Almost halfway through the regular season, it is clear that the 21-13 Phoenix Suns are fighting for a playoff spot in a fiercely competitive Western Conference.
So far, they have been the surprise underdog story of the year. Led by rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek and the dynamic backcourt duo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, the Suns have propelled their way into the seventh seed in the West.
And it's certainly too late to "tank" at this point—Phoenix could win just 20 percent of its remaining games and still have too good of a record to warrant a top-five draft selection.
The Suns recently took a huge blow after it was announced that point guard Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely with a right knee injury. Read more about that in the next "honorable mention" slide. Now, the rest of the roster must step up in Bledsoe's absence.
Here are rankings for the rest of the roster after almost one half of the regular season. As always, rankings are based on statistics, individual contribution to the team and expectations going into the season.
In case you haven't already heard, the Suns took a huge blow with the announcement that point guard Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely with a right knee injury.
Story going online now: ESPN sources say Suns G Eric Bledsoe out indefinitely after team determines Bledsoe needs surgery on right knee— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 9, 2014
Bledsoe was having a fantastic season, putting up 18 points, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He is a fantastic player in transition, he plays great perimeter defense, his outside shooting has clearly improved, and he also possesses the athleticism required to rebound and block shots at a high rate for a guard. If it weren't for this injury, most would agree that Bledsoe is living up to his max contract potential.
But with Bledsoe out, the Suns will have a much tougher time competing for a playoff spot in the West.
Bledsoe is considered one of the best players on this team (second only to Dragic), and now the Suns will need other backcourt players to step up. As a result of his injury, Bledsoe will not appear in these rankings.
Emeka Okafor, the 31-year-old veteran center acquired in the Marcin Gortat trade, is also still out indefinitely with a neck injury. He will not be given a ranking either.
13. Slava Kravtsov
Now that rookie Alex Len has returned, it's safe to say that we won't be seeing much of 26-year-old center Slava Kravtsov (not that we ever did). He has played 50 minutes in 15 games so far, usually only logging minutes at the end of blowout games.
He isn't a terrible player and proved with the Detroit Pistons that he is capable of blocking shots on defense and setting screens on offense. However, he doesn't have the same ceiling as Len and therefore won't be prioritized in the rotation.
This doesn't mean that it's time to cut Kravtsov, though. Should there be another injury to either Len or Miles Plumlee, he would have to become the team's backup center. And because both Len and Kravtsov are Ukrainian, perhaps Kravtsov could serve as a mentor to the rookie.
Also, since Kravtsov has a guaranteed contract, there's simply no reason the Suns should cut him. He may not be great, but it isn't worth it to lose that money, and the Suns are also stretched too thin to be in a position to cut players right now.
12. Dionte Christmas
Twenty-seven-year-old rookie Dionte Christmas is in the same situation as Slava Kravtsov. There are so many players in front of him in the depth chart that he will hardly see minutes unless it is a blowout game.
Since then, there has only been one other game in which Christmas played at least 15 minutes. And now, even with Eric Bledsoe's injury, guards Ish Smith, Archie Goodwin and Leandro Barbosa will all prevent him from seeing much of an increase in playing time.
In the few minutes he has played, Christmas has been decent. He's a solid spot-up shooter who can run the floor and occasionally drive the lane. He is shooting just 38 percent from the field and 23 percent from deep this season, but shots taken at the end of blowout wins and losses don't tend to be the most efficient.
It has taken Christmas such a long time to finally fulfill his goal of reaching the NBA. Even if he doesn't log many minutes, he's surely an underdog to root for this season.
11. Alex Len
On January 7 versus. the Chicago Bulls, Alex Len finally returned after missing several weeks due to ankle soreness. As of today, the fifth overall pick of the 2013 draft has played just 49 minutes in six games.
Len has logged a total of 18 minutes in two games on this road trip so far. Though he hasn't been fantastic and still often looks awkward or stiff on offensive and defensive possessions, the potential is there. In those 18 minutes, Len put up five points and seven rebounds on 2-of-4 shooting.
He still has a lot of work to do in order to become a solid NBA player. Most importantly, he still needs to add a lot of strength, which will take plenty of determination, work ethic and patience.
