Right about now, Ryan McDonough and Danny Ainge were supposed to be swapping horror stories about their painful rebuilding projects — only McDonough didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
While Ainge’s injury-ravaged Celtics are destined for the draft lottery, McDonough’s Suns are in the thick of the playoff race, grasping the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference, a competition that likely will come down to Phoenix and the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Suns’ success is perhaps the NBA’s biggest surprise this season. A group of youngsters has blossomed faster than expected. Goran Dragic has become one of the league’s emerging point guards, and Channing Frye has returned from missing a season with a heart condition to become a leader and 3-point marksman.
With an exciting, up-tempo brand of basketball, the Suns have fast-tracked their retooling plan under first-year general manager McDonough, the former Celtics executive and son of former Globe sportswriter Will McDonough. On an ESPN college basketball telecast, brother Sean McDonough referred to the Suns as “America’s Team,” a term that made Ryan laugh considering the season’s expectations in October.
“Our long-term approach hasn’t changed,” he said. “We’re trying to get great players, through the draft or trade or free agency, but in the short term I think we’re ahead of what most people thought we would be. If we can use things like our cap space to help solidify our team we’ll do that, but at the same time we’re happy with the group we have.”
McDonough did not make a move before last month’s trade deadline, holding to his stance on retaining all of the team’s assets for future improvements. The Suns could have as many as four first-round picks in this year’s draft if Minnesota finishes with the 14th pick or lower. They also own the Lakers’ first-round pick next year.
Phoenix could also have as much as $25 million in salary cap space to pursue a major free agent this summer. Also, the core of the team is back and the highest-paid player in that lot is Dragic, who will earn a modest $7.5 million next year. The Suns have prepared themselves for a meteoric rise in the Western Conference.
“We’re trying to be patient and not do anything to jeopardize our cap space for long-term planning,” McDonough said. “We feel like we’re off to a good start. We have a good foundation to be successful with our financial flexibility, draft picks, and most importantly, with the ways our young guys have played and what they’ve shown. But we’ve still got a ways to go to get from pretty good to great — that championship level.”
The fact that the New Orleans Pelicans matched that $58 million offer sheet to Eric Gordon made by former Phoenix general manager Lance Blanks two years ago helped the Suns’ salary cap flexibility for McDonough. With so many inexpensive contracts and players performing above their monetary values, the Suns have compiled an impressive group of younger players and enough cap space to make a major splash.
“The best value in the NBA, in the new [collective bargaining agreement], is a really good player on a rookie-scale contract,” McDonough said. “When we won the championship in Boston in 2008, we had Rajon [Rondo] on his rookie-scale contract. We had Glen Davis, who played a big role for us. Leon Powe played a good-sized role for us. Kendrick Perkins had re-signed and had a good number, so that was important.”
The Phoenix equivalent of those players are Dragic, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, EricBledsoe, Miles Plumlee, and ex-Celtic Gerald Green. McDonough made the astute hire of former Suns and Jazz standout Jeff Hornacek as coach, although the two had never met before the interview process. Hornacek has made the most of his first NBA head coaching job, galvanizing a bunch of youngsters and journeymen.
“The players are like sponges,” Hornacek said. “They continually ask questions. For coaches, it’s great for us, they are trying to learn, they are trying to do the things we ask. There are a couple of times where they’ll make suggestions. If it’s a good idea, we’ll say, ‘Yeah, let’s go ahead and do that.’ They’re great guys to coach and that obviously helps trying to get some wins.”
The next step is attracting a superstar to Phoenix. Like the Celtics historically, the Suns have had trouble signing major free agents despite Phoenix being a popular residence for professional athletes. McDonough will have an opportunity to change that with salary cap space to offer a maximum contract.
“I hope not very difficult at all. That’s what I’ve heard in terms of talking to people who have worked here in the past,” said McDonough, referring to attracting free agent interest. “They say whichever free agent you call, they’re going to listen and seriously consider it. I think we have a lot of advantages with the weather and the fact it’s a great place to live, and the golf courses. There’s a lot to do here during the NBA season.
