The Phoenix Suns are one of the biggest surprises of the 2013-14 season, surpassing the expectations of many prognosticators ( myself included) with a style of play that is somehow both entertaining and blue collar, and have thrust themselves firmly into the extremely competitive Western Conference playoff picture. Their 20 wins thus far puts them five wins behind their 2012-13 total, making rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek one of the leading candidates for coach of the year.
The expectations have risen for a team that was picked by many to be one of the worst in the conference, but as we've seen in the past, continued improvement (from "bad" to "decent" to "good" to "great") becomes more difficult.
Here's a look at how Phoenix defied expectations and where the Suns are headed.
The Suns were coming off a 25-57 season, good for the second-worst win percentage in franchise history, so the lack of optimism surrounding their 2013-14 campaign was justified. There were questions about how well newly acquired point guard Eric Bledsoe would mesh with incumbent Goran Dragic in a two-PG backcourt, if there was enough shooting on the roster to effectively space the court and whether there would be a disconnect between older veteran players and the young legs that were going to get a significant playing time. But most of all, there was a doubt that Phoenix would attempt to be competitive; after all, the current system encourages teams that aren't at one extreme of the win-loss spectrum (contending) to seek the other extreme (aiming to land in the lottery).
We had to put the infrastructure in place to have success...we wanted to make sure we had players who wanted to play the right way." -- Lon Babby, Phoenix Suns president
For Suns president Lon Babby, however, that decision was not a foregone conclusion. Rather, the plan was in place to continue to collect assets and increase payroll flexibility while creating a culture that would allow the roster to compete.
"We had to put the infrastructure in place to have success" he said, which included achieving a chemistry that extended beyond the locker room to the training room, the coaches' office, the front office and ownership.
They also wanted to make sure they were bringing in players who fit the ideal of the new culture, with Babby saying "we wanted to make sure we had players who wanted to play the right way." At the same time, he knew that they could not "sacrifice long-term success for instant gratification," meaning the team would not seek to saddle itself with expensive, long-term deals to vets who did not fit the timeline of competitiveness; this is best illustrated by the Marcin Gortat trade to Washington, as the Suns sent away a productive big man in exchange for a contract (the injured Emeka Okafor) and a first-round pick.
With the philosophy in place, what exactly happened to make Phoenix competitive on the floor?
One of the underestimated pieces of info in trying to project the success of the point guard pairing was the fact that both players had a history of success of sharing the backcourt with another point guard. For Dragic, he had done it in earlier in his career in Phoenix with Steve Nash and then again in Houston with Kyle Lowry, while Bledsoe cut his teeth in Los Angeles playing alongside Chris Paul. That made the transition to playing alongside each other a much easier task. They have flourished, with Dragic saying that "with Eric and me, the defense was cautious about him so there was a lot more space for me [to operate]."
The return of Channing Frye
After missing the entire 2012-13 season due to a heart condition, Frye returned to the court this campaign showing few signs of slippage. His 46 percent 3-point shooting has provided tremendous spacing for the Dragic-Bledsoe dynamic to be able to operate freely, and he's been a boon as an underrated defensive player and rebounder. He's one of only eight players in the league with a defensive rebound percentage of at least 18 percent and a 3-point shooting mark of at least 37.5 percent (minimum 50 attempts), highlighting the dearth of true stretch bigs who are not specialists.
Hornacek has exceeded expectations as a rookie head coach, putting an emphasis on teaching (a must with such a young roster) and effectively handling minute distributions and lineup management. As an example, this season the Suns rank 10th in both offensive (105.2) and defensive efficiency (101.9).
Most importantly, he's resisted the urge of most young coaches to overcoach during the game, trying to prove they are capable tacticians. Instead, he's put his players in a position to succeed and then given them the freedom to execute on the court.
Players outperforming historical production
Another unforeseen development was the marked improvement over career norms from a number of players:
• P.J. Tucker, a defensive specialist who has played as an undersized big for most of his collegiate and non-NBA career, has developed into a reliable 3-point shooter from the corners, shooting 43 percent (30-of-69).
• Gerald Green, a journeyman wing, is posting a career high in true shooting percentage (59 percent) while averaging almost 18 points per 36 minutes, giving the Suns an efficient scoring punch off the bench.
• The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, are both outpacing their career PER rates (Markieff is at 17.8 versus a career mark of 13.6 while Marcus is at 15.3 versus a career mark of 12.1), becoming reliable, productive bench players.
• Miles Plumlee, acquired from Indiana in the Luis Scola deal, has been a fantastic force on the glass (offensive rebounding percentage of 10.9; defensive rebounding percentage of 25.1) and provided the Suns with finishing around the basket, averaging almost a double-double (9.9 points and 9.1 rebounds) after barely playing in his rookie year for the Pacers.
Phoenix finds itself in a delicate situation, with a young roster that is unexpectedly competing for a playoff berth with a good deal of cap flexibility and ample pick inventory (it is owed Indiana's 2014 first-round pick, protected 2014 first-round picks from Minnesota and Washington as well as the rights to the Lakers' 2015 first-round pick).
The expected signing of former Sun Leandro Barbosa indicates a willingness to be aggressive about short-term wins, so how anxious are the Suns about making a blockbuster deal? They can afford to be buyers in the superstar market, but they also have to make sure the fit is right. Ideally, they'd like to add a superlative talent who is young enough to grow with the team and has a flexible contract situation.
I asked a rival team executive how he assesses the Suns and what he would do in their position, and he said "the players who have outperformed their expectations are players on the periphery and not really foundational franchise building blocks. It will be difficult for them to acquire a top-tier talent based on those pieces alone." He went on to say that the best play for the short term would be to keep the core together, but eventually they would probably have to part with Dragic in order to make a blockbuster deal: "He's their best trade asset as their best player with a reasonable contract."
Phoenix has put itself in a position similar to what Houston faced prior to acquiring James Harden: The Suns have a nice mix of talent, youth, cap flexibility and picks to put together a package for a star. Like the Rockets, they'll need some luck for a star and his current team to not see eye-to-eye on the long-term viability of their marriage.
As of today, the Suns own three picks in the upcoming draft: their own (currently slotted at 22nd), Indiana's (30th) and Washington's (18th). That's not an enticing enough a package (although the Lakers' 2015 pick would be an interesting case study in betting on futures) to deal at the moment, but historically we see the value of lower first-round picks rise around draft day, so it might be prudent to wait. The last thing to do is to blow those picks on a deal that ends up being a lateral move.
Another reason to preach patience goes back to what the rival executive said: Dragic is their best trade asset. It would be unwise to move Dragic without some sort of resolution on the Bledsoe re-signing, as he provides what amounts to an insurance policy should a ridiculous offer sheet come down the pike. A draft-day deal would not ensure any knowledge of that occurring, but it gives the team a better chance at acquiring a bona fide star prior to committing to Bledsoe.