 2015. Booker is coming off a breakout season in which he was a high-usage, efficient scorer, good playmaker and solid rebounder. Booker joined LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the only players 21 or younger to average at least 24 points, four assists and four rebounds over a season.
Booker struggled with injuries this season and still needs to improve to be All-NBA. But he’s a budding star who doesn’t turn 22 until October. And related to No. 1: Booker said last week that he’s “done with not making the playoffs” so the Suns need to keep him happy as they look to sign him to an extension this summer.
3. The Suns have a surplus of first-round draft picks
The Hawks own three first-round picks in the 2018 draft (top seven, No. 19 and No. 30) and a top-10 protected pick from the Cavaliers in 2019 or 2020. As it happens, the Suns are the only team with a more valuable collection of draft picks than the Hawks.
The Suns have two first-round draft picks in 2018: their lottery pick, which is guaranteed to be top four, and the No. 16 pick via Miami. The Suns have a 25 percent chance of winning the top pick, compared withy 13.7 for the Hawks, and a 64 percent chance of winning a top-three pick compared with 42.6 percent for the Hawks.
The Suns also own a future first-round pick via Milwaukee that is protected for picks 1-3 and 17-30 in 2019, top seven in 2020 and unprotected in 2021. And the Suns own the rights to Miami’s unprotected first-round draft pick in 2021.
(It should be noted that the Suns likely will have to surrender at least one of their first-round picks to the Hawks for the right to hire Budenholzer, who is under contract for two more seasons.)
In short, the Suns have a significantly better chance than the Hawks of finding a superstar talent in the draft. They have to pick the right players, which takes some luck, but the Suns have more room for error.