“That’s something we’re looking forward to, we’ll try to use to our advantage. Last year it was a tougher sell because people weren’t sure how the team was going to be. Obviously, the top players, the top free agents, want to see a team that’s building toward a successful team that’s building toward a championship before they come and join it. Hopefully, we’re putting ourselves in that position.”
Jazz hoping Burke’s improvement is rapid
It has been a blur of a rookie season for Trey Burke. The Utah Jazz drafted him with the express purpose of taking over as point guard the moment he arrived in Salt Lake City. After a troubled summer league, Burke broke his right index finger in training camp and was forced to miss the first 12 games of the season, 11 of those losses.
The moment he was healthy enough Burke became a starter, and he has played admirably for a team in rebuilding mode and looking to cash in on the draft lottery. Burke is a pick-and-roll-type point guard in the mold of Chris Paul, but he needs to improve his shooting. He is shooting just 39.5 percent from the field this season — on 2-point shots.
The Jazz are banking that Burke’s learning curve is rapid and he can emerge as their cornerstone point guard. He has posted four double-doubles (points-assists) and has eight games of 20 or more points.
“I think I’ve adjusted pretty quickly. The guys at this level are just as fast, bigger. It’s not really about natural talent anymore,” said Burke. “It’s about seeing the game, making the right reads, playing defense. The great point guards, that’s where they separate themselves. They may not be the most athletic guy. Take a guy like Chris Paul, he’s a smaller guard but he’s able to see the game at another level, and that’s where I’m trying to get to.”
Burke said constant improvement is imperative.
“That’s what it’s all about, you’ve got to get better in this league,” he said. “You’ve got to continue to grow every day, grow physically and mentally, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Utah coach Tyrone Corbin has had to exhibit patience with his rookie guard but has been impressed with his early performance.
“He’s coming along. It’s a learning process for him,” Corbin said. “When he hasn’t played his best games, he tends to bounce back and have a good game the next game. When he’s playing well, we’re starting to extend the runs of him playing, [so he can] understand the pace we want him to play compared to what he was able to play last year in college — how we want to advance the ball, either through the dribble or the pass up the floor. He’s getting better there. Defensively, the pick-and-rolls that he’s going to be in, it’s worn on him a little bit, but it’s what this league is about. He’s learning while we go through the rest of the year.”
Point guard, unquestionably, is the most difficult position for a rookie to learn. So patience has been high with Burke.
“Huge responsibility on both ends of the floor,” Corbin said. “You usually start and finish on plays and you have to be ready to go the entire time. There’s really no breaks because you have to engineer or get your guys on the offensive end set to get into plays. Defensively, you have to try and stop or [hinder] some of those plays being run by the other team.
“It’s a difficult spot for him, but he’s shown that he’s capable of handling the load and he’ll continue to grow.”
Burke and Celtics forward Jared Sullinger have been friends since childhood, played for rival schools in college (Michigan and Ohio State), and have remained close throughout their journeys. Burke said Sullinger is a special talent.
“We stay in contact a lot. We’re always texting, always staying in touch. We’ll always be like that because we have so good of a relationship,” Burke said. “When we see each other, it’s like we’ve been around each other still. It goes to show how strong our bond is, and it will continue to get stronger.”
Sullinger took a freefall in the 2012 draft because of back issues, dropping to 21st overall to the Celtics. Burke believes that changed his friend.
“He was up there at first, and once they kind of dropped him back because of his back, obviously that motivated him,” Burke said. “That’s what type of player he is, he’s going to be motivated by things like that. He’s always been a hard worker and guys always said he was too big, can’t play above the rim, but that just motivated him to be the type of player he is today.”
Patience name of game for Vaughn, Orlando
Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn is experiencing another transition season as his club prepares to add another lottery pick to a promising young core. The Magic snapped a 16-game road losing streak last week at Philadelphia, a sign of progress for the troubled franchise.
