And before everyone starts screaming about the Portland Trail Blazers, just calm down. Yes, the Blazers have been fantastic. But they came into the season as a fringe playoff contender and have ended up playing some of the best basketball in the league.
They've exceeded expectations, but not by nearly as wide a margin as the Suns have.
According to Bovada (via Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated), Portland's over-under for wins in 2013-14 was 38.5. It's a lock to exceed that figure, but even if it'd been just slightly better than expected, it would have still been sniffing around the playoff picture.
The Suns' over-under was 21, the second-lowest total of any NBA team. Sitting at 17 victories already, they're blowing expectations away.
So, who are these guys? And how are they doing this?
How They Got Here
The Suns' relative anonymity is understandable. Since losing Steve Nash before the 2012-13 season, they've been pretty forgettable. Their renowned training staff was probably the most famous aspect of the franchise, and owner Robert Sarver had developed a reputation as a meddling, stubborn leader.
But thanks to an attitude overhaul by Sarver, Phoenix set out to change its ways this past summer. The Suns got smarter, embraced a rebuilding effort for the first time in over a decade and entrusted the team to young, highly capable executives.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the catalyst for Phoenix's reform came from Sarver, who said:
For all successful people in business, I think that the notion of taking a step back to take a step forward is a foreign concept. You simply don't say, 'We're going to go backward for a couple years,' in business. But pro sports–especially the NBA–is different, and it's set up to do just that.
I had a hard time stomaching the idea of rebuilding, and spent a couple of years trying to patch together a way that we could still capitalize on Steve (Nash's) ability. I was a couple of years too late in really facing the music.
Better late than never, though, as Sarver's realization led to the hiring of Ryan McDonough, a 33-year-old wunderkind from Boston who transformed the Suns in a single summer.
McDonough's approach was simple: Take runs at talent whenever possible, but never act without thinking. McDonough explained his process a bit more articulately to Paul Coro of The Arionza Republic:
The one thing that we’ll never do here is pass up on the chance to get a great player. If we can get a great player to Phoenix either by trade or as a free agent, we’ll do that as quickly as possible and then build on that player. But if not, we’ll take a more deliberate approach and be patient and try to draft well and develop young players and maximize their talent.
True to his word, McDonough boldly cut ties with Michael Beasley, shed bad deals and collected young assets. Veterans like Caron Butler and Jared Dudley quickly found themselves packing their bags as young, promising talents like Eric Bledsoe came aboard via trade.
A few months before changing out the roster, McDonough hired Jeff Hornacek—a man with no NBA head coaching experience but a good rapport with players and a favorable view of analytics—to lead the youth movement.
Then, the irony kicked in.
What They're Doing Now
After all of Sarver's talk of taking a step back, and McDonough's guarded plans to develop slowly, the Suns started winning almost right away.
Right from the outset, it was clear that they had the talent and strategic approach to obliterate their projections.
As Kevin Pelton of ESPN writes, they've been a bigger statistical surprise than any team in the league:
Phoenix's overachieving has truly been a team effort; all nine rotation players have exceeded their SCHOENE projections, many of them dramatically so. That points to the role of first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, who has built an outside-in attack around the skills of guards Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Without a single All-Star (injured Emeka Okafor doesn't count), the Suns are sixth in the league in offensive rating, ahead of the likes of the Mavericks and Spurs.
They've done it by embracing their athleticism, relying on Channing Frye and the Morris twins to stretch the floor with their shooting and firing off the second-most three-point attempts per game in the league, per NBA.com.
At present, Phoenix's per-game differential is plus-3.4, and it's won eight of its past 10 contests.
This isn't an accident or a fluke. The Suns are equipped to win right now, which is convenient because McDonough has the entire organization committed to amassing victories whenever possible.
Tanking isn't part of Phoenix's blueprint.
For all the suspicions about the Suns chasing a draft lottery tanking strategy, McDonough made it clear to Babby and Sarver that he'd never be a part of it. In working with the Celtics, in studying the NBA, McDonough had learned that pursuing pingpong balls isn't a strategy to get out of the lottery – it's typically a ticket to return year after year.
It makes it easier to embrace a winning attitude when the young talent necessary to succeed in the future is already on the roster.
Bledsoe has panned out brilliantly, posting a PER of 21.5 and bringing the same brand of high-intensity defense that made him a devastating weapon as a reserve with the Los Angeles Clippers last season.
Dragic is having a breakout campaign, Miles Plumlee is vindicating McDonough's belief that he could be a starting center and Frye is stretching the floor like he once did alongside Nash. Gerald Green is nailing threes from all over the court, for crying out loud.
Everything is working.
The list of Phoenix's scouting and player-development success stories goes on and on, a testament to the utility of McDonough's dual emphasis on old-school scouting and new-age analytics.
Right now, the Suns are sitting comfortably in playoff position, ranked sixth in the brutally difficult Western Conference.
In spite of every preseason projection, they've earned their spot there.
Where Can They Go?
There are plenty of questions still surrounding the Suns.
Will they eventually divest themselves of their more expensive assets, swapping out Dragic and/or Frye for picks and flexibility?
Can their defense, currently a middle-of-the-pack outfit, really stay stout enough to offset the team's substandard rebounding?
Most importantly, will McDonough hold to his anti-tanking ethos in the face of some pretty strong signs that Phoenix is still a clear notch below the elite teams in the conference?
Whatever they decide to do this season, the Suns are set up nicely for the long haul.
In addition to their own first-rounder, they could wind up with as many as three more selections in first round of the loaded 2014 draft.
|Suns' Additional 2014 First-Round Picks|
|Indiana Pacers||Top-14 Protected|
|Minnesota Timberwolves||Top-13 Protected|
|Washington Wizards||Top-12 Protected|
Plus, Phoenix still hasn't figured out how much it's going to get from last year's lottery pick, Alex Len. And with a maximum of just $34 million committed to next year's salaries, it'll have more than enough money to match any offers Bledsoe might attract as a restricted free agent.
Phoenix is years ahead of schedule right now, and with loads of picks, clean books and good vibes, the future is only looking brighter.
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