What We Learned About Phoenix Suns During Season's First Half
That statement might have sounded absurd just three months ago. After all, this was the year the Suns were expected to "tank." Incoming point guard Eric Bledsoe showed promise, but after gutting the roster of veterans such as Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat, few people expected the Suns to exceed 24 wins.
Not even the team's marketing department realistically expected a playoff berth. The current season's slogan of "Ignite the Future" was an obvious attempt to bring hope and optimism to the fans without guaranteeing immediate success.
But as of today, the Suns have a 24-17 record. They have emerged as the underdog story of the NBA, and it has been a long time since a team of washed-up veterans, prospects, nobodies and misfits has achieved so much.
Of course, there are still 41 games to go. And with Eric Bledsoe out with an injury, there is plenty of time for the Suns to lose their playoff spot.
But for now, let's focus on what went well in the first half. How exactly did the Suns get to this point? And what did we learn in the first half of the season?
The Rookies Are off to a Slow Start, but the Potential Is There
One of general manager Ryan McDonough's first tasks this past offseason was the draft. For the first time in many years, the Suns had a top-five pick. And in addition to that, they also had the last pick of the first round.
With the fifth pick, McDonough took Alex Len, a 7'1" Ukrainian center from the University of Maryland. With the 30th, he selected Archie Goodwin, the freshman guard from Kentucky who many said would have benefited from staying in college.
Neither player is even a candidate for Rookie of the Year. And looking at the stats, you can see why.
Archie Goodwin averages 3.1 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.9 turnovers in a meager 10.5 minutes per game. His shooting percentages are particularly unsightly, as he connects on 39 percent of his field-goal attempts and only 11 percent of his three-point attempts. Advanced statistics give him a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 6.3 and -0.4 win shares. Those stats almost suggest that Goodwin has been a liability to this team rather than any sort of asset.
Len hasn't been fantastic either. He has played only 13 total games after missing over a month due to ankle soreness. And even in those 13 games, he has logged a total of just 89 minutes.
It is still too early to even worry about the performance of these rookies and whether or not they should be labeled "busts." Len and Goodwin are only 20 and 19, respectively, and they're on a team that doesn't have many minutes to offer. Factor in the alarming status of Len's ankles, and it's safe to say that the two rookies will be developed slowly over the next few years.
On the bright side, when either one is on the court, the potential is clearly there.
For example, few players on the team are as aggressive as Goodwin when attacking the basket. Though he isn't converting many of those layup attempts yet, he isn't afraid to drive to the rim and take contact either. Once he adds strength, he could be one of the Suns' best players at breaking down the defense. If he could only add a consistent jump shot to his repertoire, he might become an elite offensive player.
Len, for his height, is extraordinarily lanky. Though it may be a small sample size, he averages 7.7 offensive rebounds and 12.5 total rebounds per 36 minutes.
He hasn't shown much of an offensive or defensive game yet. But at the very least, he could become an above-average rebounder in this league. And right now, that's exactly what the Suns need from their big men, as they are 27th in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage.
One Team's Trash Is Another Team's Treasure
When the Suns traded Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers, the most intriguing asset they received appeared to be a late 2014 first-round pick. Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee were simply throw-ins.
But now, Green and Plumlee have emerged as two of the best players on the roster. That's right, Gerald Green, a misfit who was even waived by a Chinese team a few years ago and had to play in the D-League, and Miles Plumlee, the 25-year-old prospect who logged a total of 55 minutes in Indiana behind Ian Mahinmi and Roy Hibbert.
With Eric Bledsoe out, Gerald Green has done a fantastic job as a starter. Though he cannot handle the ball and break down the defense like Bledsoe can, Green is a deadly spot-up shooter with perhaps the greatest dunking skills in the NBA.
In 23 starts, he is averaging 15.4 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from the field.
And he has already gained enough confidence and trust from head coach Jeff Hornacek that he is already shooting game-winners.
Miles Plumlee also has had a huge impact on the Suns, though it isn't for his offensive game as much as it is his defensive prowess. Plumlee is currently seventh in the league in blocks per 48 minutes, and he is capable of altering shots in the post without getting in foul trouble. He still isn't a fantastic one-on-one post defender against dominant centers such as Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert, but that is something that can be developed.
Plumlee also scores 9.7 points per game, mostly on dunks and putbacks. There aren't many plays run for him, yet he still finds a way to stay relevant on the offensive end with offensive rebounding.
At 25, Plumlee may not have such a high ceiling anymore. Though he has surfaced as a legitimate NBA starting center, other players such as Alex Len could have a higher ceiling.
