The Phoenix Suns, currently the seventh seed in the West with a 14-10 record, are still defying expectations.
If the playoffs began today, the Suns would play a first-round series with the 22-5 Portland Trail Blazers, a team that has already lost to Phoenix twice this year.
And even with all of the competition in the Western Conference, making the playoffs doesn't seem like such a fantastic and vain hope anymore. Currently, John Hollinger's playoff odds give the Suns a 59.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. And as for "tanking," he also gives them just a 0.3 percent chance of winning the lottery.
There was some concern going into the season regarding whether or not Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic would be able to coexist. However, those two have become one of the best young backcourts in NBA, even earning nicknames such as "DragonBlade" and "The Slash Brothers" in the process. They are both putting up career-best numbers, and Dragic and Bledsoe are the first two teammates to both put up at least 18 points and six assists per game since Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan did it in 1991-92.
At this point, Suns fans expect great performances out of Bledsoe and Dragic every single night. They are the clear leaders of this team and the closest thing that Phoenix has to a legitimate superstar.
If for some reason the Suns fail to clinch a playoff berth, it will not be because of a lack of production from Dragic or Bledsoe. Rather, it is the supporting cast that Suns fans might worry about, a group of several unproven and inconsistent players who may slow down near the end of the season.
First, let's talk about one of the main reasons the Suns have been so successful on offense.
As of now, the Suns are 10th in the NBA in three-point percentage and seventh in the number of makes. They aren't the same fantastic three-point shooting team that they were in the mid-2000s, but under rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, who was a sharpshooter at one point himself, the Suns are pushing the pace and firing away from long distances.
Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Channing Frye are all especially unique because they have the ability to space the floor despite being forwards. With Frye or the Morris twins in the lineup, the Suns have the perfect recipe to attack "ICE" defense. ICE is a defensive strategy used by many NBA teams to defend the sideline pick-and-roll, in which the defense traps the ball-handler near the baseline and prevents penetration.
Of course, the downside of ICE is that by using two defenders to trap the guard, the player setting the screen is left wide open near or behind the perimeter. And that is exactly where Frye and the Morris twins thrive. It is what makes a sharpshooter like Frye and a great passer like Dragic such an effective pairing.
But the power forwards aren't the only ones hitting three-point shots. P.J. Tucker, for example, is now one of the best corner specialists in the NBA. Tucker has shot 25-of-51 from the corners this season, an astounding 49 percent conversion rate. Furthermore, only Martell Webster, Klay Thompson, Wesley Matthews and Trevor Ariza have made more corner threes.
And then there's Gerald Green, who has attempted the most threes of any Suns player by far. He's shooting 36 percent from behind the arc this season and has the ability to shoot from the corners, the wings or at the top of the key. He won't hesitate to spot up or pull up and shoot off the dribble.
Together, all of these three-point shooters have made the Suns offense so great. They create the spacing needed for Dragic and Bledsoe to drive the lane and then either take the layup, draw the foul or kick a pass back out to one of the shooters on the perimeter.
However, three-point shooting could also be the source of the team's downfall if it becomes too reliant on those shots. Though Frye, Morris, Green and Tucker are currently shooting well, no shooter is completely consistent, and no shooter goes without cold streaks.
Gerald Green and the Morris twins are all historically inconsistent shooters as well. For example, in 54 games with the Houston Rockets last season, Marcus Morris shot 38 percent from downtown. When he came to Phoenix for the final 23 games, he shot just 31 percent from three-point range.
Markieff Morris struggled with the same sort of inconsistency each month as well. In January of last season, Markieff shot 5-of-27 from downtown, a dismal 19 percent. On the other hand, he would also go on fantastic hot streaks, such as in April when he made 13 of his 20 attempts (65 percent).
And then there's Gerald Green, who has simply had an inconsistent career. Green has attempted at least 100 threes in each of the past three seasons (including this year), but the results from season to season are drastically different. In New Jersey, for example, he shot 39 percent on his threes, which is fantastic. But with the Indiana Pacers last season, Green's three-point percentages drastically dropped to just 31 percent.
