Thursday's Draft Most Important Since 1988

The 1988 NBA Draft gave the Suns a future All-Star and, later, the trade assets to acquire an MVP-caliber superstar.
NBAE/Getty Images
by Matt Petersen

Much has been made of the similarities between the late 1980s Suns’ turnaround to the present edition.

Here’s another one: the 2014 NBA Draft will be the most important one for Phoenix since 1988. That summer, the Suns used their assets to complete a turnaround from perennial lottery participant to playoff contender.

The year before that bygone season, the Suns lucked into a top five pick that provided talent and hope for the future (Armen Gilliam). Last summer’s draft did the same in the form of big man Alex Len. The Suns’ front office and coaching staff are extremely high on Len and expect significant progress from him this summer.

Phoenix followed both those drafts with franchise-altering trades for undervalued backup point guards. In 1988, the Suns acquired Kevin Johnson, who was stuck behind All-Star incumbent Mark Price in Cleveland. He immediately blossomed into one of the best young point guards in the league

In 2013, Phoenix pounced on the opportunity to land Eric Bledsoe, who couldn’t get more than 20 minutes a game while sitting behind All-NBA floor general Chris Paul. He also blossomed in the desert.

“What we’d consider doing for a certain player is packaging picks and moving up in the draft.”

— Ryan McDonough

After signs of progress (the Suns went 10-10 to finish the 1987-88 campaign) but still no postseason play in ’88, Phoenix entered that summer’s draft with multiple draft picks, including the No. 14 overall selection.

Then-Suns president Jerry Colangelo offered intrigue heading into that fateful June 28 night.

“Today’s we’re at [numbers] seven and 14,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that’s where we’ll end up. We might move up. We’re preparing for all eventualities.”

Fast forward 16 years, and they’re in the same position: coming off a refreshingly optimistic season and entering the draft with four picks – beginning at No. 14.

And like that late-80s regime, the current Suns’ front office is exploring each and every opportunity.

“What we’d consider doing for a certain player is packaging picks and moving up in the draft,” admitted General Manager Ryan McDonough.

Of course, McDonough’s 16-year predecessors ended up keeping all six of their picks (though not all of them made the opening day roster). The 14th selection yielded Dan Majerle. His new team’s fans promptly booed him, expecting little-to-no impact from the Central Michigan product.

Three All-Star appearances and an iconic Suns tenure later, they learned better.

Other picks from that draft were equally valuable, if for different reasons. Phoenix had hoped future All-Star Mitch Richmond would fall to them at seven, but went with forward Tim Perry after Richmond was snapped up by Golden State at five. Pick No. 28 produced big man Andrew Lang.

Five years later, both players (along with Suns All-Star Jeff Hornacek) brought future MVP Charles Barkley to the Valley.

In the end, the 1988 draft produced two thirds of the All-Star trio that defined the purple-and-orange 1990s.

Phoenix Suns' 1988 NBA Draft

In terms of immediate impact and asset potential, the 2014 draft offers similar possibilities. Phoenix sports multiple picks in what is widely considered one of the deepest draft in years. They are as willing to invest on new talent as they are to use their picks to acquire flourishing-but-discontent stars.

There’s a sense that this draft holds long-term significance for the franchise, though how it will unfold remains to be seen. Not since that fateful 1988 evening have the Suns boasted such a combination of flexibility and assets on the heels of an already optimistic season.

Such opportunities are few. They are a big reason why McDonough said yes to the job so quickly last summer. Many of the chips in Phoenix’s corner were already in place. He and President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby hurriedly acquired more.

Now they are flush with options, to the point of envy among their peers. They can:

  • play those chips evenly and stand pat, confident in their current draft board and accompanying evaluations.
  • Use some now and hold others for later by swapping present selections for future picks
  • Trade in smaller chips for bigger ones and move up a handful of spots into a higher tier of prospective draft talent
  • Push the whole pile onto the table and acquire the best star available on the trade market

Keep in mind that the Suns already have foundational talent in place. Goran Dragic is a borderline star still in his twenties. Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker are restricted free agents coming off career years. Gerald Green’s confidence is higher than his vertical leap. The Morris twins just turned 24 years old. Miles Plumlee should only get better. Len and Archie Goodwin are due for serious improvement this offseason.

There is plenty around which to build. The Suns have a truckload of material waiting to be used.

Come Thursday, Phoenix’s next phase of basketball construction will look a lot clearer.