But even so, you cannot argue with the production that Green and Plumlee are providing. Both will be crucial members of the roster for the rest of the season, and expect both to stick around for more than just one year as well.
Goran Dragic Is Taking His Game to New Heights
If the Suns were only an Eastern Conference team, Goran Dragic would make the All-Star appearance he deserves.
Unfortunately, there are so many talented point guards in the west. Even with Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant injured, veterans with a better reputation such as Tony Parker are likely to take a wildcard spot away from younger guards such as Dragic, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson and Isaiah Thomas.
Dragic's all-star caliber season shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to Suns fans. After all, he was absolutely dominant at the end of last season as well. In 26 games after the 2013 All-Star break, he put up 16.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game.
With Bledsoe out, Dragic's assist numbers have gone down. However, he is now scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game, and is shooting with fantastic efficiency (49 percent from the field and 37 percent from deep).
Just how dominant has Dragic been? Well, only three players are shooting at least 48 percent from the field, while averaging over 19 points and 5 assists per game. One is Goran Dragic.
The other two are Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
When Eric Bledsoe arrived, some were concerned that Dragic would have trouble playing shooting guard and that the Suns would eventually have to choose either one guard or the other as a franchise cornerstone.
But both Bledsoe (when healthy) and Dragic have been outstanding. And at only 27 years old, there is absolutely no reason to trade Dragic when he has so much left to offer this team. For now, Dragic is the clear leader of the Phoenix Suns, and he isn't going anywhere.
But Eric Bledsoe Is Just as Valuable
Goran Dragic has been playing out of his mind, sure. But it's also clearly evident that the Suns will have much more trouble making a playoff push without Eric Bledsoe.
Before getting injured, Bledsoe was putting up 18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He himself was considered a potential All-Star candidate, and also a strong candidate for the Most Improved Player Award.
Though the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt was undersized, it allowed the Suns to run an offense where either player could handle the ball and both could break down the defense.
Additionally, a great backup point guard wasn't as crucial. When Bledsoe was fatigued, Dragic would often take over the point and the Suns would not lose any production.
Since Bledsoe went down, the Suns are 5-6. But what's interesting is that in those games, the Suns outscored their opponents by 37 points. Almost all of the losses were by just a few points.
Without Bledsoe, the Suns no longer have two consistent scorers that they can rely on. Goran Dragic has been great, but he cannot win games by himself. Sometimes, players such as Markieff Morris, Channing Frye or Gerald Green step up and score 20-plus points. But when they don't, the Suns are often doomed to fail.
Bledsoe's injury makes his contract situation confusing. He is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and considering how valuable he is, it is unlikely that the Suns will allow another team to sign him.
On the other hand, you don't want to match an offer for a maximum extension (or near one) on a player who played less than half the season.
It will be an interesting story to watch in the offseason, but for now, Bledsoe has not said anything about a new contract. Perhaps we should just hope for a full recovery for Bledsoe, especially if he is able to return to action near the end of the season.
The Future Is Bright
The Suns went through an overhaul this offseason, and it wasn't just limited to the players. Even head coach Jeff Hornacek and general manager Ryan McDonough were new. And often times that doesn't instill a lot of confidence.
But give those two credit, as they have done a fantastic job in just a few short months. They are bringing exciting basketball back to the desert.
Nobody questioned McDonough's moves over the offseason. Unloading Gortat and Scola for first-round picks while trading for a rising young star in Bledsoe seemed like a perfect rebuilding strategy, something similar to what Sam Presti did with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But now, in addition to a stockpile of draft picks, the Suns are already winning games. Even I wrote articles in the offseason about how it may be a long three or four years before playoff basketball returned to Phoenix.
If the Suns are already a 7th or 8th seed with this roster, just imagine the potential of the franchise in one or two years. The Suns have six first-round draft picks in 2014 and 2015. Even though none of those picks (except possibly the 2015 Los Angeles Lakers pick) project to be particularly high, they could either be packaged for veteran star players or used to grab fresh, young prospects to add to the rotation.
And don't forget the plethora of cap space either. After Emeka Okafor's contract expires at the end of this season, Goran Dragic will have the team's largest salary at $7.5 million. Eric Bledsoe will be paid much more if extended, but that still leaves the Suns with plenty of cap space to pursue free agents.
It is unrealistic to say that the Suns are "one piece away" from winning their first championship. It's true that they need another star, but they could also utilize even more role players to form a stronger bench.
Even so, it is hard to think of another time in recent history when Suns fans had so many reasons to be excited for the future. Though the ceiling of this year's roster is limited, the potential in years beyond is almost boundless.