NBA Cinderellas: Ranking the Phoenix Suns' 10 Biggest Developments This Season
The Phoenix Suns are without a doubt the NBA's biggest Cinderella story this season. Fans and experts wrote them off early, but they’ve played through twist after turn, making their own luck and creating opportunities out of obstacles.
From the Marcin Gortat trade that seemingly spelled “TANK” in capital letters to the undeniable impact of several step-up performers, it’s been an up-and down-ride to say the least. It's no secret that Goran Dragic and Co., have played through it all.
The reality of the matter is that Phoenix refuses tank. Even more so, they don’t have to.
They're playing solid basketball despite injuries and personnel turnover, and they're right in the middle of the playoff hunt. The Suns' resiliency to adversity has been a resounding theme throughout the season, and they've found a groove recently. Plus, they've already got first-round picks coming their way in 2014.
With a new coaching staff setting the tone, the Suns won’t throw in the towel this season and have turned at least ten challenges into opportunities this year.
Don’t expect them to go anywhere in the second half of the season.
Honoring the Little Things
Surprised. Unexpected. Call it whatever feels best. Regardless, they’ll win a lot more games before March than they did last season, and there’s plenty at which to raise an eyebrow.
A hot start for Phoenix was enough to turn some heads (5-2). Then again, the Phildelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats all kicked off the season quickly too. However, it was a strong enough streak to build the foundation for the culture in the Suns locker room. They realized they could win despite insultingly low outside expectations. Confidence was born regardless of the uncertainties floating around the squad.
The way they were playing confirmed that tanking wasn’t an option for them.
But the Suns would need more than just that fledgling attitude to build upon their first-half success. In fact, they’re still adjusting their roster to adapt to their topsy-turvy season.
They recently signed Leandro Barbosa to bolster their front court due to injuries. Undoubtedly he hasn’t played much this year, but for only around 50 grand for the season they’ve got their money’s worth. In a handful of games he’s contributing a little over 9 points a game with a 14.07 efficiency rating according to espn.com.
Although Barbosa’s made an impact recently, he hasn’t been a consistent fixture in their turnaround this season. He might be a nice veteran piece moving forward, but the squad is focused on the here and now.
They Suns are taking things a game at a time, and they’ve hit every curveball thrown their way this season.
Some were tougher than others.
10. Getting Defensive
Since the dawn of basketball time, great offense has always trumped great defense.
With that being the case, how were the Suns supposed to get stops this season based on their preseason personnel? Did the Suns even have a “defensive stopper” employed?
Someone call the human resources department.
The Tim Duncans, Dwight Howards, Chris Pauls and Stephen Currys of the league were going to have a field day when they faced Phoenix. Even Nostradamus himself predicted poor defensive numbers for the Suns during the year.
Like practically with every other element of their squad, no one foresaw any defensive success in Phoenix. Just last season they were in the bottom five in opponent field-goal percentage and opponent points per game.
Those things don’t tend to change overnight with a new roster and a new coaching staff. It was going to take a Herculean effort from this group if they planned on competing on defense—yet another hurdle for the squad to overcome.
Naturally, they responded. As of the beginning of January, they were sitting pretty in the top ten in opponent adjusted field-goal percentage and were number two in opponent adjusted three-point percentage.
They were literally forcing opponents into uncomfortable adjustments.
Opposing teams struggled to get near the basket. The Suns’ frontcourt was allowing only 56 percent shooting from five feet or closer. They’re also a top-ten team in opponent field-goal percentage from within the restricted area, which is better than the Houston Rockets and the Detroit Pistons.
Their defense was just another unexpected twist in the Suns' whirlwind of a season.
9. Fast Breaking Their Offensive Insecurities
It’s no secret that the Suns aren’t chock full of potent scorers.
They weren’t when the season started, and they still aren’t now.
However, their utilization of a fast-break offense compensates for any scoring deficiencies. Not only do they get more possessions and more attempts when they push the ball, they get better looks for their shooters too.
Remember, their payroll lacks instant offense.
Still, no one could’ve predicted that they’d lead the NBA in fast break points per game. In fact, no one thought they’d lead the NBA in anything this season.
With nearly ten new faces on the squad (not including the coaching staff) it was easy to expect sloppy basketball. However, the Suns have avoided those issues by pushing the tempo and taking pressure off of their half-court offense. They’re averaging 19 fast-break points a game this season, which is a huge improvement over the 13 plus they put up last year.
According to point guard Goran Dragic via ESPN, "Every time we look at the tape, if we play half court we have problems...But when we run we got those easy, open 3s or easy layups. Everybody wants to play like that. It's really fun."
Unexpectedly, the Suns are sitting in the top ten in scoring per game too.
