During our last visit with Lance Blanks, the Phoenix Suns general manager and his co-workers were praising the selection of first-round pick Markieff Morris and working on spin moves.
And while Morris did enough as a Kansas Jayhawk to inspire visions of raging NBA competence, the Suns may need a significantly greater boost than he figures to provide. Markieff was available for Phoenix employment, it should be noted, because the Suns weren't very good last season.
With training camp and the free-agent derby scheduled to arrive on the same day, this is a roster with some assembly required. For expert perspective on this topic, let's go with franchise superstar Steve Nash.
"I definitely would love to see us improve our roster," Nash said Thursday after his first workout at team headquarters inside US Airways Center. "But I think it's up to us to find that little bit of magic collectively and individually to give ourselves a chance to win enough games to get into the playoffs. I would never say that we're not a playoff team. I think that should be the minimum of our goals. Let's see how good we can get."
With Nash and management gunning for as much as the Suns can muster, head coach Alvin Gentry will be required to coax even more from this roster. New assistant coach Elston Turner will be looked upon to provide whatever schematic upgrade can improve the defense (hint: it's more effort than scheme, and the coaches know this).
But beyond the little of bit of magic Nash referenced, the franchise will need some smooth maneuvers generated by the talent-recognizing abilities of Blanks.
With the season finally within sniffin' distance, let's look at five things Blanks -- starting his second campaign with the Suns -- needs to handle for the team to succeed both now and in the future.
For the record, we're not including the re-signing of Grant Hill or the waiving of Vince Carter as entrees on Blanks' plate. Those decisions already should be reconciled. Now it's up to owner Robert Sarver and basketball ops president Lon Babby to make an offer Hill won't refuse and wipe $14 million of Carter's potential $18 million off the franchise ledger.
For Blanks, the crucial moves may be more subtle.
1. Really, really hope the draft-eligibility age stays at 19 ... for now
The NBA reportedly wants to scoot the age up to 20 (and two years removed from high school), which would greatly evaporate what appears to be a unusually deep pool of talent. College freshmen with (cliche alert) nutty upside include Kentucky forward Anthony Davis and Connecticut post Andre Drummond.
We're not expecting the Suns to lose with enough regularity to have a shot at either in the next draft, but keeping this year's freshmen in the 2012 draft would -- in theory -- push a more talented prospect down to wherever Phoenix picks.
Remember, the Suns are planning for a big free-agent score this summer, so they -- really in theory -- will be good enough next season to pick very late in 2013.
Landing a rookie with excessive talent in 2012 would be a nice hedge in case the Suns' cap room fails to yield an elite player in free agency.
2. Find an under-the-radar shooting guard
If Carter is a goner (as expected), the Suns could cover the two spot with Jared Dudley and Mickael Pietrus. But JD seems like a better asset coming off the bench and working at two positions, while Pietrus doesn't seem committed to making the best of his Phoenix situation.
Pietrus' expiring $5.3 million contract may inspire trade-deadline interest from contenders looking for a wing defender, but getting a player with a multi-year contract in return would be anathema to the cap-space plan for the future. Well, unless that player is really good and the contending team is dumb enough to move him.
This doesn't mean the Suns should ignore their potential two-guard depth issue; just find someone hungry and cheap. With Spurs experience in his job history, perhaps Blanks can land someone like Gary Neal.
Nash may never say the Suns are less than playoff capable, but the time to really go for it in roster moves doesn't seem to be December 2011.
3. Watch Zabian Dowdell shoot
With restricted free agent Aaron Brooks stuck in China until his new team begs him to leave, Z is registered as Nash's stunt double at point guard.
Suns coaches like Z's effort and ability to actually stay in front of opposing point guards on defense, but they aren't turning cartwheels over 41 percent field-goal accuracy that includes a frosty 30 percent from the 3-point line.
Shooting is a skill that can be improved through hard work during the offseason. Whenever team officials are allowed to be in the same gym with players at the same time, Blanks should see if Dowdell has advanced enough to be penciled in as this season's No. 2 point guard.
Right, shooting well in the practice gym without a contesting defender may not translate to a higher percentage in games. If Z looks pretty much the same under variables he can control, however, Blanks may need to advise Babby to budget a bit more loot for Nash's backup.
If Dowdell is sort of convincing, the Suns still should pick up someone on the cheap to compete for the job.
4. Weigh in heavily on any Brooks decision
If Brooks can break his deal in China, be wary of matching whatever offer sheet another desperate team throws at the former Oregon sniper. Sure, he can score, but he's demonstrated a limited capacity to provide leadership or stability at the position.
Point guard of the future? If that's the Suns' call, the current personnel team may not be around long. If Blanks is a basketball genius (as accused by Babby), he should have little trouble finding a point guard capable of keeping the offense humming for short bursts and defending the position with more success than the Suns are used to ... even without spending much to sign one.
5. Be stingy with those draft picks
Yeah, kicking in a pick may help complete what seems like a fine deal, but if things really do go well in free agency this summer, you're going to need players.
If, for example, Josh Childress is an amnesty goner and Robin Lopez is not extended a qualifying offer, the Suns only will have a tick over $22 million (covering four players) on the payroll going into free agency. And if the Suns actually do some damage (translation: name free agents choosing serious money over the perks associated with a larger media market), they'll need players to surround the high-ticket guys.
On the other hand, Blanks could mix in a few D-League visits, right?