Hey Suns’ Fans! It’s not too early to root for the Wizards, Pacers and Timberwolves

Well, it’s the start of the 2013-14 NBA Season, a time of optimism where teams begin with a clean slate.  The Suns opened the season with a victory, supporting that sense of optimism.  Yet I know of not even the most devout of the Suns’ fans who have faith in the playoff prospect for this season’s team.  If there is optimism, it is that the Suns will be legitimate contenders for the top overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft.

This is not a criticism.  In fact, it is actually a tribute to the vision and foundation of Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough’s rebuilding project.  He has shed hefty contracts, long-term commitments, problem players, disappointing prospects and veterans whose best days may be behind them.  In exchange, he has created the potential for up to four first round draft picks in next year’s draft.  Those first-rounders will join an existing group of athletic, competitive and hard-working team players who fill this year’s roster.

The 2014 NBA Draft Class is expected to be among the best in a generation.  You will soon be hearing about players who as of today, have not even played one college game.  The list includes Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Jabari Parker of Duke, Aaron Gordon of the U of A and both Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle of Kentucky.  It also includes an Australian 18 year old, Daunte Exum, and 19 year-old Croatian, Dario Saric.  But before we think we might be able to grab two or more of these prodigies, we need to understand what rights we have and do not have in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Despite the season opening victory, the Suns will likely be competing with Charlotte for the league’s worst record.  If successful, the Suns could land the top pick, but do no worse than the fifth overall pick.  However, the other three potential first round picks for the Suns will not allow them to compete for these soon-to-be phonems.

The Suns have the 2014 first-round picks from the Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Indiana Pacers.   Sounds pretty good, right?  Well, not so fast.  All three picks are “protected.”  If the Wizards end up with the 12th pick or higher, the Timberwolves end up with the 13th pick or higher, or the Pacers end up with the 14th pick or higher, the pick stays with them.  So believe it or not, all fans in the Valley of the “Suns” should spend an appreciable part of the 2013-2014 season rooting for the success of these three franchises.

The NBA has 30 teams.  The top eight in each conference (16 in total) qualify for the playoffs.  Therefore, if any or all of the Wizards, Timberwolves and Pacers make the playoffs, we are guaranteed each of their picks.  If the Wizards or Timberwolves do not make the playoffs, we have to hope that they finish “on the bubble” of making the playoffs.  If the Wizards’ record places them 13th or 14th and/or the Timberwolves place 14th among those who do not make the playoffs, they would each have a 2% or less chance of securing a protected lottery pick.  Absent that statistically unlikely event, the Suns would hold their middle first round picks.

In reality, the Suns could enter the 2014 draft with as few as one and as many as four first round draft picks.  The pivotal question:  What are the playoff chances of the three teams who owe the Suns a first round pick?   The answer to that question will tell us how many first round picks the Suns retain.

In my opinion, Indiana is a playoff lock.  In fact, at the end of the day, the Paul George-led Pacers’ 2014 pick will likely be a late first-rounder.  They looked great during the 2012-2013 playoffs and could challenge the unbeatable Big-3 in Miami.  Therefore, I think it is a given that the Suns will have at least two first round picks, one very early (their pick) and one very late in the round (the Pacers’ pick).

As for the Wizards, a review of the bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference provides the answers.  The Charlotte Bobcats and Philadelphia 76ers are absolute train wrecks.  Charlotte may have a future with players such as Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (although I doubt it) but defensive liability Al Jefferson is nowhere near enough to secure a significant number of victories.  The 76ers invested in first round pick Nerlens Noel of Kentucky, but it appears likely that he will play this season about as much as Andrew Bynum played last year.  Evan Turner is impressive, but he cannot carry this franchise.  I dare someone to name the roster players for the Orlando Magic.  Cellar-dwelling, here they come.  The Celtics are at best in transition.  Even with the addition of player-friendly coach Brad Stevens, Rajon Rondo may be a stumbling block rather than the foundation for the future of the franchise.  The Toronto Raptors are the Toronto Raptors.  Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan create interest, but far more likely as mid-season trade bait than as building a playoff contender.  I love Kyrie Irving, but he is not enough to raise the “post-LeBron Cavaliers” into the playoff hunt, particularly if they will be relying upon Andrew Bynum to help bring them to the promised land.  I could be wrong, but that brings my total of lottery locks to six.

The Wizards, on the other hand, had a winning record during the 2012-2013 season when they had both John Wall and surprise-star Bradley Beal in the line-up together.  With the addition of Martin Gortat and the defensive upside of rookie Otto Porter, Jr. (if he recovers from his hip flexor injury), it won’t take a waving of the wand for these Wizards to be playoff bound.  Therefore, the combination of my lottery locks and the early-season expectations for the Wizards result in an extremely high probability that the Suns will keep the Wizards’ first round pick, the Suns’ third overall.

There are far more questions about the Timberwolves.  The Western Conference is stacked with playoff contenders.  In will be the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors.  The Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and likely the Utah Jazz will be out by the All-Star Game.  That leaves the Timberwolves fighting the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets as the bubble teams for the last two playoff spots.

I like the Timberwolves’ playoff chances.  Rick Adelman is one of the most underrated of all NBA coaches.  The combination of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nicola Pekovic along with former Wildcat Derrick Williams and the potential of Shabazz Muhammad (if he sheds his Peter Pan Syndrome and decides to grow up quickly) create a legitimate playoff contender.  As long as they finish ahead of two out of the other four bubble teams, the Suns will likely retain the Timberwolves’ first round pick, the Suns’ fourth overall.

So, there you have it—a high probability of the Suns arriving at Barclays’ Center in Brooklyn on June 26, 2014 with one high lottery pick and three additional first-round picks in their pockets.  In a deep draft, this could be the start of something good, whether because of four quality first round picks or the packaging of picks to land at least two of the NBA stars of the future.   Go Wizards!  Go Pacers!  Go Timberwolves!