With a 19-11 record, good for 5th in the Western Conference ahead of Houston, Golden State, Dallas, Minnesota, and New Orleans, the Phoenix Suns have been one of the most pleasant surprises of this NBA season. As far as surprises this season go, they may not be as dominant as the Portland Trail Blazers, but their success is much harder to fathom.
Everyone though this team was entering the season in full tank mode, having come off a season with 25 wins and two coaches, resulting in a top 5 overall pick in a weak draft class, a pick they used on center Alex Len, whose injury history makes him a high-risk high-reward player going forward for Phoenix. Before the season even started, the Suns had already traded away their best asset in Marcin Gortat to the Wizards for Emeka Okafor’s body (and expiring contract) as well as Washington’s 1st round pick. They traded Luis Scola during the offseason and seemingly had a team full of young, underdeveloped players who would need a few years to become productive players, such as Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, the Morris twins, Miles Plumlee, and Archie Goodwin, in addition to veterans who had shown little signs of improvement, such as Channing Frye, Gerald Green, and P.J. Tucker.
The Suns entered this season with four first round picks: their own, Washington’s, Minnesota’s, and Indiana’s. While none of those might be especially high picks, they are all certainly tradable assets if they wish to improve or if they try to tank and gather four players from one of the best draft classes in years. But, weirdly, they’re not tanking. They started the season looking like a supertank, with expiring contracts, a slew of first round picks, no stars, using a previous first-round pick on an injured player, turning a bunch of backups into starters, trading away their best players, and signing one tool players like Gerald Green to filler contracts just so they don’t fall beneath the salary floor. Also, they have a first-time NBA coach in Jeff Hornacek who was inheriting a franchise that just traded its best centerpiece for Emeka Okafor’s body, whose contract will likely end in a buyout. What a beautiful tanking situation to be in.
But wait, they’re actually good?! HORNACEK WHAT DID YOU DO HOW DID YOU DO IT HOW WHY!??!??!
Some might say they have an inflated record because of a relatively easy schedule, where they’ve played the Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings, and Los Angeles Lakers multiple times as well as Eastern Conference fodder like Toronto, Orlando, Charlotte, and Philadelphia. Still, they’ve also managed to beat Golden State, Denver, Dallas, Portland, and the Clippers this season, so it’s not like they’re just beating up on bad teams to get wins.
Defensively, the Suns are a middle of the road team, but they have the tenth best offensive efficiency in the league (108 points per 100 possessions). They are a remarkably efficient shooting team, currently sitting at 8th in the league in field goal percentage and 9th in the league in three-point field goal percentage. They are able to space the floor very well, having made the 6th most three pointers in the league.
Their roster has proven to be outstanding considering how low expectations were at the start of the season. Six players on the team have a PER above league average 15.0 (Bledsoe, Dragic, the Morris twins, Plumlee, and Frye), with both Bledsoe and Dragic having a PER of over 20.0. Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker are both putting up career highs in PER, and Gerald Green has actually resembled a passable all-around player in Phoenix. Both Markieff and Marcus Morris have been outstanding, with Markieff averaging 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds on 48% shooting and Marcus averaging 10.7 points and 4.5 rebounds on 45% shooting.
The backcourt featuring Dragic and Bledsoe (known by many as Dragonblade) has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, with both of them averaging pretty similar numbers (both have averaged approximately 18 points, 6 assists, 1.5 steals, 49% shooting from the field, and 34% shooting from the arc). What to me has been the biggest shock on the roster is Miles Plumlee. Last year, while playing for the Indiana Pacers, Plumlee only played in 14 games and averaged fewer than 2 points and 2 rebounds per game while shooting a dreadful 23.8% from the field. Eveyrone was getting all excited about his brother, Mason, who is having a decent season right now in Brooklyn. This season, Miles Plumlee has proven to be a legitimate starting big in the NBA, averaging roughly 10 points, 9 rebounds, and two blocks a game on 52.3% shooting in just 28 minutes of play a game. He has the best defensive rating on his team and leads his team in defensive win shares with 1.3. He may not yet be a Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, or Tyson Chandler level defender, but he’s been terrific so far this season, and his cheap contract makes him one of the best bargains in the NBA.
All of the success the Suns have had this season could be a result of having a secretly good roster, but it would be criminal to ignore the outstanding coaching job Jeff Hornacek has done this season. He’s taken a team full of outcasts, bench players, and draft “busts” and turned them into a playoff team. I don’t see this team winning the title or even making too much of a splash in the playoffs, but the fact that they are as competitive as they are is a testament to how good a coach Hornacek is. At this point in the season, he might be my pick for Coach of the Year.
There are two possible outcomes of this season for Phoenix, and both are great positions to be in.
Outcome A: The Suns continue this surprising run, make it to the playoffs in one of the lower seeds, and show that they have a great team to build around with budding stars and outstanding role players. They will likely attract a lot of free agents as a result of this and can become a title contender in a couple of years.
Outcome B: They tank by limiting minutes for their best players, fabricating injuries, and possibly trading somebody like Plumlee or Dragic for a future pick. They end up in the lottery in an outstanding draft and get a franchise player.
Both of these outcomes are pretty solid positions to be in, especially because of how competitive the Western Conference already is this season. The one thing that would stay true in both of these scenarios is that they would still have three other first round picks in 2014, meaning they will have plenty of opportunities to build their team even further. Right now, there is no worst-case scenario for the Suns. Phoenix’s front office has brilliantly created a team that will succeed in some way no matter what.