Rising Suns – Time to take Phoenix Seriously?
For a team projected by many NBA analysts to finish last in the West, and join the race for the top places in next year’s draft, the Phoenix Suns obviously haven’t been paying attention to the preseason predictions. I wrote back in October in my preview of the team that they would suck and finish in bottom 3 of Western Conference, but would at least be exciting to watch and play like a Suns team should with plenty of fastbreaks, athleticism and take a few scalps of winning teams along the way (oh and beat the Lakers). So far I only got one thing wrong, they don’t suck.
Currently, over a quarter of the way into the season, Phoenix lie 2nd in the Pacific Division, and 6th overall in the super competitive Western conference, above teams like Golden State, Denver, Minnesota, Dallas and the LA Lakers. They are currently on a 5 game winning streak, with a record of 14-9. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that scenario, and if it had been suggested back in summer, you would have been dismissed as being in the company of Michael Beasley for too long. Also, if Phoenix (obviously hypothetically speaking) were in the Eastern Conference, they would be the 3rd seed in playoffs. Crazy stuff. It also highlights that the East is basically a two team race, Indiana looking outstanding early on, and Miami being Miami.
So how have Phoenix achieved this in a short space of time? The answer lies mainly in two places, Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, and the twin point guard tandem of Goran Dragic & Eric Bledsoe. Hornacek arrived back in the summer to oversee what many thought as building a team for the future, whilst picking up losses and hoping for the balls to fall kindly for a high draft pick.
The first part of that has happened, as he along with his coaching staff have managed to get career best years out of 7 players on this roster, and gave them the confidence to go out on the court without fear of the opponent. The Morris Twins (Morrii?) are more consistent. PJ Tucker who is best known for his tenacious defensive stops, is ranked 5th in 3-Pt %age, notably from the corner. Miles Plumlee has shown his ability to block shots but importantly very effective on setting screens to allow Dragic and Bledsoe clear lanes to the hoop. This guy played only 50 minutes last season, but has looked a solid and shrewd acquisition by GM Ryan McDonough.
Hornacek has the team playing fast, up-tempo basketball whilst maintaining a solid effort on defence. The emphasis is on the team, not individuals, as he stressed back at training camp. Having nearly eight players scoring in double figures lends credence to this. He seems settled in his line-ups and rotations and comfortable with giving trust to the players, a big thing for coaches, in the crunch time of games. Look at Bledsoe taking the 3 to win the game over the Jazz as evidence. Having a former NBA player who was one of the league’s best shooters also helps. The Suns have reduced the long 2-pointers, whilst increasing the use and accuracy of the corner three, combined with being the top fast-break scoring team in the league, adds up to more efficient points production.
Bledsoe Game Winner
Which leads to the other part of the Suns surprising resurgence. The Dragic/Bledsoe backcourt has certainly clicked better than I thought. Looking at the stat sheets show both players averaging around 19ppg, and over 6apg, virtually mirroring each other. This harks back to the team ethic I mentioned above. Both players are extremely comfortable driving to the basket, either at pace on the fast-break, or through the use of screens set by Plumlee and Markieff Morris to open the lanes. They are again, having career highs like many of their teammates and bear the burden of being the primary weapons on offense.
Watch the video below and you’ll see much of what I’ve spoken about on display in the game vs. the Kings in Phoenix.
Both players give the opposing team a nightmare to defend against. Keeping a handle on those pair looking to drive at defences opens up baskets for Gerald Green, Frye and PJ Tucker from long range and easy high percentage looks for Plumlee and the Morrii. This keeps the points spread throughout the team, but Dragic & Bledsoe score the bulk as they are playing at such a high level this season. What it will remind NBA, and Phoenix fans, of a couple decades ago was the successful backcourt of Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek, who was an All-star in Phoenix? If both players keep up this level, they may have an outside chance of being a coach’s pick of the showpiece in February, however looking at the high quality in the West; it may not be this year.
What their play is doing though is getting them noticed around the league. Other players notice these things and may think to themselves “I’d like to play with those two”, and also be impressed with how Hornacek runs the plays. Certainly with the brand of basketball they are playing right now, Phoenix is a much more attractive destination than it was four months ago. With their great cap flexibility next year, they are also in a position to match any offer made for Bledsoe, who does have suitors around the league. Along with multiple first round picks in next year’s draft, I’d fancy the Suns on landing a big player in the near future via a trade, possibly bundling some of these picks in a deal. As it stands, they would have none inside the draft’s top ten.
It remains to be seen if they can keep their form up over an 82 game season, it is early days but the signs are encouraging that this exciting, young team can become a force again in the West. Making the playoffs alone would be an incredible achievement, but let’s walk before we can run first.