Even this season, we're already seeing Green go through hot streaks and slumps. In his first 14 games, nine of which were as a starter, Green shot 40 percent from beyond the perimeter. But in his last 10 games since, he has shot 17-of-56, which is just 30 percent.
Channing Frye isn't the most consistent shooter, either. He shot just 35 percent from deep in 2011-12, which is far from spectacular, despite the fact that he has a reputation as a sharpshooter.
All of these role players have been able to shoot well up to this point. Hopefully, the Suns will continue to be a dominant three-point shooting team. However, it is also unreasonable to think that this will continue all season long. Shooters will occasionally struggle, and sometimes for long period of time. When that happens, the Suns don't exactly have a great half-court offense to fall back on. They typically aren't very efficient in the post or in isolation plays.
So while shooting has so far been one of the keys for success, it could also lead to plenty of losses in the future.
Then, the Suns also have to deal with the fact that they are no longer an unknown team. They were a completely new roster at the start of the season, and coaches of opposing teams likely didn't know what to expect.
But now the film is out there, and everyone knows the Phoenix style of play. With that said, the Suns should now expect opposing teams to start developing more effective methods at stopping this offense. The Suns no longer have the benefit of flying under the radar.
On the bright side, in the event that the Suns are still in the playoff race in April, it is possible that more help will be on the way. Rookie center Alex Len has still logged just 31 minutes this season due to ankle issues, but hopefully, he will be able to become a part of the rotation later in the season.
And then there's Emeka Okafor. Okafor, the 31-year-old veteran center, is currently out indefinitely with a neck injury. He was acquired by the Suns in the Marcin Gortat trade two months ago, but Phoenix cared more about his expiring contract than it did about whether or not he could play.
However, if the Suns are in the playoff race in a few months, Okafor would be very useful. One of this team's biggest issues is allowing offensive rebounds, as the Suns are 27th in the NBA with a defensive rebounding percentage of 72.2 percent.
But Okafor, despite his age, averaged a career-high 12.1 rebounds per 36 minutes with Washington last season. He could come off the bench as a mentor to Plumlee and drastically improve the team's rebounding and post defense.
Of course, this is all purely speculation. After the trade, David Aldridge said that he would "be shocked" if Okafor ever played a minute in Phoenix.
But there is still a possibility, especially if the Suns are competing for a playoff spot. And inserting Okafor into the current lineup creates an even more dangerous team.
We have now established that the Suns will likely stay in the playoff race. Even if they cannot retain the seventh seed that they currently hold, they should never fall more than a few games out of reach of the eighth seed all season long.
But now some Suns fans are probably thinking that the team should just tank if they aren't guaranteed a playoff spot.
However, tanking is a concept that falls out of the realm of the coaching staff and players.
In order to tank, a general manager must intentionally create a terrible team either before the season starts or at the trade deadline. The only way to do this is usually to gut the team of veterans and trade for young prospects and draft picks.
General manager Ryan McDonough did exactly that this summer. And yet, if he was planning on tanking (which he would never admit even if he was), it certainly hasn't worked.
And now, there really is nothing he can do. Jeff Hornacek and the players are not going to tank, as that isn't the way the NBA works. Players will fight every single night on the court, and they couldn't care less about the team's draft position. Additionally, trading more veteran players at the deadline would be much too blatant and obvious, and it would only outrage many of the team's fans.
So, tanking really isn't an option anymore.
But let's say for a second that it was. Would it even be worth it at this point? Let's pretend that for the remainder of the season, the Suns lost games at the same rate that they did in 2012-13. That means that for the final 58 games of the season, the Suns would post a winning percentage of .305.
If that happened, the Suns would win 18 more games and finish the season with a record of 32-50. According to the 2012-13 NBA standings, 32-50 would only be the 10th-worst record in the league. In other words, the only way to receive a top draft pick at that point would be to get very lucky in the lottery.
At this point, it would be an amazing accomplishment for the Suns to finish the season as one of the bottom-five teams. The likely scenarios are that they will either be a low playoff seed or they will receive a late lottery pick.
And if those are your two choices, which would you rather see happen? When the Suns have three other potential first-round picks this season and do not have to worry so much about their own, I think the choice is obvious.