Heavy focus on the break has helped them put together a solid team offense, which has been even more surprising than their defense.
8. Too Proud to Lose
The Phoenix Suns have fought through double-digit deficits and found ways to win all year despite stretches of inconsistent offense and defense.
On the road against the Denver Nuggets, the Suns trailed by 21 points early. Towards the end of the third quarter they were still down 17. A big defensive effort coupled with a barrage of Gerald Green three-pointers turned that game around. Denver scored only 17 points in the fourth quarter, and the Suns pulled out a 103-99 victory.
Markieff Morris commented on the Suns’ attitude after the game (via ESPN.com): "We never quit. We came out and fought all the way to the end," Morris said. "It's a great feeling, man."
This attitude also played a central role in a late November win versus the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers were up by as many as 16 points in the first half before the Suns lit up the place. Phoenix scored 99 points over the second, third and fourth quarters and sent Portland packing, 120-106.
All in all, they’d only lost five games by double-digits as of mid-January. That’s proud basketball.
They also don’t shy away from late-game heroics, which is a testament to Jeff Hornacek's coaching and the maturity of his team (two important storylines that'll be analyzed later).
Eric Bledsoe stepped up to the plate and hit a home run against the Utah Jazz in November, tallying the Suns' final 14 points, including a game-ending three with .7 seconds left on the clock.
Not to be outdone by Bledsoe, Gerald Green earlier this month capped a 7-0 fourth-quarter run in Minnesota with a game-winning baseline jumper.
Who said Phoenix didn’t have any closers on their team? They’ve molded confidence out of critics’ doubts.
7. December Roles
It was only one month into the season, but after the injuries, the Gortat trade and new faces gelling within a new system, the Phoenix Suns found an identity in December 2013.
Part of their success boils down to the surprising play of their role players during the month.
Don’t call them Decemberists yet, but they put together a 10-3 record during the holidays, including wins over the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers. Highlighted by a five-game winning streak and a 6-1 home record, the Suns finished the month in the top ten in scoring and opponent field-goal percentage.
Truth be told, they wouldn’t be in the playoff discussion without their strong holiday push. Their 9-8 record in November was surprising enough, but they really set the bar for their season in December.
They were finishing ball games, playing solid defense and looking like an experienced team.
“Experience” doesn’t initially scream off of Phoenix’s roster page. Their roster features eight players with two years of experience or less, but by the end of December, experience didn’t matter because the younger guys were stepping up their game.
In a home win against the Toronto Raptors, third-year reserve forward Markieff Morris took the roof of the place with 25 points and 11 boards on almost 79 percent shooting. Third-year wing man P.J. Tucker also chipped in with a double-double of his own (18 points and 13 rebounds) and Markieff’s twin brother Marcus put up 10 points.
The Morris twins weren’t done there.
It was a family affair in Denver a few weeks later as Markieff and Marcus put the Suns on their backs. They combined for 39 points, four blocks and four steals off the bench and paced Phoenix to a big-time win.
By this juncture, the Suns had perfected a lethal offensive formula whereby, according to Matt Petersen via nba.com, they were “sharing the wealth” on offense.
The cat was finally out of the bag in Phoenix.
Once the "inexperienced" Suns started blowing past preseason expectations, other teams began to take notice of what was brewing down in Arizona.
The Suns were well coached and hungry. Their "next man up" approach was working.
6. Jeff Hornacek Goes Mental
First-year head coach Jeff Hornacek deserves a lot of credit and strong consideration for the NBA's Coach of the Year award.
Almost all of the aforementioned positive developments with the Suns should be attributed to Hornacek. In a nutshell, he’s turned the Suns into a competitor that plays with pride every night.
After taking over the job, Hornacek gave his team the gift of mental toughness. That’s how they’ve been able to come back from big deficits and hit big shots.
It’s exactly what experts and enthusiasts surprisingly underestimated.
Hornacek was a disciple of former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. Did anyone really think he was going to let his team tank the season away? This is a guy who played with John Stockton, Karl Malone and Greg Ostertag. He stood toe-to-toe and played with some of the dirtiest players of his era.
To sum it up, he donned short shorts when long shorts weren’t kosher in the NBA. He’s really that tough.
Plus, he already understands how the league works. In the NBA the head coach is only as good his coaching staff and obviously Hornacek picked his counterparts effectively.
According to Matt Petersen of NBA.com:
He was intent on covering all the bases: experience, personality, ability to relate to players, one-on-one teaching, etc.
The rookie head coach knew he’d lend a more personal touch to his guard rotation, having played both backcourt positions himself in the 1980s and 90s. That left the bigs, headlined by Markieff Morris and (acquired later that summer) Alex Len and Miles Plumlee. Their development would be key to both the Suns’ present and future.