Once Len is stronger, he won't be pushed around as much by bigger NBA centers. Only then will he be able to assert himself both offensively and defensively, performing post moves as well as blocking shots.
And at 7'1", Len certainly has the physical attributes to become a great rebounder. He didn't jump too much in these past two games, but perhaps that is because he is being cautious with his ankle. Len, a former gymnast, should have no problem helping the Suns grab more rebounds once he adjusts to NBA life.
Archie Goodwin, the 19-year-old rookie out of the University of Kentucky and one of the youngest players of his draft class, clearly needs some more time to develop.
Right now, Goodwin is averaging 3.3 points and 1.8 rebounds in 11 minutes per game. His shooting line is what's truly unsightly, as he shoots just 40 percent from the field, 12 percent from deep and 64 percent from the free-throw line.
The advanced stats look even worse. So far, the rookie has produced a total of minus-0.3 win shares and has a PER of just 6.6.
Does this mean that the 30th overall pick was a bust? Absolutely not.
However, Goodwin is clearly not yet at the point where he can contribute to a winning team. If the Suns truly intend on making a playoff run, they will likely give guards such as Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa more playing time over Goodwin. That doesn't mean Goodwin has to be sent down to the D-League, but simply that he may see a decrease in playing time.
Goodwin still has the ceiling of an NBA starter. He has already shows an ability to aggressively attack the basket and play defense. However, he needs to add more strength if he ever wants to become an elite player.
Finally, his three-point shooting is atrocious, and hopefully it's something coach Hornacek can work on with Goodwin. If Goodwin can add another dimension to his offensive game by improving his jump shot, he will instantly become a much more dangerous and valuable player to have.
Backup point guard is one of the greatest holes in the Suns' roster.
The advantage to having two point guards in the starting backcourt is that one will be able to run the point at almost all times. When both Bledsoe and Dragic are healthy, there's no reason to play third-string point guard Ish Smith for more than a few minutes per game.
But when Bledsoe is out, Smith suddenly has to play more minutes. And that is when the Suns seem to struggle the most.
Though his passing is fine, Ish Smith is almost completely incapable of creating his own shot. Dragic and Bledsoe are so successful on offense because they can either drive, pass or hit an outside shot.
But Smith is simply not a good shooter, and he doesn't make opposing defenses respect his shot. In fact, so far this season, he has connected on just one of 16 three-point attempts. That's a lot worse than Kendall Marshall was last season, and many people criticized him for lack of shooting touch.
On the bright side, Smith has looked much better recently. Over his last three games, the 25-year-old point guard has put up 7.3 points and four assists in 18 minutes per game on a 44 percent shooting clip. Those are actually fine numbers for a backup point guard.
However, it is clear that the organization is uncomfortable with the idea of Smith logging 15-20 minutes each game in Bledsoe's absence. Once Leandro Barbosa learns Hornacek's offense more, he may start to see some minutes at point guard, and Smith's playing time will once again decrease.
The Brazilian Blur is back.
This time, Leandro Barbosa may not be as much of a blur. In his first stint with Phoenix from 2003-2010, he was considered one of the fastest players in the league. Now, at 31 years old and fresh off a torn ACL, Barbosa has lost much of that athleticism.
But the Suns are still hoping that the fan-favorite guard can be an answer to their problems. Though Barbosa is only on a 10-day contract for now, there is a high chance that he will be signed for the remainder of the season if Bledsoe is out for an extended period of time.
In Barbosa's first game back against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he put up three points, three rebounds and three assists in 13 minutes on 1-of-6 shooting. The only shot he made was a fast-break layup.
But even if the shots weren't falling, Barbosa proved that some of the speed and athleticism is still there. He was able to beat his defender and drive the lane more than once. It is ridiculous to say that he is simply a washed-up veteran at this point. At the very least, he should be able to contribute more of a shooting touch than Goodwin or Smith.
In fact, Barbosa is a career 39 percent shooter from three-point range. He provides outside shooting that Smith and Goodwin cannot, another benefit to having him on the roster.
Finally, Barbosa is 31 years old, making him one of the oldest players on the team. He is a veteran with a lot of playoff experience, and that could be important if this young team has playoff aspirations. Barbosa, Goran Dragic and Channing Frye all played together in the 2009-2010 season as well, so those three may have great chemistry together.