The Magic agreed to a buyout with Glen Davis, rare because Davis was signed through next season. That is an indication that the Magic intend to go young. Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, and Andrew Nicholson need playing time.
Meanwhile, the 39-year-old Vaughn grits his teeth sometimes at the mistakes and shortcomings of his team but is banking on better days ahead as his players gain experience and embrace his system. The Magic are a combined 38-104 under Vaughn in his one-plus seasons, leaving the coach to play mentor, life coach, and developer as well as tutor.
“It tests your patience and your resolve,” Vaughn said of the losing. “At the end of the day the small efforts add up. It’s where you find your success. We want guys to get better. We want the right guys in the locker room. Part of this is figuring out the right guys to have in our locker room.”
When asked how his players remain motivated despite constant losing, Vaughn said, “The good thing is twice a month they receive something in their bank account and they’re professionals and the good thing is I’ll continue to push them. These guys want to be coached. And they want to be pushed to greatness and that’s what you tap into, and that’s what you push them toward each single day.”
The consensus is the Magic won’t be down much longer. Harris, Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, and the splendid Victor Oladipo are all 23 or under, and the Magic are likely to select in the top five of this year’s fruitful draft.
Harden likes Rockets’ chances with Howard
James Harden and the Rockets are beginning to resemble the team observers expected when Dwight Howard left the Lakers and agreed to a four-year deal with Houston. The process of attracting Howard wasn’t easy for the Rockets, who had to compete with the Mavericks and Lakers for his services.
“I didn’t go out and recruit Dwight [but] I’m one of the leaders of this team with Dwight being here. I needed to be there,” Harden said of the Rockets’ July meeting with Howard. “He’s a special talent. It’s hard to find someone his size and as athletic as him that can move, so I wanted to be part of that meeting and the meeting went well, obviously.
“I want to win a championship and it’s easier said than done. Him being here is definitely the right step. It’s going to be a lot of hard work but we’re a young team. We play the same way that he loves to play. We’re going to give him the ball as much as possible. We needed him to come here and do what he does best.”
Harden said transitioning to playing with Howard is a process, but he relishes playing with such a dominant center. “It makes it easier for me,” said Harden, who is fifth in the NBA in scoring at 24.5 per game. “He draws so much attention under the basket with him being a lob target and being able to finish. I haven’t played with a big man as dominant and athletic as Dwight, so I’m still trying to get adjusted to him being under the rim. Once I figure it out and we get it rolling, we’re going to be a problem.”
Caron Butler to the Bucks seemed like a great idea when Milwaukee was expected to compete. But it’s been a miserable season for the Bucks and Butler was bought out of his expiring contract. According to multiple reports, he agreed to join the Thunder once clearing waivers on Saturday, and should provide some depth behind Kevin Durant. The Heat had also expressed interest in Butler . . . The Knicks have limited options to improve this summer but a move they are expected to make is offering the expiring contract of Amar’e Stoudemire to a team that in turn could trade the Knicks the long-term, unwanted contract of an impact player, such as the Pelicans’ Eric Gordon . . . With plenty of salary cap space this summer, the Celtics could target a handful of restricted free agents and one could be former Brad Stevens pupil Gordon Hayward, who did not agree to an extension before the Oct. 31 deadline. Hayward is battling his way through a difficult season, shooting a career-low 40.1 percent from the field and 30.3 from the 3-point line, but a reunion with Stevens could turn the small forward into an All-Star. The Jazz would have the right to match any offer for Hayward . . . Kudos to Doc Rivers the general manager, who acquired quality veterans Glen Davis and DannyGranger for the Clippers to replace Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. Rivers traded Jamison, who was seldom used, to Atlanta for the draft rights to Cenk Akyol, who was drafted by the Hawks nine years ago. Mullens was dealt to the 76ers for a second-round pick. Rivers was concerned before taking the job that owner Donald Sterling wouldn’t allow him to reshape the roster and spend as the Celtics did. That isn’t true.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.