He saw the potential pluses and minuses of his team early on and got to work. Preemptively addressing potential problems has been one of Hornacek’s greatest strengths as a young head coach. He’s been a main catalyst for the Suns' Cinderalla season, and he’s turned first-year coaching expectations upside down in Phoenix.
New toys like Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris along with an overachieving roster hasn't hurt his cause either.
5. Phoenix hits the Jackpot with Bledsoe
The Phoenix Suns acquisition of Eric Bledsoe turned out to be a huge one in 2013.
However, skeptics weren’t always sure about the Suns’ motives in trading for their new guard.
At first, it looked like the Suns were just stockpiling the backcourt. Maybe they were putting pressure on Dragic to step his game up. Maybe they were using him as trade bait. Maybe they saw potential in a dual-point guard lineup. Could that even work?
Dave Dulberg discussed the potential aftermath of the trade on valleyofthesuns.com back in July:
It could work out potentially very well putting Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the same backcourt together. Granted they’d be a little bit small defensively and Dragic hasn’t had a ton of experience playing without the basketball, but it could work.
The thing about potential is that it doesn’t always pan out; sometimes it takes years to see any progress.
There was also the possibility that Bledsoe might never produce at the clip the Suns were hoping for when the trade occurred. On the surface his career numbers on the Clippers really weren’t that great, but according to Dimemag.com there was more to the story:
Around this time last season – November 2012 – Bledsoe’s per/36 minute averages were 20 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. These are All-Star caliber numbers similar to his 20-5-7 on 50 percent from the field this year. Putting those statistics in perspective, there are only two other players in the league right now with that stat line thus far: Lawson and LeBron James. So the signs for potential brilliance were there.
So the Suns took a gamble on upside. That’s business. Remember you miss every shot you don’t take.
Luckily, the Suns hit nothing but net. Bledsoe immediately fit into Phoenix's system and excelled. At times, he was even the tone-setter for the squad. Whether it was a steal for an emphatic finish or a no-look dime on the break, Bledsoe’s been a focal point for the Suns turnaround this season.
He’s put up some impressive stats in his first year in Phoenix (18 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game), which makes him a front-runner for the league's Most Improved Player award.
Educated gamble or not, Bledsoe’s play was vital to the team's first-half success. And the Suns played the numbers perfectly.
Even though losing Gortat would alter Bledsoe's impact on the team, he's been a monster for them since day one.
4. Bledsoe Gets Bit by the Injury Bug
Luck works in strange ways. One minute the Suns had Bledsoe pacing them to huge wins, then luck struck, and he’s out with a serious knee injury.
Clearly, the Phoenix Suns aren’t immune to the NBA’s point guard-injury bug.
Analyzed in the last slide, Bledsoe was having a career season before getting hurt. The Suns were competing in the ridiculously loaded Western Conference. Hornacek was changing the team culture.
Then, Bledsoe was diagnosed with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
The team must have felt like it got punched in the stomach.
One game he was filling up stat lines, the next he was sidelined. What’s worse is that he suffered the injury during a game against his old team in Los Angeles.
The bottom line is that he’s sidelined for a few months, and the Suns haven’t coped well without him so far. They went 3-5 in their first eight games without Bledsoe and racked up losses to Memphis, New York, Dallas and Chicago. Outside of Mike Conley of Memphis, none of those squads start a game-changing point guard.
Clearly, Bledsoe’s absence affects the whole team.
How well the Suns' work through this injury loop will make or break this team. SB Nation’s Dane Carbaugh confirms that, “getting Bledsoe back will mean the Suns likely remain in the playoff discussion come April.” The problem is that they don’t know what they’ll get back or when. Serious knee injuries can derail a player's career.
Ever heard of Derrick Rose?
Well Rose and Bledsoe share not only bad luck with leg injuries, they also play the same type of game: Attacking the rim and exploding to the basket are huge parts of their offensive arsenal.
Bledsoe’s activity alone created shots for shooters, which is evidenced by his 5.8 assists per game. Between his 18 points and almost six assists per game, the Suns have a 30-point void to fill.
Just another corkscrew built into their roller coaster ride of a season.
3. Get the Gortat Out of Here
Gortat, Bledsoe and Dragic sounded like a nice trio to build a quality team around.
Add a productive wing man there. Throw in a role player there. Who knows, the Suns could’ve been serious contenders by the beginning of next year, if not by the end of this season.
Then, right before the 2013-14 campaign started, Phoenix shipped Gortat to the Washington Wizards and received almost nothing in return.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda...right?
Without a formidable presence in the middle, the Suns looked doomed. Teams were going to practically set up camp in the paint and abuse their diminutive frontcourt.