Overall, this was a low-risk signing. The Suns can see if Barbosa is ready to play at an NBA level again, and the fans get a taste of an old fan favorite.
In order to succeed, Marcus Morris needs to score.
As a tweener, he doesn't have a great set of secondary skills. He's only 6'9" and often too small and too weak to guard huge power forwards and centers or grab a great number of rebounds. On the other hand, he can also be too slow to guard some faster small forwards.
His biggest asset is his shooting touch. This season, Marcus is shooting a career-high 40 percent from three-point range. He is averaging 16.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes, which are great numbers for a bench player.
But now, Marcus is in a bit of a slump. Over his last 10 games, he has averaged 9.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from the field.
With Gerald Green in the starting lineup, the Suns are desperate for a scoring spark off the bench. Perhaps Leandro Barbosa can provide some scoring, but the Morris twins need to be the true leaders of the second unit. The longer Marcus and Markieff struggle, the more games the Suns may lose no matter how many points Goran Dragic and Channing Frye are able to drop.
Markieff Morris is still posting career-high numbers in virtually every major statistical category. He boasts the statistics of a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
But unfortunately, Markieff is still much too inconsistent to win that award.
At his best, Markieff is simply an unstoppable force off the bench. No matter how many contested mid-range jumpers he takes, they all seem to go in. He won Western Conference Player of the Week back in November after averaging 22.8 points and eight rebounds on 70 percent shooting in four games.
At his worst, on the other hand, Markieff is incapable of providing the scoring spark that the Suns desperately need to win games without Bledsoe. If Phoenix wants to cling to a playoff seed, it will need the Morris twins to lead the bench, especially while Gerald Green is part of the starting lineup.
But recently, both Morris twins have struggled. In his last 10 games, Markieff averaged 10.5 points and 6.2 rebounds on 42 percent shooting from the field and 21 percent shooting from deep.
One of Markieff's greatest assets is that he can shoot a generally inefficient shot—the mid-range jumper—at high efficiency. With advanced stats, it is now proven that long two-point shots are the least efficient in the NBA. However, active defenses look to force teams into shooting those shots, and opposing defenses are never more alert than they are in the playoffs.
There are a lot of inefficient long two-pointers in the playoffs, because that's often all the defense is willing to give up. To have someone like Markieff who can step up and hit those shots with great efficiency is very valuable. It's a reason players such as Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge are able to thrive off the mid-range shot.
However, Markieff still needs to work on shot selection as well as the consistency of that jump shot. There are too many plays where Markieff takes a contested jumper in isolation, and when he's on a cold spell, those plays only hurt the team's offense.
P.J. Tucker's skill set can be described with just three traits: defense, hustle and the corner three.
Last season, he seemed to only have defense and hustle. This year, he has developed into one of the greatest corner specialists in the league. Tucker has made 33 threes this season, and only three of those didn't come from the corner. He is also shooting a fantastic 42 percent from downtown, a better conversion rate than his general field-goal percentage (40 percent).
His great on-ball defense doesn't show up in the stat column. However, Tucker is always trusted to guard the best offensive wing player on the opposing team. For example, in a December game versus the Houston Rockets, Tucker completely shut down superstar guard James Harden. Harden was frustrated the entire night and shot just three of 17 from the field as well as zero of 10 from downtown.
And of course, Tucker hustles. He's tough and isn't afraid to dive to the ground, wrestle the ball away from an opposing play or take contact under the basket when grabbing the rebound. He grabs 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is very impressive for a 6'5" wing.
Tucker has just six games so far this season with more than 15 points. And he hasn't scored more than 20 points in a single game. But Tucker is one of the few players on the roster who doesn't care much about scoring. He doesn't need it to succeed. Instead, it is his hustle, defense and spacing that are so valuable to the Suns.
Given that Gerald Green shot 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range last season with the Indiana Pacers, he wasn't considered the prize of the Luis Scola trade. In fact, he seemed to simply be an extra contract thrown in who wouldn't play much of a role with his new team.
But now, with Eric Bledsoe out, Green has become one of the most important players on the roster. He has suddenly become a go-to scorer.
