Not only are the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns raising eyebrows in NBA circles for their impressive and surprising level of play, they're doing so with a formula that has been part of the organization's DNA for decades.
Regardless of whether you credit first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, the All-Star-caliber campaign turned in by Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe’s breakout performance (prior to injury), new general manager Ryan McDonough for putting the entire product together or all of those factors combined, this team’s turnaround from a season ago has become one of the best stories in the league.
Pundits and fans alike were writing this team off before it had played a single regular-season minute, as ESPN's Marc Stein pointed out via Twitter. Fast-forward to late January, and the Suns hold the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference after a convincing 124-100 win over the top-seeded Indiana Pacers.
When was the last time all of us know-it-alls missed so badly with our preseason prognostications like every last one of us did on Phoenix?— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 31, 2013
David beat Goliath, handily.
The team’s play and the Coach of the Year-quality sideline work from Hornacek has gained praise from a variety of sources, including Grantland’s Bill Simmons:
I'm at Clips-Suns. Hornacek is terrific. His team is well-prepared and playing hard. Guys on bench are locked in. Really fun to watch.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 31, 2013
Coach Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns should win the NBA's Coach Of The Year award!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 23, 2014
The most impressive thing about this Phoenix team, though, is that it has succeeded with an identity that has defined the Suns since the beginning.
Fast-paced, uptempo, unrelenting, hyper-offensive, superb guard play, dead-eye shooting—these are all terms that have come to express Phoenix Suns basketball in the organization’s 40-plus years as a franchise.
What’s even more remarkable is that Hornacek had this exact plan in mind the minute he was hired as head coach.
“The first time I spoke to (Coach Hornacek), I was back in Europe,” Dragic said, per a must-read article by Matt Moore of CBS Sports. “And he said ‘We want to be like those old Suns, use two ball-handlers and play extremely fast, up-tempo.’”
With Hornacek’s new mindset—which has admittedly been used before in the Valley of the Sun—Phoenix has jumped out to a 24-17 record behind the NBA's seventh-ranked offense (scoring 104.4 points per game).
Dragic has been a one-man fast break, Gerald Green and Channing Frye’s outside shooting has been “juicy” and Miles Plumlee’s highlight dunks continue to prove the Pacers goofed by trading him (and Green and a first-round pick) for Luis Scola.
These are no longer the dark days with Lindsey Hunter and Michael Beasley taking part in this laughable display during a game:
Instead, the Suns have used an old formula to revitalize their success.
During the 1975-76 season—just seven years after the franchise came into being in 1968-69—the Suns rode an admittedly mediocre 42-40 record into the playoffs.
Behind the coaching prowess of John MacLeod, a Rookie of the Year campaign from big man Alvan Adams and transcendent play from combo guard Paul Westphal, the Suns posted the NBA’s eighth-best offense (105.1 points per game).
During the regular season, Westphal averaged 20.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals, while Adams posted 19 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks as his wingman.
Phoenix made it to the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, but it put everything together en route to an NBA Finals run.
Westphal—a multidimensional scoring guard—draws parallels to Dragic. As Bill Simmons writes in The Book of Basketball when recollecting the '76 NBA Finals, "(Westphal) drove left at breakneck speed, planted about eight feet from the basket, then did a 360-degree twirl and banked it home as his incredulous defender was twisted in nine different directions."
The tremendous footwork we see today from "The Dragon" sounds like more of the same. Dragic has made a living this season pulling up for mid-range shots after aggressive drives and showcasing fancy up-fakes near the basket to get taller defenders off balance.
Like Westphal, Dragic can score, set up teammates and rebound the ball.
1991-92 and 1992-93 Suns
The second and most-recent Suns team to reach the NBA Finals was still led by Westphal, but instead of being an alpha-dog scorer on the court, he was a respected coach on the sidelines (just don’t tell DeMarcus Cousins that).
The 1992-93 team—headlined by MVP Charles Barkley and point guard Kevin Johnson—won a franchise-record 62 games, compiling the league’s best record that year in the process.
It finished the regular season scoring 113.4 points per game—tops in the league by nearly a four-point margin. This squad could score points with the best of them.
The 2013-14 Suns draw parallels to the roster constructed in 1991-92—when the Suns utilized two ball-handlers in the starting backcourt: K.J. and Hornacek.
The 1991-92 team was very talented, but it needed one game-changing piece to pull it all together. Phoenix proceeded to trade Hornacek for Barkley, who proved to be the missing piece needed to get it to the NBA Finals.
