The 29-20 Phoenix Suns have been without point guard Eric Bledsoe for over a month, and yet they continue to win games and climb the standings in a tough Western Conference.
Perhaps general manager Ryan McDonough and rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek should be given most of the credit for the team's success. The right transactions and coaching could turn around any franchise, even in just one season.
Or, give credit to all of the new players who have exceeded expectations, such as Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee. Even Ish Smith has done a great job as the team's third-string point guard.
But it's equally important to look at all of the holdovers from last season and recognize how much these players have improved.
Only five players on the current Suns roster suffered through the disastrous 2012-13 campaign: Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, P.J. Tucker, and Channing Frye (who did not play due to an enlarged heart).
While the new acquisitions have been fantastic, each of these five players have only continued to add to their skill set since last year. And through that development, they perhaps are the most responsible for the team's success.
This article will focus solely on how those five players have developed.
P.J. Tucker is not a great offensive player. He's a starting small forward, and yet has only seven games this season with more than 15 points.
But Tucker, especially considering his $884,000 salary, is one of the most valuable players on the roster. He may not create his own shot, but he hustles after every loose ball and defend the opposing team's best offensive wing player.
Every time Tucker faces an elite player, he takes it personally and does his best to shut them down. In a December game versus the Houston Rockets, Tucker completely shut down superstar guard James Harden. Harden became increasingly frustrated, and shot just 3-of-17. He didn't make a single three-pointer.
Tucker has also established himself as a great rebounder, grabbing 7.3 boards per 36 minutes. Although he is only 6'5", he actually grabs rebounds at a higher rate than forwards Channing Frye and Marcus Morris.
But Tucker's defense and hustle was evident last season too. What he has added this year is the ability to shoot from the corner.
It only took Tucker two months this year to eclipse the number of three-point attempts he took all of last season. He is also shooting 40 percent from downtown, as opposed to 31 percent in his first season as a Sun.
Three-point shooting has become an integral part of coach Hornacek's offense, but it would not be nearly as dominant without P.J. Tucker's consistent shooting.
To see some extensive evidence of Tucker's hustle, defense and three-point shooting, just take a look at this video.
Steve Nash has always been considered a legendary passer. Channing Frye played with Nash for three seasons in Phoenix, and during that time much of Frye's success from the three-point line was credited to Nash's passing ability.
But now, without Nash, and after missing an entire season due to an enlarged heart, Frye is making 40 percent of his three-point attempts. That is much better than his last year playing with Nash, in which he shot just 35 percent from downtown.
Without Bledsoe, Channing Frye has become a bit of an X-factor for the Suns. Goran Dragic has been quite consistent with his scoring, but the team still needs another go-to option to win games.
And when Frye can step up and be that scorer, the team almost always triumphs. Frye has nine performances with at least 20 points this year, and the Suns have won seven of those games.
Frye continues to prove that he can succeed without Nash, and that the Dragic-Frye duo can be just as deadly. Frye's three-point shooting off a pick-and-roll is a fantastic way to attack an "ICE" pick-and-roll defense, in which the guard defending the ball-handler always goes over the top of the screen. It's a strategy used by some of the league's elite defensive squads such as the Indiana Pacers (whom the Suns have beaten twice).
Unfortunately, Frye still possesses the same weaknesses as before. He often avoids the paint and is rebounding at his lowest rate since the 2008-09 season.
But the fact that he can contribute more to a playoff team than being a "veteran presence" is astounding. Even at 30, he still has a future with a rebuilding team.
When Marcus Morris was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Suns last season, he was dreadful.
In 23 games, Marcus shot 41 percent from the field, 31 percent from three-point range and put up 5.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. He had a PER of 8.6 and contributed -0.2 win shares. Those stats actually make him seem like a liability.
This season, Morris has become a vital part of the Suns' second unit. He may not have many great secondary traits, but his scoring has been very good.
Marcus is currently averaging a career-high 10.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game (16.3 and 6.9 per 36 minutes). He is also shooting a fantastic 38 percent from downtown.
Because Marcus Morris is a 6'9" 'tweener, you would love to see him fight his way into the post more often and score from inside. Instead, he often settles for mid-range jump shots.
But perhaps that isn't such a terrible display of low basketball I.Q. From an article written by Matt Moore of CBS Sports, coach Hornacek explains:
When you get in the playoffs, those are the shots you get because the defenses are so locked in, and you know how everyone plays, that those are the shots that come available, those 18-foot mid-range jump shots. And that's when you gotta make them. And if you haven't taken them all year long and then you're in the playoffs and you gotta make them, how's that going to work?
According to NBA.com/stats, Marcus has made 61 mid-range shots this season on a 46.9 percent clip. That percentage is on par with Kevin Durant (46.4 percent) and even Dirk Nowtzki (48.8 percent). He is also 22nd among NBA forwards in shots made from mid-range, despite being a bench player.
If what Hornacek says is true, both Morris brothers could give Phoenix an advantage in the playoffs with great mid-range shooting.
He may not be a fantastic rebounder or defender, but Marcus can score. And if the Suns want to continue to win games, they'll need consistent production from him on the bench.
Just like Marcus, Markieff is a master of the mid-range jump shot.
It may not always look pretty. It isn't always an uncontested look. And it may be frustrating that a 6'10" power forward doesn't attack the rim more often.
But the shot does go in.
Markieff is now 14th among NBA forwards in shots made from the mid-range zone. His 42.9 percent shooting from there is better than LaMarcus Aldridge's 42.6 percent, and Aldridge has made a living with that shot.
Even more importantly, Markieff has gotten his field-goal percentage to rise by taking fewer shots from behind the perimeter.
In his rookie year, 28 percent of Markieff's shot attempts were from behind the three-point line. And despite such a high frequency, he shot 35 percent from downtown, which may be decent for a big man but is not spectacular.
The next season we saw much of the same, though Markieff's three-point attempt rate went down to 21 percent.
This year, only 13 percent of his shots have come from deep.
Markieff can also be considered a barometer for the team's success. By that I mean the Suns usually win when Markieff plays well.
When scores more points than 13 points (his season average), the Suns are an incredible 17-4.
On the other hand, in games in which he scored six points or fewer, the Suns have gone just 2-8.
Markieff has such an impact on this team, and for that reason, combined with his great production, he could be considered a legitimate candidate for the NBA"s Sixth Man of the Year award.
What would this article be without Goran Dragic?
Dragic is clearly the reason the Suns are still winning games. Even if he was excluded from the Western Conference All-Star squad, he is playing at an All-Star level.
Dragic is currently posting averages of 20.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game while also shooting a career-high 51 percent from the field. In fact, he is one of only three players this season to average at least 19 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field—the other two are LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
But what is different about Dragic this season?
While Dragic is often complemented for his ability to attack the basket, that really isn't better now than it ever was.
The real reason he has been so efficient is because he seems to have developed a deadly mid-range and outside shot.
Just take a look at this chart and see how his shooting numbers from both three-point range and from 16-feet to the three-point line have improved (stats taken from basketball-reference.com).
|16 ft - 3PT||37.5%||40.3%||51.5%|
Keep in mind, he is shooting at such a higher percentage despite taking those shots at a higher frequency as well.
While Dragic's ability to attack is fantastic, this improved shooting is the real reason we're seeing so much success from him this year. He has made himself a much more versatile offensive player.
And despite being the go-to option and often being heavily guarded, he continues to improve his shooting percentages.
If we're lucky, perhaps this All-Star snub will only release the fury of the Dragon, and he will continue to dominate opposing teams for the rest of the season.