Before the regular season started, the Phoenix Suns were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA by almost every single major media outlet. Nobody predicted that one quarter of the way through the season, they would actually hold a playoff spot in an extremely competitive Western Conference.
The Suns are exceeding all expectations right now, with almost every single player on the roster stepping up and contributing to the team's success.
But there has to be a reason for that. Though some credit for this season must be given to GM Ryan McDonough for assembling the roster in the first place, it is the coaching staff's job to get the most out of the players.
Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee and P.J. Tucker are all having career-best seasons. Other veterans such as Channing Frye and Gerald Green are successfully recovering from injury or poor performance last year.
The result is that the Suns are 12-9, which currently gives them the 7th seed in a tough Western Conference. They have even beat the Portland Trail Blazers, who are currently at the top of the West, twice.
So the question is, why are the Suns doing so well? How has Hornacek and the rest of the coaching staff affected this team?
Well, let's start with offense. When Hornacek first arrived in the offseason, he made it clear that he wanted the Suns to run. In fact, he expected the team to score at least 103 points per game.
Though the Suns have yet to reach that goal (they currently score 101.8 each game), they are running and maintaining a fast pace. A starting lineup with two quick, explosive point guards allows Phoenix to get up the court quickly on each possession.
However, interestingly enough, the Suns are not among the fastest teams in the league in terms of pace. They rank 14th in the league with a pace of 94 possessions per game. For comparison, the 2012-13 Suns were only just below that, with 93.4 possessions per game.
So, rather than pace, it is really efficiency that accounts for the Suns' offensive success. They are currently seventh in the NBA with an offensive rating of 107.8, and they shoot 47 percent from the field and 36 percent from downtown.
Jeff Hornacek, who shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range for his career, is the perfect man to help this team's shooting.
First, take a look at last team's shot distribution by zone.
Now, take a look at the 2013-14 squad.
See the difference?
The mid-range game is now essentially gone from the Suns' repertoire. They still attack the rim about as much as they did last year, but now they're focusing on spacing the floor by shooting more threes, both from the wings and the corners.
And with several sharpshooters on the team, driving the lane with Bledsoe and Dragic and kicking out to the perimeter has been a perfect recipe for success.
But maybe it is important to focus on three-point shooting. The Suns were not expected to be a fantastic shooting team this season, especially after trading Jared Dudley to the Los Angeles Clippers. And yet, now they are 10th in the league in three-point field-goal percentage.
This is because several players have improved their shot consistency. Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker, for example, both shot 31 percent from downtown last season, and now those two are a couple of the best shooters on this team.
In fact, take a look at the chart below.
This chart looks at the team's three-point shooting for a few different seasons.
The first number is how the Suns shot last year. They made just 33 percent of their three-point attempts, good for 28th in the NBA.
The second figure is how the Suns could have been expected to shoot going into this season. That is, I took the 2013-14 roster and compiled all of their 2012-13 shooting figures (2011-12 for Frye) to see how this team collectively shot last year. They didn't do too great either, shooting just 33.9 percent.
However, the actual figure for this season is 36.4 percent, good for 10th in the league. A difference of about three percent may not seem like much, but it is the difference between 28th and 10th in long-distance shooting.
Finally, the last figure is to put the numbers into perspective, showing the Suns' shooting from the 2009-10 season. That was the last time they led the league in three-point percentage.
The logical conclusion from this graph is that Ryan McDonough did not actually assemble a three-point shooting team. Instead, Hornacek had to mold this team into one, with players such as Green, Tucker and Marcus Morris working tirelessly on their shooting in the offseason.
Now, let's step away from offense to focus on defense for a minute.
The Suns are still far from being a top defensive team. At least for now, offense is their forte.
However, credit must be given to both Hornacek and defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi for improving the team's defense.
Right now, the Suns are 18th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 105.8. Though that is still technically below average, the last time Phoenix had a lower rating was in 2003-04, back when Stephon Marbury led the team.
Even more impressive is the team's perimeter defense. Players like Dragic, Tucker, Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin are capable of forcing turnovers by stealing the ball, and they are the reason the Suns are 15th in the league in steals. Additionally, the Suns have been able to stop shooters on opposing teams, as they actually lead the league with the lowest opponent three-point percentage (32.3 percent).
That is an impressive feat, and though the Suns are still relatively weak in terms of post defense and rebounding, these stats do mean that they are improving. Hornacek has created a great offensive team, but he hasn't forgotten about the other half of the game either.
And finally, Hornacek must be praised for his ability to give this team an identity. The 2012-13 Suns were criticized for having no style of play. They didn't appear to have much of a strategy, or any real future cornerstones to build around.
However, Hornacek came in and immediately brought back exciting, fast-paced basketball to Phoenix. He has given this team a true identity, so that now whenever an opposing team enters the U.S Airways Center, they have to worry about the Suns running them out of the building. Though it isn't quite like the run-and-gun days of Nash and D'Antoni, it is still a fun and exciting experience for the fans as well as an effective strategy for the players.
Today, regardless of whether the Suns win or lose, the on-court product gives fans some hope for the future. You couldn't say the same thing about last year's team.
Furthermore, Hornacek has kept team morale high in a season that many suspected could be the worst in franchise history. There has been absolutely no drama coming from the Phoenix locker room, and that is always great to hear.
It is rare to see the coach of a No. 7 seed actually win the Coach of the Year Award. However, perhaps Hornacek could become a dark horse candidate. If the Suns can keep up this current level of production and make the playoffs when everyone doubted them before the season, then the rookie coach must be strongly considered.
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