Before the regular season started, few fans would have been willing to bet that the lowly Phoenix Suns could place ahead of legitimate contenders such as the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings.
But now, two months into the season, the Suns are 17-10, giving them the fifth seed in the West.
At first, they were a huge surprise to everyone, including themselves. But the longer this fantastic play continues, the more fans and experts will begin to declare Phoenix a force in the West and not just some strange fluke.
Since the last time I graded the team's key players, the Suns have gone 9-3. Some players are looking even better than before, and for that reason their grades will go up. For once, this is a season of wonderful surprises and few disappointments.
Now, as we prepare for the new year, here are year-end grades for every key Suns player.
Coach Jeff Hornacek usually uses nine men in his rotation, but of all the benchwarmers on this team, Ish Smith has received the most playing time.
When Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were out with nagging injuries at the start of the season, Smith logged plenty of minutes. He wasn't particularly impressive, and he's shot just 33 percent from the field and 11 percent from three-point range. He can rack up assists and has fine court vision, but his shooting is unacceptable, and he isn't particularly athletic either.
As long as Dragic and Bledsoe stay healthy, you won't see much of Ish Smith. However, he will get a few minutes of playing time at the end of blowout wins or losses, just like Dionte Christmas and Slava Kravtsov.
Rookie Archie Goodwin is an exciting player, one who fits perfectly with the Suns' fast-paced offensive style.
Already this season we have seen several breakaway dunks from Goodwin, who has shown that he can play the passing lanes and then finish on the other end.
Additionally, he isn't afraid to relentlessly attack the basket and take the contact. His aggressiveness shows, as 32 of his 39 career field goals have been right underneath the basket. He also converts 53 percent of those attempts, which is decent but not special.
But now, let's focus on Goodwin's weaknesses.
Though he may be fun to watch, the rookie still struggles with outside shooting. He has made just 3-of-25 three-point attempts, which is an unsightly 12 percent. And it doesn't help that he continues to launch 3.2 threes per 36 minutes.
Goodwin is only 19, which means the Suns will give him plenty of time to develop. There is no rush to insert him into the starting lineup, especially since Dragic and Bledsoe have been so effective.
For now, Goodwin will continue to receive about 10 minutes per game as a role player.
When Marcus Morris arrived in Phoenix last season, he really struggled. Despite some early success with the Houston Rockets, the 6'9" forward shot just 41 percent from the field in 23 games with the Suns. And by the end of the season, head coach Lindsey Hunter barely played Marcus at all.
But this season, Marcus has been a very pleasant surprise. In fact, he has been one of the team's best bench players.
Right now, Morris is putting up 11 points and 4.6 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. His shooting stroke has been incredibly impressive, as he has connected on 41-of-91 three-point attempts, a career-high 45 percent.
Marcus has also improved his rebounding, grabbing a career-high 7.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. Though that may not seem too impressive for a 6'9" forward, it does at least show that Marcus is still developing and improving.
Role players such as Gerald Green and the Morris twins are a huge reason the Suns are winning so many games. Though Dragic and Bledsoe have been superb, give credit to Marcus Morris for stepping up his game.
Right now, Markieff Morris has to be considered a legitimate candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Morris is putting up 12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists and one steal per game while shooting a career-high 49 percent from the field.
What is interesting is that Markieff shot a combined 40 percent from the field in his first two NBA seasons. So why has the percentage suddenly skyrocketed?
He is attacking the basket more and not settling for long threes.
It's true, Markieff does often settle for contested mid-range jumpers when he could probably get himself closer to the rim. Marcus does the same thing.
However, we no longer see Markieff launching three-point shots as if he were Channing Frye. In 26 games this season, he has attempted only 23 threes. Compare that to his first two seasons, when he took 258 three-point shots in only 145 games.
He is also putting up career-high numbers in free-throw percentage, in total rebounding rate and in rebounds per 36 minutes. Markieff has improved in all areas of the game.
Also pay attention to his foul numbers. In his rookie season, Markieff averaged 5.3 fouls per 36 minutes. That number decreased to 4.1 last season, and now it is at 3.3. He no longer gets in foul trouble so easily.
Markieff may not be a future star, but he is a fantastic sixth man for now. And as he becomes even more versatile and consistent, perhaps he can take the starting power forward spot in the future.
At the start of the reason, there were some concerns that Channing Frye might not be the same player after missing a full season due to an enlarged heart.
It didn't help when he averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds on 36 percent shooting through his first 11 games.
But now it is clear that Frye has once again adjusted to NBA basketball. Since those first 11 games, he's averaging 13.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 48 percent from three-point range.