Could this year's team find that missing piece to the puzzle in 2014 free agency?
Late '90s Suns
Much like the Bledsoe/Dragic tandem we're seeing now, the late '90s Suns teams used similar rotations with dual point guards.
In this case, Jason Kidd joined Kevin Johnson in the starting backcourt, while Steve Nash began his career backing them up.
These Phoenix squads even used small-ball lineups with Rex Chapman and George McCloud—two complementary pieces who could shoot the three ball (think Green and Frye).
Even Danny Manning, who won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Suns in 1997-98, had similar skills when compared to the Morris twins. He was a 6'10" forward with athleticism and the ability to knock down mid-range shots.
The Morris twins haven't been as consistent as Manning was that season, but they've upped the ante by knocking down shots from beyond the arc (a skill Manning never mastered).
I still remember the ornery old man who sat behind me at Suns games who would berate 22-year-old guard Joe Johnson during the vastly disappointing 2003-04 season, adding things like, “That’s why I’m not renewing my tickets for next season!”
Boy, did he pick the wrong time to dump his seats.
To be fair, the Suns finished 29-53 that season. They fired head coach Frank Johnson after an 8-13 start, replacing him with Mike D’Antoni (who finished the campaign at 21-40).
Phoenix reloaded that offseason by signing Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, and the rest is history.
The “Run-and-Gun” Suns flipped a 29-53 record from the year before into a 62-20 sprint to the finish (tying a franchise record in the process).
They scored 110.4 points per game (ranked No. 1 in the league), Nash won the first of back-to-back MVP awards, Amar’e Stoudemire thrived as his pick-and-roll partner, Shawn Marion did all the things that don’t show up in the box score and “Q” drained a franchise-record 226 three-pointers.
Unfortunately, Johnson was fouled hard on a dunk attempt in Game 2 against the Mavericks. He smacked the floor face-first, breaking his orbital bone in the process (I was in attendance, and the silence was downright eerie).
The Suns shooting guard missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Phoenix lost both contests at home and that was essentially that.
Despite the disappointments, the 2004-05 team revolutionized the NBA. This team set the groundwork for the fast-paced team's we see around the league now—including Hornacek's Suns.
No Mike D’Antoni? No problem.
Although D’Antoni left the Suns after the 2007-08 season for the payday with the New York Knicks, Phoenix was able to get back to the Western Conference Finals in 2009-10 with the help of Alvin Gentry.
Gentry essentially used the same principles as D’Antoni, but he was willing to go deeper into his bench. (He was a godsend after the Terry Porter/Shaquille O’Neal snafu.)
After the addition-by-subtraction trade that sent Shaq to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an effort to clear cap space, the Suns won 54 games. Once again, they posted the league’s highest-scoring offense by putting up 110.2 on average.
The Suns fell to the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-2, in the WCF series, but this team still holds a special place in the hearts of Suns fans—partly due to the second unit that included Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Channing Frye.
The 2013-14 Suns have similar depth. When Bledsoe is healthy, Phoenix can bring Ish Smith, Green and the Morris twins off the bench. Hornacek has instilled confidence in those role players, much like Gentry did with his guys in 2009-10.
Now Dragic and Frye—who came off the bench four seasons ago—have been promoted to starting positions on a similarly deep roster.
After two years of mediocrity and one season spent in the Western Conference toilet, the Suns are back to their entertaining ways.
Hornacek made the gutsy decision to start Dragic and Bledsoe simultaneously in the backcourt, emulating his days in Phoenix when he played beside Kevin Johnson. The decision has worked beautifully.
Numerous Suns are averaging career highs in scoring, and, more importantly, the team is winning.
Bledsoe’s knee injury looked as if it was going to set the team back, but the heart it's displayed through adversity has kept it competitive. Much like teams in the organization's past, this Suns team scores a lot of points, gets up and down and isn't afraid to let the ball fly from deep.
P.J. Tucker had the following to say about the concept of tanking before the season, per Suns.com’s Greg Esposito:
I agree 100% with P.J. Tucker's stance on the concept of tanking "I think it's insane." http://t.co/Dv7eaVleWu— Espo (@Espo) November 5, 2013
Not only is this team not tanking, it’s actually competing for a playoff berth in 2014.
And although the Suns are a long shot to compete for a championship, McDonough and Hornacek have put the Suns in a position to succeed for years to come.
Watching Suns basketball is finally fun again; in a sense, these are still your father’s Phoenix Suns.