With or without Bledsoe, the Suns' fast-break offense would've sputtered without a big man. Moreover, the Pacific division itself is home to some of the NBA’s most skilled big men: David Lee, Blake Griffin, Demarcus Cousins and Pau Gasol.
How was trading Gortat anything but a front-office decision to tank?
The draft pick they received in return with injured big man Emeka Okafor only confirmed the worst suspicions of Suns fans that their team wasn't interested in winning now. It was hard to argue for any other angle.
Matt Moore of cbssports.com outlined what seemed obvious in October:
For the Suns, their intention is clear. Focus on young talent, clear more salary space, and focus on next June's draft. Lock them into the No. 2 spot in the lottery right now. That also moves them into an even better position than the Sixers after Philadelphia traded Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a protected 2014 pick from the Pelicans. The Suns already have a lotto-protected pick from the Pacers and a top-13 protected pick from Minnesota.
That’s a lot of draft picks for a team that’s already competing with the West Coast’s best.
See folks. Teams tank by choice not by circumstance, and the Suns made up their mind a long time ago.
Evidenced by the numbers of other Suns players, losing Gortat wasn't as important as who they kept.
2. Good Old Goran
There’s been one constant throughout the injuries, trades and new coaches, Goran Dragic.
A holdover from previous Phoenix teams, Dragic has been the soul and backbone of this squad. And his adjustment to being paired with Bledsoe has helped both players thrive in the new offense. People weren’t concerned about whether Bledsoe could play with Dragic, they were more concerned with whether Dragic could play off of another ball-handler.
Concerns aside, Dragic has had an all-star caliber season worthy of at least a few votes on your NBA ballots. Listed as a shooting guard, his 19-plus points per game ranks fifth in the NBA at his position and his six assists a night are tied for tops amongst shooting guards. He’s also in the top four in field-goal percentage.
More importantly, he’s stepped up to the challenge of leading this team regardless of who’s healthy or who’s not playing on a given night.
Bledsoe’s injury should’ve hampered Dragic's field-goal percentage because he attracts the defense away from the left-handed shooting guard. However, Dragic is shooting over 54 percent since Bledsoe’s injury, and in their wins, he’s averaging over seven assists per game.
Dragic is doing everything he can to keep this team afloat when it's not at full strength.
Via sportsonearth.com, coach Hornacek realizes that the Suns need him to switch up his game without Bledsoe in the lineup:
Well, it's got to change a little bit...We do need him to be a little more of a facilitator, now that Eric's not there. Just because we don't have a lot of guys on the team who can create anything...between the two of them, things would be broken down, and one of them would make a play. So each of them would have six assists per game, or whatever. But now that we don't have Eric, we don't have anyone to take those other six, really.
With Bledsoe down and out, Dragic has an opportunity to prove critics wrong.
Don’t expect him to waste the opportunity.
1. Overachievers From Top to Bottom
The Phoenix Suns are a group of overachievers.
At almost every position they’ve dealt with health and personnel turnover, and at every position Phoenix players stepped up and exceeded expectations.
From Gerald Green to Miles Plumlee to Markieff Morris...they’ve got guys putting up career numbers.
Green is putting up career highs in points and has stepped into the shooting guard role with Bledsoe sidelined. He’s also never found a shot he didn’t like, and he’s one of the best finishers in the NBA.
Don’t forget that Green was relegated to the D-League several times during his NBA career.
Ryan McDonough, the Sun’s General Manager, spoke about Green’s development this season via NBA.com:
I think that maturity speaks to Gerald’s personal development, but you can also see it in his game...He’s more under control, his shot selection is improved, his defense is improved and he does a lot of the little things that the coaches are asking him to do that he didn’t necessarily do before.
Third-year forward, Markieff Morris is also grabbing some attention with his “grown-man’s game.” His 11-plus points and almost six rebounds per game, in addition to career highs in field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage, have been huge for the Suns bench.
The Suns are 21-0 when Morris puts up over 14 points and six rebounds.
Last but not least, Miles Plumlee sets the tone for the team's interior defense. Pegged as another Most Improved Player candidate, the former Duke standout is averaging close to a double-double this year after riding the pine in Indianapolis last season. Not to mention he’s a prime reason for why the Phoenix faithful isn't crying about the Gortat trade.
As of Jan. 18, Plumlee was averaging more rebounds and blocks than Gortat.
Additional shout outs go to P.J. Tucker who’s averaged almost 10 points and seven rebounds. Don't sleep on Channing Frye either who's put up double-digits in more than 20 games this season.
Anyways, the Suns obviously had to make some adjustments in order to make the game easier on themselves. Then again, adjustments don’t necessarily win ball games. Execution wins ball games, and the abilities of individual Phoenix players to step up their game has been the most critical and surprising part of the season.
If no one steps up than nobody wins.
Kudos on the first half of the season, Phoenix.