Has Eric Bledsoe made the clock fast forward to midnight?
I'll be the first to admit that going into the season, I didn't see the Phoenix Suns coming.
In my record projections prior to the start of the season and right after general manager Ryan McDonough traded Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards, I had the expected Western Conference basement-dwellers finishing with only 12 wins. And it's not like I was alone.
The general consensus pointed toward Phoenix finishing at the bottom of the league, competing with the Philadelphia 76ers for the best odds in the all-important 2014 draft lottery.
So much for that.
Thanks to the remarkable improvements of guys like Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and Channing Frye, as well as the impressive coaching of Jeff Hornacek during his first season pacing the sidelines in the desert, the Suns have emerged as one of the league's best Cinderella stories. But more so than anything else, the emergence can be credited to the backcourt combination of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic.
Unfortunately, it's a backcourt that has been torn apart:
There's no guarantee that Bledsoe misses the rest of the season, but there's also no guarantee he returns. At the very least, he'll miss a significant portion of 2014, and that throws the Suns' playoffs hopes into severe jeopardy.
What Bledsoe Brings
There's no doubt that the man who earned the "Mini LeBron" moniker was quite valuable to the Suns.
First, there's the obvious.
Bledsoe was exceeding even the most optimistic expectations during his first season in the desert, averaging 18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. On top of that, he was shooting a scorching 48.6 percent from the field while making an impact beyond the arc and getting to the charity stripe quite a lot.
The sheer production was incredible, and he was the driving force that carried this Suns team to the next level on offense. That's not even including his penchant for taking—and making—big shots down the stretch, like this one against the Utah Jazz:
Throughout the entire NBA, only 10 qualified players are averaging at least 18 points and five dimes per contest: Stephen Curry, Goran Dragic, Monta Ellis, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall.
Obviously, that's a pretty elite group. And it's one that Bledsoe would likely be in if he'd stayed healthy rather than bowing out of the lineup on Dec. 30.
But Bledsoe doesn't only provide offense for the Suns.
He made his mark with the Los Angeles Clippers partly because he was such a tenacious defender. Often showing utter disregard for the beating his body would take, Bledsoe used his insane athleticism to insert himself in just about every play.
It's been a little different this season, though, as the dynamic floor general has been spending more energy in sustained stretches rather than short spurts. Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows that he's struggled a bit as an on-ball defender but still been able to make an impact when chasing a man around the court.
Bledsoe isn't the defensive ace he looked like he could become while calling the Staples Center home, but he's still a solid player on that end of the court. Solid, but nothing special.
B/R's Sam Cooper—before calling the 24-year-old the No. 2 player on the team while healthy, trailing only Goran Dragic—wrote the following about the dynamic guard:
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.
That's a great way to sum it up.
Bledsoe's contract will expire at the end of this season. And at this point, even with the surgery throwing a shadow of doubt over his future, it would be tough to argue against him receiving a max deal.
The Replacement Options
So, who steps into his place?
The Suns have plenty of options, especially since Bledsoe and Dragic were combining to form a two-headed backcourt monster that didn't truly have positions. It's impossible to identify which player was playing point guard and which shooting guard, although Bledsoe tended to guard opposing floor generals.
Archie Goodwin could potentially earn more playing time, but there's no chance the rookie from Kentucky is ready to move into the starting lineup. It's far more likely that Gerald Green continues to start at the 2, just as he's done throughout the 2014 portion of the 2013-14 campaign.
So far, so good on that front.
Leading into the Jan. 10 contest against the Memphis Grizzlies, Green was averaging 15.5 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.5 steals per game during his four-outing stint in the starting five. Even better, he was shooting 46.2 percent from the field before going 5-of-10 against Dave Joerger's defense.
But Green isn't the worry. His breakout season isn't suddenly going to go away because his name is announced at the beginning of games.
The bigger worry is the trickle-down effect, as all the guards have to start playing more. With Green stepping into Bledsoe's shoes, someone else must move into Green's. Then so on and so forth.
That means Goodwin has to play more, as do Ish Smith and Dionte Christmas. As B/R's Joe Flynn wrote, "Individually, neither Smith nor Goodwin has played particularly well this season. But as long as one of them is paired with either Dragic or Green, the Suns have remained effective."
Considering Bledsoe was playing at a near-All-Star level, everyone has their work cut out for them. There's bound to be quite a bit of a decline without Bledsoe suiting up, and that decline will apply to Goran Dragic as well.
Though the surging floor general is having a great season, he also benefited from the protection offered to him by Bledsoe's presence on the court. Cooper does show that Dragic has excelled even without Bledsoe helping him out, but that's not guaranteed to continue when the sample becomes much larger.
Strength of the West
Newsflash: The Western Conference is really good this year.
Like, really, really, really good.
Teams like the Suns—the ones who are exceeding expectations and outperforming their level of talent—need every advantage they can get while trying to keep pace with the rest of the teams duking it out for one of the eight postseason berths.
For the Cinderella season to be worth its while, the clock can't strike midnight before the postseason rolls around. It's fine if everything reverts to the pre-magic state during the first round, but the Suns don't want to finish just shy of the playoffs and end up drafting at the tail end of the lottery. As so many teams learn, that's just about the worst place to be.
Right now, there's not much margin for error.
Phoenix sits pretty with a 21-14 record, one that leaves them in the No. 7 spot out West. But there isn't much of a cushion, as the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies are all within five games.
And here's the thing.
The Mavericks are going to get better as they continue to gel. The Nuggets will improve when Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee return to the lineup. The Timberwolves should be better, and the Grizzlies will soon get Marc Gasol back on the court. Plus, let's not forget about the Los Angeles Lakers, who might have Kobe Bryant back at the end of January and only trail Phoenix by eight games.
No one really wanted to bet on the Suns before the season started. Well, unless you were betting on them finishing with the worst record in the West and challenging the Sixers for the ignominious honor as the place-holder for the bottom of the NBA.
Does anyone want to now?
It would be understandable if Bledsoe were still healthy, but the Suns no longer have enough talent to compete with the rest of the postseason contenders, especially if some of the surprising performers start to have Icarus moments.
Most Cinderella stories come to an end.
Now this one will inevitably grind to a halt quicker than we expected. And that might actually be a good thing.
AZ Central Sports' Dan Bickley writes, "It will be hard to re-embrace the art of losing, and even harder seeing Bledsoe in street clothes." But it'll be worth it, as falling out of the playoff picture will just add to the value of Phoenix's first-round draft pick in the stacked 2014 class.
Then maybe next year's undoubtedly impressive story won't be of the fairytale variety.