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Phoenix Suns Highlight Difficulty of Building Through the Middle

The Suns were a surprise darling of the league just a couple seasons ago, but their fall from grace highlights the difficulty of moving upward from the mediocrity muck.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, Jeff Hornacek was looked at as one of the NBA's up-and-coming coaches. After jettisoning Marcin Gortat, the Suns were thought to be in rebuilding mode in 2013-14, until Hornacek extracted the best from an Eric Bledsoe-Goran Dragic backcourt on the way to 48 wins in a stacked West.

Today, Hornacek is out on the street.

Faced with a fork in the road, the Suns failed to commit to a concrete idea of where they're headed, despite executing a series of deals over the last couple seasons. They signed Isaiah Thomas to bolster their backcourt, only to later deal him for a more expensive guard at the cost of the highly-coveted Lakers pick. They signed Tyson Chandler to chase LaMarcus Aldridge in the summer, only to be left with a declining player blocking Alex Len from getting minutes.

Even their positives, mostly on the draft side of things, come with disclaimers. Devin Booker is one of the early surprises of the 2015 NBA Draft, but even he faces challenges with Phoenix's roster makeup. His physical traits (both in size and explosiveness) leave him best suited at the two, but the $150 million committed to Brandon Knight and Bledsoe means the bulk of Booker's minutes will likely come at the three.

Phoenix is an interesting case study to compare with the 76ers. While they had talent on hand that was clearly undervalued heading into the 2013-14 season -- many presumed they'd be outright tanking -- they certainly were compensating for a lack of real star power. A playoff appearance evaded them, but their success by committee approach shared a lot in common with the pre-Bynum Sixers.

In their search for a higher ceiling, Suns brass managed to disturb the balance of what they had in place. Thomas' arrival was a major factor in Dragic demanding a trade last season, and the Suns alienated Markieff Morris by trading his brother Marcus after the twins committed to playing together long-term.

Without a power-grabbing centerpiece, striking and maintaining balance is a perpetual juggling act. Chasing Aldridge was inspired, but their failure only highlights the cost that can follow a failed pursuit, particularly in the case of non-glamour franchises. The Suns are not doomed -- they have interesting long-term prospects and picks/money to maneuver with -- but their direction is cloudy at best.

It's easy to get wrapped up in overachieving rather than the sustainability of the achievement. Winning feels good all the way from the hardwood up to the owner's box, but it's important for higher levels of the organization to retain a certain detachment from short-term success.

The Suns -- and in similar ways, this year's Hawks -- display fears that Sixers fans had about the franchise's trajectory pre-Sam Hinkie. In the absence of a star, attempting to build off a wobbly foundation may be the most dangerous decision you can make.

Sometimes I wonder how sane I am for remaining hopeful about the long-term fortunes of the Sixers. They're in so deep with so many question marks and so little short-term return. There's an ever-present balancing act between logic and whatever happiness you derive from watching your favorite team succeed.

But it's so easy to get behind the general premise of what the Sixers have set out to find. Every franchise is perpetually searching for tentpole superstars, from the Sixers all the way to the Spurs, who hope to keep thriving once Tim Duncan retires.

The approach in Philadelphia is easy to understand -- there is suffering now, but every door is open. Free agency, trades, and draft picks (acquired or entitled, low or high) are all on the table. At the very least, there is a clear mandate in place.

Many critics of the Sixers will be sure to proclaim that building from scratch isn't a sure thing, and they're correct. What's happening in Phoenix shows the difficulty of constructing a consistent winner isn't exclusive to full-scale rebuilds.

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