That's right, the misfit who barely played last season is now one of the leading scorers on a playoff team. How that happened, nobody is quite sure. But Jeff Hornacek is not a coach who tends to yell and put his players down, and that has likely attributed to Green's new-found confidence. Even if Green makes a mistake, Hornacek will usually remain calm and collected.
And that poor shot selection hasn't kept Green from shooting with high efficiency. He is shooting 44 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown this year, making him one of the most efficient spot-up shooters on the team. He has been even better in his last 10 games, shooting 48 percent from the field, 42 percent from deep and 93 percent from the free-throw line.
Oh, and now he can add a game-winner to his collection of highlights as well.
Miles Plumlee plays better at home than he does on the road.
Are you shocked yet? While that may not seem unusual, Plumlee's stat lines at home and on the road are extremely different.
In 17 games at home, Plumlee is averaging 11.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game on 54 percent shooting. Those are possibly the numbers of a top-10 center.
In 17 games on the road, Plumlee puts up 8.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game on 50 percent shooting. Those are the numbers of a fringe starter.
His free-throw problem is also much worse on the road. Whereas Plumlee makes 52 percent of his free throws at the U.S. Airways Center, he shoots just 38 percent on the road.
It's only natural that a young player is more comfortable when cheered by the home fans, but Plumlee needs to focus on his performance when put under pressure by opposing fans. It is unreasonable to expect him to put up the same numbers on the road as he does at home, as he is in an unknown and uncomfortable environment.
However, learning to cope with road trips and improving his production in unfamiliar arenas will make Plumlee a much better player. It is the next step he needs to take to become a consistent threat and not just a "fluke."
In his first three seasons with Phoenix, Channing Frye had the benefit of playing with Steve Nash. As a stretch four, Frye knew that Nash would always be able to find him for the open shot.
When Frye returned this season after missing an entire year due to an enlarged heart, some were worried he would not be the same. Not only because he was recovering from an injury, but also because he would be playing without a two-time MVP and one of the greatest passers in NBA history.
But after a slow start, it can be argued that Frye is having a better season than he ever did with Nash running the point. His 15.4 points per 36 minutes and 46 percent shooting clip from the field are both new highs for his four-year stint with the Suns.
Through his first eight games, Frye exceeded seven points just once, and he averaged 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 32 percent from the field.
Since then, he is shooting 49 percent from the field, 47 percent from deep and has exceeded 20 points six times. He makes a fantastic pairing with Dragic, and with Bledsoe out, Frye may see even more increased production.
As always, he is one of the greatest players in the NBA when it comes to creating space. And although some seem to think Frye is simply a spot-up shooter, he has shown that he is an underrated defender and rebounder as well. He can occasionally even perform post moves or a dunk. Throw in his veteran experience, and it is clear that Frye is on a very affordable contract and must not be traded.
As of now, it is clear that Goran Dragic is the best player on this team.
That may not still be the case in a few years, when rising young star Eric Bledsoe is in his prime and Dragic has entered his 30s.
However, for now, Dragic is having a career-best season, and he must be given credit for the Suns' success. With Bledsoe out, it is crucial that Dragic continue to perform at such a high level.
Over his last six games, he is averaging 23.7 points, 6.2 assists and two steals per contest while shooting 52 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the perimeter. Those are All-Star numbers, despite the small sample size.
Unfortunately, those numbers don't always translate to wins. In a recent game, Dragic put up a career-high 33 points against the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Suns still lost by eight. Without Bledsoe, Phoenix does not have another consistent scoring option to help Dragic win games.
On offense, 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 is a player who makes those around him better.
On defense, Dragic is a solid on-ball defender who can force turnovers and in some cases, even block shots.
Dragic is proving that Eric Bledsoe's arrival will not take away from his production. He is still an extremely valuable player to this team, one who should not be traded in the near future simply for the purpose of "tanking." And now that Eric Bledsoe has suffered two injuries in the span of just a few months, Dragic will become even more valuable to the Suns' future. No matter his potential, if Bledsoe proves to be injury prone, the Suns must keep the other guard around in order to compete.
Dragic may be older, but he seems to make his teammates much better, and considering his bargain of a contract, he could be considered the more valuable backcourt player. For now at least, Dragic is still the team's leader.