Say hello to the Phoenix Suns, projected tankers playing like seasoned contenders.
No one saw them coming. They were an afterthought. Another tanker in a field of many. There was nothing to see here. Nothing worth watching. The Suns were bad, all in on Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, draft prospects they weren't guaranteed.
Phoenix was a tanker. An obvious, shameless tanker.
Welp, we were wrong. All of us. I'm not making sweeping generalizations, either. Anyone who tells you they foresaw Phoenix taking the Western Conference by storm also probably once told you they invented the glue used on the back of Post-it notes. So, they're lying.
Entering Jan. 2, the Suns have the Western Conference's fifth-highest winning percentage and are one game off the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers. You're going to tell me someone predicted that? Puh-lease.
This is actually happening. The Suns are actually on course to see the postseason and, if this keeps up, well within striking distance of a division crown and the first-round homecourt advantage it comes with, officially making Phoenix the NBA's worst-kept secret.
Some of these "secrets" you'll see coming. This isn't one of them.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Goran Dragic-Channing Frye connection borders on dominant. When those two are on the floor together, Phoenix is outscoring opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions, the 26th-best mark among the league's top 250 two-man pairings that have played at least 450 minutes together.
Wait, it gets better.
The Suns are also averaging 112 points per 100 possessions when Dragic and Frye are playing, the 17th-best mark of the league's top 250 two-man combines. That puts them in the top seven percent of the league, which is huge.
Nothing about this dyad makes you think it should generate such high-profile results. Sure, they're combining for nearly 30 points per game, but that's pretty routine stuff.
Yet, something about this connection isn't. Phoenix scores in bunches when they're on the floor, outscoring opponents by a large margin.
Here's to seeing if it stays that way all season.
If the Suns are the NBA's worst-kept secret, Eric Bledsoe is the worst-kept secret of worst-kept secrets.
Phoenix stole him from the Clippers. Stole him, I tell you. If Vinny Del Negro had sense enough to embrace dual-point guard lineups last season, Los Angeles could've demanded more in return for his services. But the Suns pulled off a three-team coup instead, landing one of the league's brightest young stars.
"You just saw these flashes of what he could do," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne of Bledsoe. "He doesn't have a lot of holes in his game. There's not a lot of things he can't do, just with his strength, his athletic ability and his shooting.
"He just hadn't played consistent minutes."
Turns out that's just what he needed.
Bledsoe is averaging 18 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game, joining Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Stephen Curry as the only players to be maintaining said benchmarks this season. Paul and Bledsoe are the group's only two shooting better than 45 percent from the floor as well.
Let that sink in. Now breathe. Then exhale. Breathe again. Finally, clap. After receiving "consistent minutes," Bledsoe is officially a franchise point guard.
"So we'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him," McDonough explained to Shelburne.
Nor should they. Paying for star floor generals is always a no-brainer.
There will be no lies told here.
The Suns are not an elite defensive team. On some nights, they're downright terrible, allowing opponents free rein down low and cutting off dribble penetration about as well as rubber conducts electricity. But they do have one saving grace: perimeter defense.
Opponents are knocking down just 33 percent of their three-pointers against Phoenix, which ties the league's third-most effective mark. Teams are also shooting 35 percent overall on all shots outside 16 feet when facing the Suns.
While we're on the subject, it's also worth noting their defense, though middling, has improved a great deal since last season.
Not bad for what we all considered—admit it—a blatant tank job not even four months ago.
Mike D'Antoni would be proud of these Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix ranks seventh in pace, using 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes, the second-highest showing of the post-D'Antoni era and up from 93.4 last season. Not to say there's anything particularly mind-blowing about the Suns' rate of play. It's modestly fast and pleasantly paced.
Maintaining a higher pace is, in theory, a solid way to tank. Shooting early in the shot clock creates extra possessions for both teams, which, as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh puts it, gives better squads more opportunities to assert dominance.
But it also rewards teams who can excel playing faster than most, like the Suns, who can secure victories when off to the races.
Case in point: Phoenix leads the league in fast-break points per game, pouring in 19.1 of them. Last season, four of the top-five transition teams—Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets—were playoff factions.
What the Suns have is pace with substance. They're not pushing the tempo aimlessly, like D'Antoni's current team. The Los Angeles Lakers rank fourth in pace, but 19th in fast-break points.
Productive tempo—that's Phoenix's "secret."
Two floor generals are better than one—in Phoenix's case, at least.
Dragic and Bledsoe have forged an unlikely partnership, one the latter doubted before arriving in Phoenix. But Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek was optimistic all along.
"I envisioned it like when I played in Phoenix with Kevin Johnson," Hornacek explained to Shelburne. "I was a point guard and then we traded for Kevin, and he was a point guard. So we basically had two point guards who could push the ball and we ended up scoring a lot of points."
Bledsoe inevitably softened to this idea, and the rest was awesomeness.
The two point men have shared the floor for over 450 minutes this season, during which time Phoenix plays like a double-ended juggernaut. See for yourself:
|Suns Lineup||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Yeah, that's a difference.
When both point men are on the floor, the Suns' offensive, defensive and net ratings would each rank fifth in the league. Only two teams actually rank in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency this season—the San Antonio Spurs and Thunder, both of whom are legitimate contenders.
Dragic and Bledsoe put Phoenix in that kind of company. Good company.
When I say Phoenix has the mindset of a winner, I'm dead serious.
"One of the big themes for this year was creating a positive culture," McDonough told Shelburne. "And giving people an opportunity to show what they can do."
That's exactly what the Suns have done. And it's worked.
Players like Marcus and Markieff Morris and Gerald Green are having career seasons. Others like P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee are simply exceeding expectations. Then there's Bledsoe and Dragic, and to a lesser extent, Frye, who are doing exactly what Phoenix hoped they would do.
This is not a team with egos. They're reminiscent of the Nuggets of 2011-12 and 2012-13, playing contender-style basketball sans lauded star power. A similar dynamic worked for Denver then, and it's working for Phoenix now.
"As we say around here," McDonough reiterated to Shelburne, "'Just because you haven't done it before, doesn't mean you can't do it.'"
A team that was supposed to lose in excess has created a winning off-court culture players believe in, and it's translated into actual wins.
Ain't no better secret than that.