Even though Frye is 30 years old on a rebuilding team, it makes absolutely no sense to trade him. His fantastic three-point shooting and floor spacing is part of what makes the Suns' offense so efficient. Additionally, if the Suns are going to make the playoffs, they will want an experienced veteran such as Frye on the team. Frye and Dragic are the only two remaining players from the Suns' 2010 playoff run.
Channing Frye's return to the NBA has been an influential and heartwarming story. You can trust that he will instill a sense of hope and optimism within the locker room, and that he will also set an example for the younger players with his determination and work ethic.
Gerald Green is a fairly inconsistent player who will take some terrible shots.
And yet, you want him on your team because he can easily heat up and drop 20 points off the bench in 20 minutes.
For a while, Green blossomed in a starting role with Bledsoe and Dragic out. But after returning to the bench, he struggled for a while. In his first seven games after returning to a bench role, he shot a dismal 29 percent from the field while scoring 6.9 points per game.
But now, he has gone on another hot streak. Green has scored 63 points in the team's last three games and has knocked down an astounding 16 threes.
He has absolutely no conscience on offense, and he isn't afraid to keep shooting. He has confidence in his shot, and because of that he is able to shake off bad performances and put up a stellar stat line on any given night.
There will be nights when you beg Green to stop shooting. But there will also be nights when you can't get enough. Such an unpredictable player only makes Phoenix a more exciting team to watch.
Miles Plumlee continues to be one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season.
How is it that a player who logged just 55 total minutes as a rookie can suddenly become a starting center capable of putting up 12.4 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes?
Plumlee is a fantastic fit with this team, which is part of the reason he is succeeding. As a center who can run the floor, he is constantly rewarded by Bledsoe and Dragic with alley-oop passes and other feeds that lead to emphatic dunks.
When he isn't dunking, he has great footwork and a set of post moves that are tough to defend.
And of course, he is clearly an anchor on defense. He blocks and alters so many shots and still somehow manages to foul only 3.5 times per 36 minutes.
How much playing time Alex Len receives this season is still a mystery, and veteran center Emeka Okafor may not play at all. Therefore, expect Plumlee to keep the starting role for the remainder of the season.
P.J. Tucker is still the pesky, troublesome player he always has been on defense. He hustles on both ends of the court and can be trusted to guard the opposing team's best wing player.
But now, he has added corner three-point shooting as another dimension to his game.
Tucker lives in the corner on offense. In fact, he might as well just set up a sofa on the corner and sit in it on offensive possessions. He has hit 31 threes this season, and 28 of those have been from the corners. Overall, he's shooting 46 percent from deep.
This is after he shot just 31 percent last season from three-point range and only attempted 70 long-distance shots in 79 games.
Tucker won't generally score 20 points in a game. Bench players like Green and the Morris twins will routinely put up more points. However, his shooting, defense, rebounding and hustle plays all make him a very valuable starter.
The arrival of Eric Bledsoe has not made Goran Dragic an obsolete veteran waiting to be traded. In fact, Dragic is having a career-best year.
The 27-year-old Slovenian point guard is averaging 18.4 points, 6.0 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting a career-high 48 percent from and field and 34 percent from beyond the perimeter.
Statistically, Bledsoe and Dragic are just about identical. However, Dragic still has the basketball IQ that only comes with age and experience.
In terms of scoring, Dragic can attack the basket, hit the mid-range jumper or spot up from behind the three-point line. He can also create easy opportunities for teammates, especially by driving the lane and then dishing out to the open shooter on the perimeter. He's a fairly versatile scorer, and his defense isn't bad either.
There is simply no reason to break up this backcourt duo right now. Dragic and Bledsoe are the first pair of teammates to both average at least 18 points and six assists per game since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during the 1991-92 season.
Eric Bledsoe has been absolutely fantastic for the Suns.
Before the season started, I expected the young point guard to struggle for a little while as a starting guard. I predicted that he would post averages of about 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, which would be promising but not spectacular.
I'm glad to say that Bledsoe has proved me wrong.
He is still the team's leading scorer, putting up 18.9 points per game. He is also averaging 4.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.5 steals in 34.2 minutes.
Even Bledsoe's three-point shooting, which seemed like an area that needed a lot of work, is now much improved. He's making 36 percent of his three-point attempts, giving the Suns yet another reliable perimeter shooter.
As Bledsoe continues to gain more experience as an NBA starter, he will become even better. Though there may be too much competition in the West for Bledsoe to be an All-Star this year, he looks like a probable candidate to make a few All-Star appearances over the course of his career.
Give Dragic and Bledsoe one or two more above-average players and you may have a legitimate contender.